Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Exhibition: Talkies Change the Bijou - The Depression’s Toll

theater sound theaters film

Prologue is dead! On with THE SHOW OF SHOWS .


For exhibitors and for audiences, the coming of sound and the coming of hard times after 1930 caused permanent changes in the institution of moviegoing. In retrospect, it seems as though filmgoers abandoned with few regrets a cherished form of entertainment, the silent cinema. “This is one of the great mysteries of this part of film history,” Alan Williams has aptly observed. “Why, with no previous indications of dissatisfaction, did audiences suddenly embrace the talkies, acting as if they had been dissatisfied with ‘silent’ cinema for a long time?” 1 Perhaps the shift to sound films seems mysterious because it has been assumed that producers were pressing their wares on a passive public resistant to change. A look at exhibition during the transition will demonstrate the impact of audiences’ selectivity as a factor precipitating the changeover.

The Depression’s Toll

Adolph Zukor, a staunch economic Darwinist, proclaimed in an advertisement that to us in the motion picture business, one of the outstanding lessons which 1930 has driven home repeatedly is that the public, no matter what general conditions may be, will patronize good pictures. Good pictures! Nothing in this business can take their place, nothing is so absolutely necessary to the continued prosperity of all phases of the industry. Week after week, when other businesses have been languishing, when poor pictures have been starving, we have seen good pictures draw thousands of people to boxoffices. The record has been so plain that the wonder is anybody ever could have been deluded with the idea that there was a substitute for good pictures. ( Film Daily , 2 January 1931, pp. 9–11)

His optimism could not cover up a fundamental truth: in 1931 and 1932 the audience did not show up. All the good pictures could not put disposable cash into the pockets of jobless workers or prevent bankers from foreclosing on mortgages. Realizing the effect of severe unemployment on admissions revenue, exhibitors sponsored National Motion Picture Week, 18–25 November 1931. Theater patrons were urged to make donations for the national relief effort. “Give him a lift,” appealed the ads. Retrenchment hit the local Bijou hard and devastated the big movie palaces and chains. The Roxy Theaters Corporation made a small profit in 1930 but lost $163,571 in 1931. 35 The Roxy itself had been sold by Fox to a consortium of investors who cried loudly when the management attempted to shut down the theater for four weeks in an effort to stop the cash outflow. A federal judge sided with the bondholders and prevented the closing.

The fortune of the Warners’ Theatre on Broadway is emblematic of exhibition at large. Like all Warner houses, it was reconfigured with a wide Vitascope screen in January 1931.   Unfortunately, this event coincided with the decision by the majors to halt all widescreen production. Soon the former flagship theater began operating as a second-run house. An event which symbolized the distance the talkies had traveled occurred in March 1931, when THE JAZZ SINGER was re-released for a two-week exclusive engagement at the Warners’. The revival flopped so badly that the theater canceled it after three days. “Reaction to the pioneer sound film,” according to the trade postmortem, “was that it appeared tremendously out of date in the face of the fast progress made by talkers.” But current releases fared no better, and in April 1932 the Warners’ Theatre closed. On the West Coast the newly built Hollywood Warner Bros. Theatre was also shuttered for several months. It reopened in May 1931 with SVENGALI (1931) but soon became a grind house (that is, giving continuous performances at popular prices).

Theater managers, of course, tried to hold the profit line. They slashed ticket prices. In many regions the cost of admission, already down from around thirty-five to fifty cents in 1930, reached ten cents. Matinee prices were extended to 6:00 P.M. to draw workers into the theater. Many independents successfully renegotiated contracts which returned them to the more advantageous flat rental system except for “big situations”—pictures from which the studio expected to make more money. To reduce their taxes, most businesses used accelerated depreciation schedules. The Internal Revenue Service ruled that it would allow depreciation of theater organs only if the units were physically removed, thus providing a valuable tax incentive for the wholesale destruction of these historic instruments.

The years 1931–1933 were dismal for most business, but for show business they were particularly harsh. Construction of movie palaces halted. As Film Daily tersely concluded, “The day of the de luxers is virtually over.” 38 In general, the more theaters they owned, the more the production companies suffered. Paramount received help from Lehman Brothers in refinancing its theater debt in 1931, but this biggest of the studio-theater combines went into receivership anyway. It emerged reorganized in 1935. The Fox Theaters Corporation and the Balaban and Katz Circuit went into receivership in 1932. Balaban and Katz, which operated thirty-five theaters in the Chicago region, Page 265  claimed that Paramount had saddled it with $2.5 million in rental obligations. Sam Katz himself had been forced out of Paramount Publix. Fox’s Wesco subsidiary was reorganized in 1933, eventually to became National Theaters. Harley Clarke’s General Theater Equipment went into receivership after losing $900,000 in 1931. Loew’s survived the Depression because it pared itself to a small chain of about 150 big-city theaters. Warner Bros. refused to go into receivership and sold 300 of its 700 theaters. RKO at first seemed to be a lucky scavenger, acquiring distressed theaters when their owners could not pay RCA for its sound systems. But these became albatrosses when RCA stopped its subsidies to the film company. RKO went bankrupt in 1933 and did not recover until 1940. 39

This glance at exhibition illustrates that the producing and consuming functions of the film business were separate but ultimately codependent. Obviously neither component could exist without the other, but since each wanted to maximize profits, inherent conflicts erupted from time to time. The coming of sound was a period marked by a lack of harmony. Exhibitors who could afford to convert to sound seem to have done so willingly in order to satisfy their customers. But those whose revenue base was insufficient to support the investment were reluctant, and some of them spoke out against the unfairness of the talkies and their distributors. Perhaps it is here that the idea arose that audiences did not like the talkies and big studios forced them on consumers. More likely it was the owner of the local theater, who did not wish to turn over a substantial portion of revenue to convert the house, with an aversion to talkies. For all classes and locales of theater owners, however, the primary issue surrounding the coming of sound was the decreased sovereignty of the local manager.

As for the question of why audiences seemed to forsake the silents, perhaps one answer is that embracing the talkies did not necessarily imply a rejection of the films of seasons past. The talkies succeeded not because they replaced silents, which had inexplicably gone from popular to despised, but because audiences of the time looked at the sound film as an improvement on silents. They selectively evaluated the talkies against other competing forms of entertainment, such as music concerts (especially jazz) and miniature golf. Before 1930 audiences might have attended theaters to participate in several locally specialized forms of entertainments, whether stage shows, talent contests, or sing-alongs. Increasingly, the movie house showed sound movies and nothing else. The most probable reason is that live participatory events became poorly attended, while talking pictures held interest. Because of the imperative to survive the Depression, these structural changes in the program were perhaps inevitable. It may have been a sense of something lost by the local community with the passing of home-town-generated entertainment that contributed to the later nostalgia for the silent age.

Exo-Man [next] [back] Evolution of the Photographic Lens in the 19th Century - Working constraints in lens design, Early adaptations and designs, The landscape lens, The portrait lens

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or