Hitchcock’s triumphant talkie début

The great Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie was screened to cinema distributors and press on 21 June 1929 at Regal Arch’s Marble Cinema, and had its grand première on 28 July at London’s Capitol cinema. Though it started production as a silent, Hitchcock decided to switch to the new technology.

Producer John Maxwell gave him permission to make it a hybrid. Hitchcock didn’t like that idea very much, and secretly filmed almost everything in sound, using RCA Photophone. He also made a silent version for theatres not yet wired for sound.

Leading lady Anny Ondra (pictured above) had a thick Czech accent, which was considered undesirable for her role. Since post-dubbing technology didn’t yet exist, and Hitchcock didn’t want to replace her, Joan Barry was called in to speak her dialogue off-camera while Anny lip-synced.

Critics and the public loved Blackmail. It was one of the most popular and successful 1929 releases, and voted the best film of that year. Because most British theatres weren’t wired for sound, the silent version proved more popular, and had a longer running time.

Blackmail was filmed at British and Dominions Imperial Studios of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, Europe’s first purpose-built sound studio. Though there were prior British talkies, Blackmail was one of the first all-talking features, with sound recorded in real time instead of dubbed in later.

Though both sound and silent versions survive, the sound version is more widely-available and better-remembered. Some critics, however, still prefer the silent version.

Hitchcock’s cameo starts about ten minutes in, and is one of his longest, at nineteen seconds. The director is bothered by a little boy as he reads a book on the London Underground.

Frank Webber (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective, is dating Alice White (Anny Ondra). While they’re at a teahouse, the couple begins arguing, and Frank becomes so annoyed and frustrated at Anny’s refusal to attend the movies, he cuts their date short.

Frank is rather displeased to presently see Alice leaving with artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), who previously communicated with her via body language at the teahouse. When they arrive at Mr. Crewe’s studio, Alice is reluctant to go inside, but ultimately is convinced to enter.

Alice is immediately put at ease, and finds mirth in Mr. Crewe’s painting of a laughing clown. She then gets a painting lesson. To her simple face Mr. Crewe adds a naked female figure, and guides Alice’s hand as she signs her name.

Alice sees a ballerina dress while Mr. Crewe fetches drinks, and is convinced to model it for him. She’s outraged when Mr. Crewe kisses her, and starts changing her clothes.

Mr. Crewe takes away her original dress and tries to rape her. No one hears Alice’s cries for help, and she reaches through a curtain for a knife.

After Alice emerges from behind the curtain, she slashes the painting of the clown and paints over her name on the other painting. She very stealthily leaves the building after putting her clothes back on, but forgets her gloves.

All night, Alice wanders the streets of London in a daze, driven crazy by images of knives and thinking about those missing gloves.

Mr. Crewe’s body is discovered by his landlady, and Frank is assigned to the investigation. While in Mr. Crewe’s studio, he recognises one of Alice’s gloves and the dead artist both, but keeps mum.

In the morning, Alice’s mother informs her there was a murder around the corner during the night, and wonders why she’s still in bed. After Mrs. White leaves, Alice gets out of bed, still in her clothes from last night.

Alice goes downstairs to her dad’s tobacco shop, and is extremely rattled by talk about the murder and the repetition of the word “knife.”

Frank comes to speak with Alice and show her the glove, but she’s too shaken-up to say anything, even when they step into a phonebooth for privacy.

Customer Tracy (Donald Calthrop) arrives with the other glove. Even worse, he saw Alice going into Mr. Crewe’s studio and now discovers Frank has the first glove.

Tracy begins blackmailing Alice and Frank, with more and more outrageous demands. When it comes out Tracy has a criminal record, Frank calls the cops, who chase Tracy all the way onto the roof of the British Museum.

And the plot twists don’t end there.

Blackmail is one of the best early talkies I’ve seen. It doesn’t have the awkward, stagey style associated with most others. It easily feels like a 1930s film.

