‘Masking madness with gaiety’: innovating sound exhibition in Australia and the royal commission’s failure to prevent the talkie wars
The 1927–1928 Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia sought to strengthen the domestic film industry’s competitiveness against foreign investment, technology and manpower. Although it concluded before the widescale rollout of sound exhibition, it began collecting evidence after the coming of sound had already begun to make waves. Beginning in 1924 and continuing beyond the Commission, agents of the US De Forest Phonofilms company, primed the local market for sound through a series of publicity events. Their activities lead the local trade press to dub the Australian Phonofilms franchise as the instigator of a ‘Talkie War’, challenging the Commission’s ability to curtail the expansion of human capital and technology from the USA. Within a year of its conclusion, agents from the US Western Electric company arrived in Australia to wire the major capital city theatres with sound. Initially, this strengthened Hollywood’s foothold in ways that the Commission was anxious to avoid. Hoyts Theatres intensified the ‘Talkie-gear war’ by backing the ‘Australian-made’ Markophone as a competitor to the US Fox–Movietone sound system. Hence, while the Commission failed to achieve its aims, local pioneers took action by innovating rival sound systems with local technology, engineering and showmanship. Markophone wired up the ‘Talkie War’ in face of local and international competition in ways that differed from nearly all alternative sound systems.