Happy days at the Scala
Posted - November 23, 2013
97-year-old Martin Selwood, projectionist at The Phoenix (then The Scala) from 1930-1931, recalls the arrival of the ‘talkies’.
By the time proprietor J. R. Poyntz took over The Scala in 1930, most other Oxford cinemas had already installed synchronised sound. This was a shortcoming he was quick to remedy. On 6 October, The Scala presented its first talking picture: the Holly-wood musical revue, Happy Days (Benjamin Stoloff, US, 1929). Advertised by its studio as an “all-star… all-talking… musical romance,” Happy Days boasted “100 entertainers,” including Janet Gaynor, Victor McLaglen, and Marjorie White.
Mr Selwood remembers:
Mr. Poyntz was very cute. He used to use foreign films for undergraduates because, of course, it helped them with the language. The top price in the cinema was one and ten pence and, by law or otherwise, they were only allowed in if they paid the one and ten pence. So he got every undergraduate at one and ten pence, instead of the sixpence, nine-pence, or one and tuppence that we commoners paid, you see. I think that’s how he made it pay. Don’t forget that students then were not from poor families like they are now; they were from rich people, so they could afford that. He seemed to know just what to do to get the money in. It was a different kettle of fish altogether.
It was the only cinema that showed foreign films, so during term time it was always packed with undergraduates. They would behave in the cinema—totally different to November the fifth in Cornmarket, where they’d all go mad and throw fireworks every-where and set everything alight! They behaved in the cinema, because they were there to learn the language—German, especially. There was one film that I’ve seen so many times I was sick of seeing it: Mädchen in Uniform [Leontine Sagan, 1931]. And French films, of course. There was no hanky-panky, no fooling about.
Talkies were very popular because, you see, after silent films—with the silent films, when somebody spoke, the words came up on the screen, and then the people came back again. But with talkies you could see them talking, hear them. H. B. Warner was one of the QCs in a film, and you could see him gesticulating and talking, which was wonderful after seeing words come up. And of course Al Jolson and that sort of thing was popular.
Other people from the town weren’t interested in the foreign films. There were out of season films for them. In vacation they had two films—Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, that sort of thing, which was still very popular. All the comedies were very popular. Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, and all those. It was adults that came, and children on Saturday morning. Children would shout out and scream at what the cowboys were doing: “Don’t do that, Mister!” and so on.
Although talking pictures were a great advantage to The Scala, the new projection system brought problems of its own, as Mr. Selwood explains:
There were two forms of sound: the sound on film and the sound on disc. The discs were sixteen-inch diameter, and you put the pickup on the inside, not the outside. The problem was, if the film broke, you had a hell of a job to get it back in synchronisation. You’d see the chap pull out the gun, put it back in, and then it would go “bang!”
This is an extract from The Phoenix Picturehouse: 100 years of Oxford Cinema Memories, by Deborah Allison, Hiu M. Chan and Daniela Treveri Gennari,. Available at the Phoenix for £9.99.