And the Worst Best Actress Award goes to…

Released 12 April 1929, Coquette was Mary Pickford’s highly-anticipated talkie début, and showed her in a whole new role. Since 1909, Mary had been one of the most popular, beloved film stars in the world, and was famous for her long golden curls. That hairstyle and her diminutive height enabled her to play little girl roles well into adulthood.

Mary had tried to break away from this typecasting with adult roles, but those films weren’t as popular as her child role films. When her mother Charlotte passed away in 1928, Mary finally felt free to bob her hair. The dawn of sound cinema was as good a time as any to match that new haircut to more mature films.

Mary eagerly installed a sound stage at Pickfair Studios in 1928 and used the best technology available at the time, thus avoiding the worst problems associated with many other very early talkies.

She then bought the rights to Coquette, a popular 1927–28 play starring Helen Hayes. In comparison to Mary’s previous adult roles like Rosita (1923) and My Best Girl (1927), Coquette saw her playing not just any type of adult, but a flapper.

Though Mary had been on the stage prior to film acting, she nevertheless worried her voice wouldn’t be good enough. She thought her first sound test was too pipsqueaky, and embarked on serious vocal lessons.

Coquette was based on real events in South Carolina, with some dialogue coming verbatim from a court case. Though the Hays Code didn’t yet exist, censors destroyed the entire plot of the play. The resulting storyline is rather milquetoast (and badly dated). In the play, Norma Besant is pregnant out of wedlock, but in the film, the only scandal is spending the night in a cabin with a man (with nothing sexual happening).

(Full disclosure: I was unable to find the film in its entirety, and have only watched clips.)

Norma Besant is the daughter of a Southern doctor, and very popular with the opposite sex. Dr. Besant prefers Stanley Wentworth (Mary’s ex-brother-in-law Matt Moore), but Norma is passionately in love with Michael Jeffrey (Johnny Mack Brown). Predictably, Dr. Besant highly disapproves of this suitor and demands Norma never see Michael again.

Norma pretends to agree, then secretly arranges to marry Michael when he makes good in six months and can buy her a house.

Several months later, Michael sneaks over to see Norma by a country club dance. The young lovers, seeking more time alone, creep off to Michael’s mother’s cabin. Norma comes home at four in the morning.

This era being what it was, rumours are soon swirling about how they spent the night together alone, and Norma’s reputation is ruined. She says all they did was talk about their future and drink coffee, but everyone believes they were automatically up to no good.

Michael is livid, and vows to ask Dr. Besant for Norma’s hand in marriage stat.

Dr. Besant is still adamant Michael never marry his daughter, and after a heated argument, Michael changes track and decides to elope with Norma as soon as possible. Norma is ordered into her room, and Dr. Besant leaves with a gun.

Things get really ugly after this, culminating in an emotional court case.

During the première by NYC’s Rialto Theatre, a fuse blew, rendering Coquette silent. The projectionist rewound it and began again, with poor, intermittent sound. Technicians had to be called in, and the third try was finally successful.

Reviewers had mostly positive things to say, and Coquette earned $1.4 million ($21,005,812 today). In 1930, Mary won Best Actress Academy Award. The first ceremony of the year before had only included silents, not wanting talkies to create unfair competition.

Mary really wanted that award, so much so she fêted judges at her home in Pickfair. Though Coquette was a critical success, ever since she won that award, many have viewed it more as a lifetime achievement award for her entire body of work than actual quality in that one film. Mary herself later said she wished she could burn all copies.

Though what I’ve seen of the film doesn’t jump out at me as horrible, I definitely see the criticism that the acting is badly dated. Very early talkies are often hard to judge, since everyone was still learning another mode of acting, but this clearly isn’t Mary’s strongest performance by a long shot.

Everyone’s acting is so stagey, and the Southern accents are obviously fake, not believable at all. The severe censorship also seriously hurt the overall story. It would’ve been stronger had the scandal been Norma’s out of wedlock pregnancy. The replacement seems overly quaint even by 1929 standards.

Mary was capable of so much better. If you’ve never seen one of her films before, I’d highly recommend starting with one of her silents. Her four starring sound films aren’t representative of her acting power.

