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There are many histories of the transition from silent films to sound films—the relatively brief period spanning from roughly 1926 to 1931. The “talkie revolution” or the sound transition was, according to Fortune magazine, “beyond comparison the fastest and most amazing in the whole history of industrial revolutions.”1 This revolution began in the big-business-friendly economic policies of the Roaring Twenties2 and cemented its position with the Great Depression.3
On this topic, the work of Douglas Gomery is essential reading; his book The Coming of Sound, and the papers “The Picture Palace: Economic Sense or Hollywood Nonsense?” and “The Movies Become Big Business: Publix Theatres and the Chain Store Strategy” provided invaluable context for my examination of trade journals and newspapers from this era. And Dave Kenney’s Twin Cities Picture Show is the golden standard for histories of film in the Twin Cities. But Gomery and Kenney spend precious little time on the role of labor in their stories of great men, big business (or small businesses becoming big), and technological change. At the same time, histories of Twin Cities labor (i.e. Charles Rumford Walker’s American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis, Elizabeth Faue’s Community of Suffering & Struggle, and William Millikan’s A Union Against Unions) devote scant few pages—if any at all—to the local movie theaters, and the histories dedicated to motion picture industry labor focus mainly on workers in film production.
The Film Daily publisher Jack Alicoate wrote, in his introduction to The Film Daily Yearbook 1928, “No period in the thirty years of motion picture history was as full of interesting events as the past year,” citing the opening of New York’s Roxy Theater and the purchase of First National by Stanley and West Coast as among its highlights. Alicoate had a penchant for sensationalism, but he was right; he noted that it was full of “mergers—expansions—millions in new investments—the big fellows getting bigger—turmoil economy—smaller profits—the little fellows growing less important.”4 I might suggest “less powerful” rather than “less important,” however. The big fellows’ share of the industry is certainly larger in terms of dollars and cents, but not in terms of people. The sidelining of “little fellows” in the histories of film and the film industry is an apologia by omission of the acts of the “big fellows.”
This is a story about big fellows stepping on little fellows: the major studio-producers’ “invasion” of the exhibition field and of the exhibitors’ struggle for profit at the expense of the laborers they employed. These two continuities become entangled in one key event: the 1927 Twin Cities movie theater strike. Historian Robert Schultz examined these events (as well as a projectionists strike in 1930) in Minnesota History,5 but while I am as indebted to Schultz as to Gomery and Kelley, I feel that his examination would benefit from additional context explaining more of the continuities in play: an ongoing takeover of first run exhibition by the studio-producers and an attempt at cutting wages throughout the film industry. This context is crucial to integrating this event with the larger story of film at this time, and through it we can arrive at a greater understanding of the motivations of the players involved (both the unions’ and the theater owners’) and of the events’ significance to not only the players directly involved but to the motion picture industry as a whole—past and present.