Phonofilm returns to Toronto


As we’ve previously examined, Toronto movie-goers were privy to various synchronized sound and film experiments before the medium settled permanently in the fall of 1928.

On December 8, 1927, weeks before aviation epic (and recent Silent Sundays selection) Wings premiered at the Princess Theatre on King St. West, audiences were treated to the return of the Deforest Phonofilm, short sound and talking films dubbed “the revolution of the motion picture” by the Globe & Mail.

The sound-on-film process, consisting of musical acts and Vaudeville routines, was made functional due to inventions by Theodore Case — who by 1927 was working with Fox on the more successful Movietone process which would truly revolutionize Toronto movie theatres within the next twelve months.

Phonofilm had visited Toronto’s Shea’s Hippodrome in 1924, but fared a little better this time due to some advances in sound amplification.

But the process still had some glitches, baffling Massey Hall’s projectionists. “At my first hearing of Phonofilm the sound came alternately from either end,” said the Daily Star’s entertainment columnist. “At the second hearing, from almost exactly the same relative position in centre aisle, it invariably came from the screen itself. The chief operator could not explain this. No doubt all this will be remedied soon.”

No doubt the technology proved puzzling. But could it be successful?

Theorizing on how to capitalize on Phonofilm’s lack of proper amplification, Joseph M. Schenck of United Artists told the Daily Star that small theatres playing only film and for more than a week’s run was the way of the future. “Theatres seating 5000 and operating vaudeville with an overhead of about $65 000, including only $10 000 for the picture, must become a thing of the past,” he said.

With the exception of downtown palaces like the Pantages, Loew’s Yonge St. and Uptown, Schenk’s figures did not reflect the realities of Toronto exhibition. The majority of the city’s movie houses were of the smaller neighbourhood variety. (No theatre here could seat 5000, although Famous Players was then planning to build a massive theatre at Yonge & Hayter, north of Gerrard.)

Schenck’s thoughts on Phonofilm’s future were short-lived, however, as the Fox Movietone process would soon claim victory in the sound wars, premiering in Toronto at Famous Players Canada Corporation’s Tivoli Theatre on October 5, 1928.

On the bill at Massey Hall

Highlighting the programme that week was a film depicting the reception for Charles Lindbergh after the completion of his first trans-atlantic flight, featuring speeches by President Coolidge, Mayor Walker of New York City, and Col. Lindbergh himself. Other films advertised by the Globe & Mail:

• Eddie Cantor in “A Few Minutes With Eddie Cantor”, performing numbers from the Broadway show “Kid Boots”

Mlle Eva Leoni singing an aria from “Rigoletto” (the Globe & Mail erroneously bills “La Traviata”)

Gallagher & Shean “traveling in Egypt in story and song” (this film was shot by Ted Case at his studio in Auburn, NY.)

The Radio Franks, “whose songs are familiar to all radio fans” — a review of this short ran in the New York Times on May 18, 1926, with Mordaunt Hall claiming the film is “well synchronized with the action, and unusually distinct. The voices, however, sound as if the performers were singing through papier-máché masks. It is, nevertheless, quite an improvement over other subjects of this type.”

Ben Bernie & His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra

Phil Baker and the New York Winter Garden musical successes

• A Trip to Long Island — “the cows, chickens and pigs talk to you in all their naturalness”

• Frawley & Smith, “Vaudeville headliners in their comedy skit ‘Hoak'”

• Broadway dancer Lillian Powell

Retribution — “A protean drama that holds the audience spellbound to its final scenes”

According to Silent Era’s Progressive Silent Film List, the majority of the Phonofilm shorts are now considered lost. Some survive, and I’ve compiled a playlist of those available on YouTube.

Sources: Globe & Mail, December 7, 1927; Toronto Daily Star, December 9, 1927; Silent Era’s Progressive Silent Film List; Top image courtesy of The Bioscope, linking to a 1927 article about Phonofilm in The Gramophone.

Top image: Lee Deforest with laboratory assistant Freeman Owen testing out the Phonofilm process. Credit the Perham Collection, History San Jose.

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