As Ondra's European accent was deemed unsuitable for her role as the daughter of a London newsagent in the sound version of the film, English actress Joan Barry spoke Alice's dialogue from off-camera whilst Ondra mimed the words.
By the mid-1920s, Ondra had made her name as a comic actress in nearly 30 European films. She then starred in two English films for director Graham Cutts — Glorious Youth (1928) and God's Clay (1928) — before working with Hitchcock on The Manxman (1929).
Although initially begun as a silent film production, British International Pictures started equipping a temporary sound studio with the RCA Photophone system and, by early April 1929, trade papers were reporting that portions of Blackmail would be filmed with sound. By the following month, Hitchcock was busy filming sound sequences and the studio hosted a visit by the Duke and Duchess of York on Monday 13th May.
Ronald Neame, who worked as an 18-year-old camera assistant on the film, later stated that he doubted Hitchcock knew he would be making a sound film until partway through production: "He wouldn't have cast Anny Ondra, because Anny was Czechoslovakian, and she was playing the part of a London girl. She had a strong accent, and there was no such thing as dubbing. I don't think he would have landed himself in that problem had he known he was going to do sound."
Ondra's heavy European accent presented Hitchcock with a dilemma, as it would be unsuitable for her role as the daughter of a cockney newsagent. Unable to redub her lines in post-production, the director hired actress Joan Barry to sit off-camera and read Ondra's lines whilst she mimed. Understandably, Ondra's acting in the sound version of the film is more stilted than in the silent version of the film as she had to concentrate on syncing her mouth movements with Barry's voice.
Ondra's accent was captured in an informal undated sound test, in which Hitchcock teases the actress:
Although some have cited the sound test as an early example of Hitchcock "sexually harassing" his actresses, the reality was that Ondra had become a close friend of the director and his wife, Alma Reville, during the filming of The Manxman and the Hitchcocks would often visit Ondra and her husband, boxer Max Schmeling, whenever they were in Germany.
Notes & References
- Some sources state that Hitchcock had wanted Ondra for the lead role in Champagne, but the studio had insisted the film be a comedy vehicle for English actress Betty Balfour.
- Blackmail (1993) by Tom Ryall, pages 18-21.
- The visit was reported widely in the press, see The Times, Hull Daily Mail, Yorkshire Post and Nottingham Evening Post.
- Neame quoted from Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, page 117
- Although modern critics have commented that Barry's accent was hardly working class, this was not identified as an issue by contemporary reviewers of the film.