Alfred Hitchcock Presents Some of the First Words Ever Spoken on Film .… and They’re Saucy Ones (1929)

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

20 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online

Alfred Hitch­cock Recalls Work­ing with Sal­vador Dali on Spell­bound

Alfred Hitch­cock Tan­ta­lizes Audi­ences with a Play­ful Trail­er for Psy­cho (1960)

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.

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