Most theaters in America seem by now to have equipped themselves for digital projection. But just a year or two ago, distributors had to send out digital copies of their movies to some venues and celluloid prints to others. As it hasn't proven quite the revelation its boosters had hoped, the latest wave of 3D pictures still has to deal with the fact that certain theaters accept a higher-tech version, but most need a lower-tech one. In 1929, cinema found itself in much the same technical situation, but regarding sound. Even as Alfred Hitchcock began shooting his tenth film, Blackmail, as a traditional silent, British International Pictures decided he should join the popular "talkies" just then opening in England. This required Hitchcock to deliver both a sound and a silent version of the picture — and to incorporate sound recording on the fly.
Above you see — and, more importantly, hear — a sound test Hitchcock made with Anny Ondra, Blackmail's lead actress. For a demonstration of what at the time surely seemed like a complicated new cinematic technology, it has an amusingly risqué goofiness. Starting this 42-second conversation, a wisecracking young Hitchcock asks to hear Ondra's voice. "But Hitch, you mustn't do that," she insists. "Why not?" asks the director. "Well," replies the hesitant actress, "because I can't speak well." Indeed, the Czech Ondra spoke with an accent, which forced the production to "dub" her lines, live, with an English actress standing offstage. As sound swept the motion picture industry, Blackmail's leading lady suffered the fate of many an unacceptably-voiced silent star and returned to the Continent. As for its director, well, we'd hear a bit more from him. You can watch Hitchcock's first talkie in full below.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.