Conclusion: Australia’s experience of modernity in sound

The research in this chapter has attempted to show how the entrepreneurial ambitions of Australian sound companies and other individuals were part of Australia’s experience of modernity. The coming of sound was influenced and shaped by a diverse group of Australians who at least pretended to be modern and/or understood the line of modernity brought by the prominent distribution of thousands of American (and European) sound films. Their individual and at times shared experiments with film sound represent a kind of fluid spirit that stirred in hegemonic responses to the demands of Hollywood. That is, Australians did whatever they could to innovate and adapt sound technology as well as to facilitate the exhibition of Australian sound films[61] —all while trying to assess and manage the trade-offs between opportunity and risk. They were also caught between the promise of global modernity, collusion and the threat to national identity.

We can read their contributions as a complex combination of patriotism and conscientiousness, on the one hand, and a pragmatic and opportunistic spirit, on the other hand, which in due course enabled these representative Australians to join in the trajectory towards modernity. Whether they realised it or not, they were all agents of modernity, mediating complex social, cultural and technological changes in Australia, as were other pioneers delving into sound in other parts of the ‘modern’ world. Ultimately, most Australian systems and sound companies failed, but their reactions to the rhetoric of modernisation—or Americanisation—of the Australian film industry were significant in Australia’s overall cultural and technological history. This is what makes the case of the coming of sound to Australia distinctive.

Evidence in the trade papers and archives suggests that the expression of Australia’s modern consciousness rose partly in resistance to the ‘American twang’ and its potentially negative impact on Australian society. American twang was a popular expression found in major Melbourne newspapers while the talkie technology battle was taking place. During the mid-1920s and early 1930s, headlines such as ‘American Films—Evil Effect on Young People’,[62] ‘Bad English in “Talkies”—Rigid Censorship Advised’,[63] ‘American “English”—Impure Accent Feared’,[64] ‘“American Twang”—Talking Pictures Criticised’,[65] ‘Menace to Children’[66] and ‘The Film Till Now—A Story of Americanization’ riddled the popular press.[67] I interpret these articles and anonymous editorials, which were supported with distribution and exhibition statistics, as partly the result of anti-American attitudes linked to the increased use of subtitles and intertitles in silent films.

Educators and empire loyalists saw Hollywood films and American culture in general as lowering moral standards in Australia. At the same time, they saw the adoption and diffusion of talkie technology as an opportunity to promote British culture and ‘pure’ English.[68] Between 1929 and 1933, anxieties about potentially being Americanised surfaced in annual education conferences and teachers’ union meetings. Parliamentary debates also included heated discussions on the topic. These anti-American feelings were real; however, the Federal Government and the national film censors could do little to stop the barrage of Hollywood films. Essentially, this was one of the lines of logic used to advocate for a stronger film industry throughout the Commonwealth.

In 1926, 83 per cent of films imported to Australia were from the United States, while only 7 per cent were from Britain. Hollywood’s ‘corrosive effect’ led eventually to a Royal Commission in May 1927, which heard testimonies of thousands of witnesses from the film industry and the public, who pleaded with the Ministry of Trade and Customs to restrict the importation of US films. Increasing their tariffs, which potentially ensured fair competition, and lowering tariffs on British films were common requests. The Royal Commission lasted a year and concluded the obvious: there was an American stronghold on the film market in Australia. Little could be done, however, to reverse this trend—even after the emergence of permanent commercial talkies.

When scholars have written about sound, they have generalised and not considered the competition within Australia nor the diversity of the companies and individuals involved in the coming of the talkies. Australian sound companies, freelance inventors, backyard tinkerers, businessmen and manufacturers all challenged what appeared initially to be a dominant American influence on sound technology. Australians were as obsessed with modernity and sound’s capabilities as pioneers across the globe. As seen in this chapter, individual and at times common efforts to modernise the Australian industry involved a series of proactive and reactive strategies, leading to a virtual war of words in the trade advertisements surrounding the plethora of wares heralded to the industry.

Clearly, this was a period in which ‘locally made’ was a sign of a complex collaboration among Australian business interests as the world changed because of ambivalence. One might say there was a battle for modernity and standardisation that Raycophone, Australtone, Markophone, Auditone and many other sound systems promoted in articles and advertisements in the popular and trade press during this time. These alternative systems helped wire thousands of cinemas in suburban and rural locations, which the big American electric firms could not reach or simply had no interest in reaching—symbiotically encouraged by exhibitors keen to explore the novelty and profitability of sound.

When left to their own devices, Australians helped create fertile ground for the exhibition and possibly the surprising success of domestic sound films. Raycophone, Australtone, Markophone and Auditone equipment fulfilled a demand for modern Australian sound technology while stimulating the rise of other systems functioning as alternatives to them and Western Electric. In these ways, Allsop, the Tighes, Snider, Betts and Noad as well as Ward and Hawkins acted as agents of modernity while their systems were indeed a kind of local means for exhibitors to participate in the modernisation of the domestic cinema. This small but energetic group exercised everything they could to be part of the sound revolution—namely, part of modernity and the changing audiovisual landscape of the metropolis.

There was something far more interesting happening during this period than a nation waiting to be ‘awakened’ by sound and Americans bringing new technology to a culture living in the dark ages. The coming of sound is as much a story about the embracing of ideas of urban modernity as it is about responding to the fears that empire loyalists, teachers, ministers, local officials and women’s groups expressed against the possible side-effects US films might have on young Australians. It was partly these fears that developers of local, regional and national Australian sound systems exploited in order to gain as many installation contracts as possible.

There are many lessons that can be learned about maintaining a local presence in an incredibly ‘global’ world. In Australia’s talkie war, American interests demonstrated and dictated where, when and how the battles would be fought. All the companies had to meet American terms or go down in defeat. Yet the war rhetoric ignores the fact that Raycophone (and others) did innovate, adopt, thrive and survive—not by defeating the Americans but by assimilating them, by making them Australian rather than shaping the Australian cinema in a solely American way.