“what’s Wrong with the Way I Talk?” the Effect of Sound Motion Pictures on Actor Careers

F. Andrew Hanssen (Clemson University)

Abstract: Economists have long debated the effect of technological innovation on employment. The development of sound motion pictures in the late 1920s provides one of history’s most evocative examples – film historians have long believed that the transition to sound cut short the careers of a number of silent film stars. However, whether this was due to the new technology itself (actor careers are unpredictable at the best of times), and if so, whether more than a small number of famous stars were affected, has not been explored systematically. In this paper, I analyze a data set of nearly 10,000 actors who played in motion pictures from 1920 through 1940, inclusive. I find that the transition period is associated with a substantial increase in career terminations, not only among major stars, but also among more minor actors. However, I also find that sound films raised hazard rates generally, so that whereas the silent era is associated with a hazard rate that is 30-to-50 percent lower than that of the transition period, the sound era it is associated with only a 10 percent lower hazard rate. Finally, I calculate that the total number of actors cast in feature films rose substantially in the sound era (partly reflecting increased demand spurred by the innovation), illustrating the potentially heterogeneous effects of innovation on employment.

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