Public showing of sound films began in the US in 1926 on a largely trial basis, and two years later the experiment was declared a success. Before 1929, Shanghai movie houses lacked the equipment for exhibiting sound motion pictures, but after sound films were successful abroad, Shanghai theaters began planning for the necessary equipment in order to meet the demand.
On January 7, 1929, a French ocean liner docked in Shanghai. Among its passengers was American electrical engineer J. P. Koehler, Chief Installation Engineer for the RCA Photophone Company, and bringing his company's best sound projection equipment. Koehler was on a Grand Tour of Pacific Rim countries installing this apparatus (1), and China was his first stop. This equipment, the first such in Asia, was installed at the Embassy Theater《夏令配克影戏院》in Shanghai, which began showing sound films on February 9, 1929. The Embassy's first offering was Pathe's "Captain Swagger," starring Rod La Rocque and Sue Carol, and retitled for Chinese release as《Feixing Jiangjun 飞行将军》[The Flying General]. This was an early entry in what became a popular 1930s series, the adventures of Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, (called for some reason "Drummong" throughout the contemporary NY Times review). The Times reviewer described "Captain Swagger" as basically a silent film with synchronized music and a special effects soundtrack, a technique later utilized during China's own period of transition to sound production, as in 1934's "The Big Road."
[Left, the Embassy theater, venue for the first "talkie" shown in Shanghai. Right, Rod Laroque and Sue Carol in a scene from "Captain Swagger." Click on any image to view full size.]
For the better part of 1929, the Embassy had the Shanghai sound movie market all to itself; but the city's other top-tier theaters immediately began their own preparations to acquire and install the sound equipment that would allow them to compete, although the cost of such equipment was very high. But by year's end, all were proudly offering "talkies" from the West. These high-level theaters' first offerings, with their premiere showing dates, are as follows [Note: Shanghai movie houses often had, in addition to their Chinese names, English names which were not necessarily translations of the Chinese; both are provided here]:
The relatively new (built in 1928) Grand Theater《Da Guangming 大光明》 exhibited its first sound movie on September 3. Its first offering was Warner Brothers "The Singing Fool," starring Al Jolson. The co-feature at the Grand was a newsreel, a speech by Nationalist Government Chairman Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Jieshi 蒋介石].
The Capitol《Guanglu 光陆》Theater followed suit a few days later, showing its first sound movie on September 7. Its first offering was Paramount's "The Canary Murder Case," starring William Powell and Louise Brooks in the first of a long series of "Philo Vance" mysteries.
The Carlton《Kaerdeng 卡尔登》began exhibiting sound films on September 13. Its first offering was "Alibi," a crime drama from United Artists studio which was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Chester Morris), and only five months removed from its US premiere.
The Odeon《Aodian 奥迪安》was the last of the high-level theaters to get in the game, showing its first sound movie on December 5. Its first was Paramount's "The Patriot," directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Emil Jannings.
After this, as sound movie technology developed, the medium and small-sized Shanghai theaters followed, acquiring and installing the necessary sound equipment, and of course every new theater built after that had the capability from day one. It would be a couple of years until Shanghai studios began turning out their own sound movies, but it was only a matter of time.
Note 1: By that fall he had reached New Zealand, with the Wellington Majestic Theater being that country's first sound venue. (Wellington Evening Post, October 11, 1929, p.8)
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