11. Talking Salvation for the Silent Majority: Projecting new possibilities of modernity in the Australian cinema, 1929–1933

Brian Yecies

Table of Contents

Australia’s ‘talkie war’
Preventing extinction of the Australian enterprise
‘Quality’ of local, regional and national ingenuity
Conclusion: Australia’s experience of modernity in sound

This chapter analyses the distinctiveness of the coming of permanent sound (the ‘talkies’) to the Australian cinema in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The coming of sound resulted in fundamental, but not uniform, change in all countries and in all languages. During this global transformation, substantial capital was spent on developing and adopting ‘modern’ technology. Hundreds of new cinemas were built; tens of thousands were wired with sound equipment—that is, two film projectors with sound attachments, amplifiers, speakers and electrical motors—and some closed in financial ruin during the Great Depression. The silent period ended and sound became projected as a symbol of progress in the metropolis and beyond. As Nowell-Smith and Ricci, and Higson and Maltby point out,[1] this incredible shift was driven principally by Western—in other words, American and European—film producer-distributors who retained a dominant influence because of their individual, and at times common, efforts to ‘modernise’ their production, distribution and exhibition methods.[2] The coming of sound, however, also gave rise to the development of local responses to these technological trends. It is the aim of this study to show how the ‘global’ transition was more local than previously thought, challenging conventional assumptions about global and local business interests in the cinema industry.

The coming of sound to the Australian cinema was pioneering and exuberant, and attitudes towards the so-called new medium were bold. The case studies of the most active of Australia’s sound pioneers are presented here in order to illuminate the larger processes concerning the ambivalent embrace of modernity in Australia. Australian inventors and American electrical companies employed by the major Hollywood studios each espoused a different agenda in the promotion of their sound-projection technology.[3] I suggest that Film Weekly and Everyones—Australia’s major film industry trade magazines at the time—promoted the coming of the talkies as a technological battle. They leave us with the impression that Australians were underdogs in some kind of ‘talkie war’, pushing an agenda of resistance against the perceived Americanisation of modernity in Australia. Opposition revolved mainly around Western Electric’s plans to wire major city cinemas with American technology while preventing competition from local competitors.[4]

This confrontation spawned one of the many changes in the spheres of cinema and entertainment, which, according to Jill Julius Matthews, ‘scattered the sparks of modernity into everyday life’.[5] The cost of the Western Electric system—one of the only commercially viable sound systems available in Australia in late 1928 and early 1929—remained, however, out of reach for a majority of independent, suburban and country cinemas.[6] The minimum cost of installing Western Electric sound equipment in Australia was put at between £6,000 and £7,000, which did not include the weekly fees in the company’s compulsory 10-year service contracts (estimated to cost up to an additional £4,000).[7]

In response to a lack of practical and affordable choices, a wide range of Australian tinkerers, electricians, engineers, radio and wireless specialists and entrepreneurs developed their own sound systems and/or adapted acquired technology in order to bring sound to as many cinemas as possible. The geographical specificity of these producers highlights the tension between viable local and foreign technology as sound was spread across Australia’s vast distances.

The US film industry in the middle to late 1920s, according to Gomery, embraced sound technology primarily for economic reasons,[8] although it could have been that the Australian film industry had little choice in the matter. Australia’s largest exhibition chains committed ambitious investments to convert to sound with US companies in order to screen Hollywood films. That is to say, the distribution side of the Australian film industry was dominated largely by American interests, making the Australian market one of the largest sources of foreign film revenues for major Hollywood studios and their producer-distributors. When the local distribution exchanges of Fox, First National-Warner Bros., FBO-RKO, MGM and Paramount—all controlling members of the Motion Picture Distributors Association (MPDA) of Australia—began regularly adding sound films (that is, all-talkie, part-talkie and films with sound effects, asynchronous and/or synchronous music) to their catalogues in 1929, it seemed as though the conversion to sound was inevitable, at least initially for capital cities.[9] At the same time, Western Electric and the powerful members of the MPDA of Australia appeared to thwart competition at all costs. Therefore, Australian sound companies and inventors developed strategic methods and alliances in order to meet international and domestic competition head-on.

Australia’s ‘talkie war’

The concept of marrying sound and pictures in Australia had been around since the start of cinema. The coming of sound was not a new phenomenon, as many popular accounts would have it. Collins proposes that the Australian cinema was never silent—‘some form of sound accompaniment dates back to the origins of moving pictures’.[10] Live musical performances enhanced the cinematic experience, creating extra value for spectators, though mechanically reproduced sound eventually became cheaper than an orchestra, especially for the larger city cinemas. Until the late 1920s, sound technology developed outside the Hollywood studio system was promoted as a temporary and novel attraction. Yet, the Australian cinema experienced a new beginning in late 1924 when entrepreneurial picture showmen imported and endorsed American De Forest Phonofilms’ sound-on-film projection equipment. Until this time, projecting silent films with live accompanying music or recorded music and dialogue on large phonograph discs was the most common method of presenting a sound film.