Hijinks in a hotel

Though the Marx Brothers made a (now lost) short film in 1921, Humorrisk, their first true film was The Cocoanuts. It premièred 23 May 1929 in NYC, and went into general release on 3 August. Typical of their Paramount films, the plot is rather thin and ramshackle. It’s just a vehicle for their zany, anarchic brand of comedy.

Like most early talkies, there were a lot of technological drawbacks. However, to its advantage, The Cocoanuts, like their other early films, was based on a stage play. It works for the action to be limited to a few sets without a lot of movement from the camera.

In the very early sound era, with a few notable exceptions, cameras couldn’t move very far, and microphones had to stay as close to the actors as possible. Because these microphones picked up every little sound, all the paper used in The Cocoanuts had to be soaked in water to avoid rustling.

A longer transitional period could’ve worked out these technological kinks, but people were so eager to play with the shiny new toy, they didn’t care about anything but the excitement of sound cinema.

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) manage the Hotel de Cocoanut as ineptly as you can imagine. Mr. Hammer hasn’t paid his employees for two weeks, and Jamison prefers to sleep at the front desk.

Wealthy guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is keen for her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes will give Polly a big step up the social ladder. Polly, however, prefers struggling architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who works as a hotel clerk and dreams of turning the entire area into Cocoanut Manor.

Predictably, Yates is a conman scheming to steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, with assistance from his girlfriend Penelope (Kay Francis).

Two more conmen, Chico and Harpo, presently arrive, with plans to fill their empty suitcases by robbing and tricking the other guests. Also predictably, they drive Mr. Hammer, the employees, and the other guests crazy with their wacky antics.

Penelope realizes these guys are total dopes, and hatches a plan for them to take the fall for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s necklace.

Another predictable plot development is Mr. Hammer’s attempted wooing of Mrs. Potter.

Harpo is invited into Penelope’s room, and hides under her bed when Yates visits. He overhears them discussing their scheme, and holds out his hat to catch an incriminating note Penelope drops.

Penelope and Mrs. Potter, whose rooms are connected by a door, are quite bemused at Mr. Hammer, Harpo, and Chico running in and out. During this whirlwind back and forth, Penelope goes into Mrs. Potter’s room and steals the necklace.

Mr. Hammer tells Chico about his plans for a Cocoanut Manor auction, during which Mrs. Potter announces her necklace was stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward.

Harpo presently produces the necklace, to Mrs. Potter’s great gratitude. A detective blames Bob, which spurs Penelope on to spin a wild fish story corroborating the accusation. Mrs. Potter believes Bob is guilty, but Polly believes in his innocence.

The situation worsens when Mrs. Potter orders Polly to stay away from Bob, and announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Now it’s up to Harpo and Chico to get Bob out of jail and prove his innocence.

Typical of early talkies, there are a lot of musical and dance numbers. They feel kind of pointless and space-filling, much like the musical performances cluttering up the later MGM films. We can understand the story perfectly well without these interruptions! Seriously, you can skip all of them and not miss anything.

The film was shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where follow-up Animal Crackers was also shot. Paramount moved all their production to Hollywood in 1932.

The Marxes were horrorstruck by the final cut, so much so they tried to buy back the negative. Paramount refused, and released the film to great critical success. It earned $1,800,000 gross ($26,962,421 today) and was one of the most successful early talkies.

Reviews were mostly positive, esp. regarding the Marxes. The other parts of the film garnered more mixed reactions. They felt the romantic subplot and musical performances were pointless. Critics also mentioned poor audio quality in spots and poorly-filmed dance sequences.

The audiovisual issues were finally corrected in a long overdue 2016 remastering of the Paramount films. The original 2004 boxed set was just embarrassing!

A simple story of a simple mouse

NOTE: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of a film review and historical background, and as such are consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).

Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).

Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.

Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind.  It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.

The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.

Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.

In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.

Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.

The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.

The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.

Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.

Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.

The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”