Taming the Talkies


“Who the hell would want to hear an actor talk?” -Harry M. Warner 1927

Over the years, the story of the transition of silent to talking films has been told so many times that it has become an urban legend. It represents the elegant binary of Old and New Hollywood, advertised by industry and media as the technological dawn of a New Era.

“The visual picture suddenly [became] three-dimensional and tangible. The acoustics perfect the illusion to such an extent that it [became] complete, and thus a theatrical space: the sound turns the film screen into a spatial stage!”[1]

Within six months of the introduction of ‘Talkies’ in Perth in 1929, there were five cinemas fitted out for sound, but most still had problems with acoustics. The retrofitting for mechanical sound equipment was only the initial expense in the conversion. The architectural design of the theatres, traditionally designed for in-house orchestras and performers, were not properly equipped for the integration of technology. The Gaiety Theatre in South Perth experimented with curtains to reduce the echo, while the Empire in East Fremantle painstakingly stuck tissue paper to the auditorium ceiling[2]. Despite constant effort, the characteristics of the buildings proved unsuitable to reproduce electronic sound, and many independent theatres closed, or needed to be rebuilt internally from the floor up[3].


Source: State Library of Western Australia
Tram Advertising the Premier Theatre Talkies, 1929


As an antidote to the depression blues, the 1930s saw Perth embracing ‘Moderne’ style to celebrate Australia’s returned prosperity and belated coming to the ‘Jazz Age’. The bygone, sumptuously decorated theatres were replaced with modern, streamlined ‘function and form’ art deco buildings, favoring efficiency of design in modernist style. This became the signature style for new picture palaces, heralding a resurgence of the motion picture industry, emanating from the cinematic thrust from America, and becoming proud showpieces of the suburban ‘Hollywood Dream’.


Source: State Library of Western Australia
Como Theatre, 1953


Source: State Library of Western Australia
An evening crowd leaves the Ambassadors Theatre, Hay Street, Perth, 1932


Stylistically these picture palaces evolved from “Ecole to eclectic”[4]; distinctive and declarative in physical size (Como Cygnet Theatre), rhythmic in form (Windsor Theatre), and articulate in its experimenting with highlighting electric lights (Ambassador’s Theatre). Internally, the movie theatres considered ease, comfort and luxury in their architecture, prompting flow of movement for the hundreds that attended nightly. Indoor lobbies facilitated intervals and waiting areas, becoming a suggestive space for mingling and socializing.

Source: State Library of Western Australia
Upstairs foyer of the Metro Cinema, 1940


The design began to transform the audience’s relationship to the filmic event, conditioned by the spatial characteristics of the auditorium or movie-theatre; “The theatre structure of tomorrow must become”, explained a pioneering American cinema architect, “more a part of the art which it is serving, and not be separated, as it is now, into an auditorium and a stage”[5] The dynamic formal characteristics of art deco directly correlates to the arrangement of the early cinema, in relation to its institutional and ideational agenda.

Architects and engineers therefore studied sight lines, ventilation, seating, lighting and acoustics to create the most comfortably stimulating sensory experience possible. Items like new upholstered chairs were installed to absorb echoes, silent air conditioning needed to be installed[6]. It became a necessity to widen and deepen prosceniums, modernize screens, increase electrical power, and install new acoustic-block ceilings[7] to accommodate new systems.


Source: State Library of Western Australia
Renovated Interior of Como Theatre, 1953


Movie palaces replaced theatres the way talkies replaced silent movies- quickly and irrevocably. Attendance figures verified the popularity of the new forms. The vocabulary of the new theatre carried with it the physical attributes and amenities that had seduced customers, but also capitalized on the wonder that the new technology manifested.


Source: State Library of Western Australia
Installing the RCA Photophone talkie projectors at the Capitol Theatre, Perth, 1929


[1] Arnheim, Sound Film, p.30

[2] Geneve, Picture Palaces of the Golden West, p.66

[3] Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, p.255

[4] Valentine, Show Starts on the Sidewalk, p.185

[5] Schlanger, Motion Picture Theaters of Tomorrow, p.13.

[6] Gomery, The Coming of Sound, p.33-34

[7] The Show Starts on the Sidewalk, p.131

Arnheim, Rudolf.  Sound Film: 1928 ‘Film Essays and Criticism’, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1997.

Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Ttransition to Sound, 1926-1931. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Geneve, Vyonne, and Ron Facius. Picture Palaces of the Golden West. West Perth, W.A: National Trust of Australia (WA), 2016.

Gomery, Douglas. The Coming of Sound: A History. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Le Corbusier, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, Vers une Architecture, Paris, 1923

Schlanger, Ben. Motion Picture Theatres of Tomorrow, Motion Picture Herald, February 14, 1931

Valentine, Maggie. The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee. London: Yale University Press, 1996.


Master's of Architecture student.