De Forest Phonofilms Australia Ltd (Phonofilms Australia), a sound company operating independently of the Hollywood majors, was formed in August 1925 (first through American Phonofilms and then through British Phonofilms).[11] As Figure 1 illustrates, the company promoted its novel system as the ultimate sign of modernity: ‘One of the most amazing achievements of the age’—aiming to build a local franchise and to have its technology adopted. As seen in other trade advertisements, Phonofilms Australia wanted exhibitors and industry people to know that it was leading the ‘dawn of a new era in the industry’.[12]

American distributors did not appreciate alternative and ambitious efforts to modernise Australia with sound technology outside the Hollywood studio system. As I have written in more detail elsewhere, it was Phonofilms Australia to which the Australian press attributed the instigation of the talkie war.[13] Headlines in the trade magazines screamed: ‘War of “Talkies” Looms as Phonofilms Issue Warning.’[14] The general managers of Phonofilms Australia had threatened legal action against anyone using a sound-on-film process that infringed Phonofilms’ rights in Australia.[15] Nevertheless, a host of local competitors soon attempted to challenge Phonofilms. Suffice to say that the De Forest Phonofilms Company advanced the experimentation of film sound technology and the acceptance of that technology in Australia by setting the stage for modernity and the further adoption of sound innovations.

Building on this Phonofilms Australia narrative is the arrival in Australia in November 1928 of sales and service engineers from Western Electric-ERPI, who came to wire simultaneously the Hoyts Theatres’ Sydney Regent (with Fox Movietone brand sound-on-film equipment) and the Union Theatres’ Sydney Lyceum (with Vitaphone brand sound-on-disc equipment). The public had the greatest opportunity to experience (to see and hear) urban modernity at Union Theatres’ and Hoyts Theatres’ flagship cinemas because this was where the industry’s changes first occurred.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Source: Advertisement, De Forest Phonofilms Australia, Everyones, 4 November 1925, p. 37. Reprinted by permission of the National Library of Australia.

In late December 1928, Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer premiered at Union Theatres’ Lyceum and Fox’s The Red Dance premiered at Hoyts’ Regent, sending shock waves through Sydney and the whole of the film industry. According to reports in Everyones and Film Weekly, the age of sound arrived in a ‘big way’.[16] In one week, the Lyceum and Regent combined took between £8,000 and £8,500—breaking all records and unexpectedly selling out all shows.[17] According to the trade papers, talkies had rejuvenated public interest in motion pictures and rescued the film industry from its pre-Depression era slump.[18]

Suburban exhibitors immediately began wondering how soon they could convert to sound and modernise their programs. Acting as the ‘voice’ of the Australian film industry, however, Stuart Doyle, the managing director and primary spokesman of Union Theatres Ltd—and powerful manager of Australasian Films Ltd—pragmatically cautioned exhibitors about the future of talkies in the suburbs:

No theatre can show talking pictures profitably unless it can take from £1,200 to £2,000 a week; and unless some method is devised to cut down the cost of equipment, reproducing records and particularly the terrific cost of maintenance, talkies are a commercial impossibility for suburban and small town shows.[19]

So suburban and country exhibitors waited, but not for long.

In mid-1929, the talkie war campaign resumed in the trade papers when the American RCA Photophone and a few Australian sound systems—such as Raycophone, Australtone, Markophone and Auditone—entered the field and began competing with Western Electric for installation contracts and equipment leases and sales.[20] The talkie war, which had started in 1927 with Phonofilms Australia, had not been forgotten.

In Australian film history—and probably in that of many other countries—there remains a dearth of information surrounding the coming of sound. Previous studies provide brief summaries of activities between late 1928 and mid-1929, while giving scant attention to the details surrounding entrepreneurial efforts before and after this time.[21] Shirley and Adams stress that Australian exhibitors converted to sound in order to survive as ‘new pioneers’ attempted ‘to break the [US] monopoly’ by developing sound recording and projecting equipment of their own.[22] Tulloch presents the idea of a hierarchical reaction to the apparent American dominance of sound technology, which was ‘itself a hierarchy established in, and exported from, the USA’.[23] Walsh’s more recent work stands apart by offering an examination of the opposing relationships between distributors and exhibitors, entertainment moguls, manufacturers and users of technology, as well as industry and government.[24] He indicates that there was more than a simple American monopoly during the transition; Hollywood did not wield ‘ruthless power’ over Australia. Walsh coins the phrase ‘frenzy of the audible’, which captures the spirit of modernity in Australia as some kind of sound technology became part of the exhibition experience before, during and after the 1920s.[25] With these studies in mind, it is unmistakable that Hollywood’s efforts in the export (transfer) of US technology and infrastructure for sound came to a head in 1929—‘a year of sound and fury’, which proved that ‘silent cinema was doomed’.[26]