Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry

Book Review 
by Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, 
Librarian, Maryland School for the Deaf

© 2003

Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry
by John S. Schuchman. 167 pages. $24.95.
University of Illinois Press. http://www.press.uillinois.edu

Schuchman, himself a child of deaf adults, gives an overview of how Hollywood has portrayed the “invisible handicap” of deafness in the production of filmed entertainment. This study begins with the silent film era, a time, Schuchman notes, when films were fully accessible to deaf moviegoers, who enjoyed every aspect of them side-by-side with the hearing public. Schuchman also follows the careers of four major deaf actors who got their start in silent films and who, with one exception, were unable to transfer their success into the “talkies” that appeared starting in 1929. Schuchman traces the depiction of deafness and deaf characters from the beginnings of the silent film era, through the evolving “dummy” stereotypes of the 1940s and 1950s, and into the 1970s and 1980s, when deaf actors began to reappear. Schuchman’s study ends in 1986, with the evolution of Children of a Lesser God from stage play to silver screen, and its accompanying loss of Deaf politics elements. Schuchman also addresses the treatment of deafness by television, forcefully arguing that, though it was often used as a plot twist, television has done better service to the deaf community by portraying deaf characters in a broader light and offering more opportunities for deaf actors.

Overall, Schuchman makes a persuasive case that Hollywood has both reflected and perpetuated the myth that all deaf people are perfect lip readers with perfect speech, and has completed ignored the presence of an active signing deaf community. He points out the many ways in which the film industry’s focus has remained on “absence of hearing, not deafness”. The filmography that comprises the last third of the volume is a valuable resource, compiling data and summaries of films featuring deaf characters or deaf actors from 1902-1986. He also provides a listing of television episodes featuring deaf characters between 1953 and 1986, and a summary of motion pictures in American Sign Language from 1910-1976. The one flaw with Schuchman’s work is that it is out of date; one hopes that he will soon update this valuable study, including the many motion pictures and groundbreaking television appearances that have occurred since 1986.

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