This past week I had the privilege of seeing the last silent film of Alfred Hitchcock, BLACKMAIL (1929.) As part of the Downtown Classic Film Series at The Lawrence Arts Center, here in my town of Lawrence, Kansas, this screening was a real treat. I have seen several silent films in this “downtown Lawrence” series and this experience was no less special.
BLACKMAIL (1929) stands out both as Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film but also as his first ‘talkie.’ Come again? You see, after Hitch started production of BLACKMAIL (1929) as a silent film, British International Pictures decided a sound version was needed in addition to appeal to the demands of audiences’ curiosity for the new technology. But not all theaters were equipped for the sound version (only about 20% of British theaters), so both silent and sound versions were released across theaters at the same time. When I heard the silent version of this landmark Hitch thriller- a film I had never seen prior- was coming to my town with the famous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live musical accompaniment, I was all in.
In the same fashion of what has become part of our own Kansas silent film tradition, my pork pie-wearing pal and fellow-Kansan Trevor (aka @tpjost on twitter) joined us for the event. After enjoying our scrumptious gourmet burgers and alcoholic milkshakes at the local eatery The Burger Stand, Trevor and I joined my hubby Gary for the evening’s screening. To a nearly sold-out audience, fellow silent film supporter Bill Shaffer, President of the Kansas Silent Film Festival amongst other credits to his name, kicked off the event.
Long before actresses like Kim Novak, Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren, there was an archetypal Hitch blonde named Anny Ondra. Even in silent form back in 1929, BLACKMAIL holds all the signature key notes of a Hitch classic… murder, suspense, thrill and an alluring, sophisticated blonde whose sensual appeal is in direct contrast with an icier motive. Our story begins with femme fatale Alice White (portrayed By Anny Ondra) who is beautiful and charmingly expressive. She meets her loyal and straight-as-an-arrow Scotland Yard detective boyfriend Frank Webber (portrayed by John Longden) for a ‘tea and a show’ date. But at the bustling tea house she quickly comes up with an excuse to ditch her beau by purposefully starting an argument. She has her sights set on a date with another man.
Soon after, and with the anticipation of forbidden fruit, she leaves with her secret beau Mr. Crewe, a painter she secretly agreed to meet. They leave together, unaware as Webber looks on. Crewe invites her up to his artist studio apartment, as a pesky and menacing man named Tracy (Donald Cathrop) bothers them on the street. In his studio, Crewe shows her his artwork, she playfully paints a simple figure then he convinces her to pose in a ballerina outfit. Her bold behavior at first turns timorous but she complies. Soon she nervously realizes she may have gone too far, so she returns to changing back into her outfit as she arrived in. Crewe seizes the moment to show his true and unscrupulous colors. He grabs her, attempting to rape her. We see them struggling behind a curtain. In the struggle, her arm desperately flays about and desperately finds a knife near a loaf of bread. Soon it becomes clear that Crewe will no longer be a threat. In shock from the traumatic events that occurred just moments prior, she numbly puts back on her clothes, paints over her name on her signed artwork and grabs her bag to remove any evidence of her presence that night. She walks the streets in an empty gaze until morning; slipping in quietly to her flat as her landlord assumes she’s been in bed all night.
Detective Webber joins his Scotland Yard colleagues to investigate the findings of Crewe’s studio and his lifeless body. He stops abruptly as he discovers what he recognizes to be one of his girlfriend’s gloves and he swiftly tucks it into his pocket before anyone else sees it. Meanwhile, Alice joins her parents at the breakfast table at their shop downstairs. They chatter on the buzz circling around town of the murdered man just around the corner. Alice is barely hanging on; trying to conceal her dark secret.
Webber arrives and discreetly reveals her glove to Alice. He remains incredibly loyal and protective of her, despite her obvious indiscretions. Before she explains the full details of her connection to the murder, Tracy arrives. Not only does he recognize her from the night before from walking in with Crewe to his studio, but he also has a glove to reveal… her other missing glove of the pair. He minces no words in declaring his intentions. Thus the blackmail process commences.
I won’t share with you how successful the blackmailing worked out for Tracy, nor how Alice dealt with her tormented feelings in conflicted morality, nor how Webber handled both of them while juggling his duties as a detective. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to see how the rest of the story plays out. After all, this is a Hitch film so a little suspense for such a deliciously dark secret should be expected.
BLACKMAIL(1929) may have been Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film but it was not the first Hitch film for Anny Ondra. Earlier in the same year, they teamed up for MANXMAN (1929.) But when adding sound to BLACKMAIL (1929), Ondra’s thick Czech accent from having spent her childhood in Prague proved to be too much. So actress Joan Barry ‘dubbed’ her voice for all the speaking parts, off camera. Despite her talent and beauty, that heavy accent ended Ondra’s British film career but she continued a long and successful acting career in Germany (more than 88 films in her lifetime). She was also known for her 2nd marriage, to German boxing great Max Schmeling (from 1933 until her death in 1987.) Interestingly, this screening took place within a day to the 27th anniversary of her death.
I couldn’t help but notice the timing of Ondra’s marriage, in 1933, to Schmeling and their continued residence in Germany for decades thereafter. Could it be possible that Anny Ondra and/or her husband Max Schmeling were… nazis?! I explored further and thanks to my overall ignorance on the topic of boxing, I learned a great deal about Schmeling. This was a simple and modest man and along with his beautiful movie-star wife, they became Germany’s celebrity “it” couple. Max hung out with artists, filmmakers and writers. To build his boxing career on the world-stage, Schmeling spent time competing in America, which led to his heavyweight champion status and infamous fights with Joe Louis. (Yes, he’s THAT guy.) I had a vague knowledge of this famous fight; one that was promoted as “Black vs. White” and “American vs. German” at the height of the nazi propaganda machine.
This German victory was a source of pride for Hitler, appealing to his deep racism, and he used Max as a world trophy to that end- flying him back home in the Hindenburg and requested Schmeling continue to positively promote Germany across Europe and across seas. Anny Ondra even followed the Louis match-up with the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbel himself. It seemed obvious that Ondra and Schmeling were the nazi party’s favored darlings. But some stories put a murkier light on their allegiances. For example, after a re-match between Louis and Schmeling in 1938 resulted in a Louis victory, it was that same year that Schmeling hid two teen sons of a Jewish friend in a hotel room for a couple of days while he pretended to be too ill to receive visitors. He was successful in sneaking the boys out of the country, to safety. Additionally, in 1954 Schmeling visited America and took the opportunity to visit with Joe Louis, from which they remained friends until Louis’s death in 1981; even paying for a portion of his funeral.
So were Anny Ondra and husband Max Schmeling nazis? Or party patsies? Were they playing the game or being played? Or perhaps they were pampered survivalists who chose to ignore their moral compasses unless reality struck too close to home?
Alfred Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL (1929) is an intriguing film that pushes the ethical envelope with a background story beyond the life of the lens that is equally as fascinating and replete with moral complexities. For you Hitch fans, yes there’s a wonderfully climatic chase at the end- which takes place in the Egyptian exhibit of the British Museum. And of course, it would not be complete without a Hitch cameo. That’s charmingly placed in there, too…