Talking pictures in the silent era

Before the pictures learned to talk, they stuttered.

Talking pictures settled permanently in Toronto in late 1928, but it was far from the first time Hogtown movie-goers were exposed to the concept that the flickers needn’t be silent.

In November of 1924, four years before the Tivoli and Uptown Theatres were wired for all-talking pictures, those attending the premiere of Elinor Glyn’s His Hour at Shea’s Hippodrome were treated to short subjects from radio pioneer Lee de Forest‘s Phonofilm, a sound-on-film process.

On the screen, an orchestra performed “Come on, Spark Plug,” the sound modestly filling the auditorium while the Hippodrome’s orchestra sat silent; a Spanish dancer performed what the Toronto Daily Star referred to as a series of romantic gyrations; a politician delivered a short address, followed by a roll call from the Democratic National Convention.

A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor followed next, with the Broadway star performing a few gags and singing “The Dumber They Are, the Better I Like ‘Em” and “Oh, Gee, Georgie” from the Ziegfeld show Kid Boots.

Phonofilm was certainly a step up from earlier attempts to merge the two mediums, but with little studio interest or investments for feature films — not to mention the lack of electric amplification in theatres  — de Forest’s process was abandoned.

Robert Gutteridge’s book Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in Toronto (1894-1914) refers to other instances of synchronized sound and film in Toronto.

In 1909, the Cameraphone, a crude predecessor to the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, which Gutteridge describes as “the first American disc system to gain a measure of commercial success” was introduced to Toronto audiences by screening Vaudeville routines at the newly opened Colonial Theatre, located across from Old City Hall on Queen St. West.

Gutteridge’s research also shows that in March of 1913, the Kinetophone, Thomas Edison’s latest tinkering with sound films, made a visit to the former Shea’s Victoria St. Theatre at Richmond and Victoria. The programme included a lecture explaining the device’s operation, a musical performance, barking dogs, and the first part of a minstrel show.

Mechanical problems of the various machines and the lack of amplification rendered the occasional exhibition of talking films a mere novelty. When the Kinetophone returned to New York after the end of its run at Shea’s, Variety wrote: “Talking, instead of enhancing the pictures, simply annoys… The general verdict was that Edison Pictures are an out-and-out flop.”

The simple truth is that the public still clamoured for the silents.  The same week Eddie Cantor’s tinny voice was heard at the Hippodrome, Toronto was calling hooray on sophisticated Hollywood silents like The Thief of Bagdad at the Princess Theatre.

The talkies wouldn’t be taken seriously until Warner Bros. unleashed The Jazz Singer in New York City in October, 1927. The following year, Toronto theatres would begin the permanent conversion to sound.

Sources

Toronto Star, November 1, 18, 1924.
Toronto Star, January 2, 2009.
Gutteridge, Robert. Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in Toronto (1894-1914), pp. 163-165, Gutteridge-Pratley Publications, 2000.
Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, p. 183, John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

This article was originally published at the Heritage Toronto blog.

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