Hitchcock’s earliest blonde: Anny Ondra
17 May 2012
Welcome to the Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon, designed to raise the funds to stream online three reels of the recently rediscovered 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow, for which a young Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director, wrote the title cards, edited, designed the sets, decorated the sets, and learned everything he could about how to make a film. You’ve heard me rant about access to film before; now’s your chance to put some money toward universal access. Click here to make a gift of any size toward this effort.
In addition, check out the vast outpouring of Hitchcock blogging at three sites: The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy On Film, and This Island Rod, each of which has taken a turn as blog-meister during this May 13-18 Hitchfest.
Alfred Hitchcock cast a lot of different women as leads, but oh, his blondes. He left no doubt that each was a spectacularly beautiful specimen. Perfect to a fault yet surprisingly willing to initiate sexual encounters — even aggressive. Deliciously unpredictable (and occasionally malicious) for long stretches until, suddenly, she falls in love with the hero and becomes absolutely trustworthy.
Critics have complained bitterly about these women being portrayed as ice queens, absurd male fantasies — which they most surely are. But come on. Remember Grace Kelly’s first appearance in Rear Window? (See here for a clip.)
She enters the dark apartment as Jeff (James Stewart) naps, and bends down to kiss him. Hitchcock filmed it as if we were the object of her desire: that extreme close-up of her perfect face, coming in straight for us. When Hitch transitions to a side view so we can watch her plant a perfect, luscious kiss on Jeff’s lips, all the neighborhood noise drops away, and the shot is almost perfectly silent. Watch it and tell me if you don’t hold your breath while she kisses him/us.
Tippi Hedren, Madeleine Carroll, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Grace Kelly — via Hitchcock’s lens, these women are transfixing, spectacular, maddening. One might go so far as to suggest that Hitch helped to cement an abiding ambivalence about blondes into our collective psyches.
Which made me wonder how early he manifested this fascination with blondes — so this blog-a-thon offered the perfect opportunity to scour the Hitchcock back catalogue for some of his earliest films. And thus I found Anny Ondra, a Polish/ Czech/ Hungarian actor who grew up in Prague and whose total English-language career consists of these two 1929 films for Hitch: The Manxman and Blackmail, two films bookended by a long career of European films that stretches almost forty years, concentrated most heavily between 1922 and 1938, when she was between the ages of 19 and 35.
She wasn’t Hitch’s first blonde, but she seems to be his first repeat-offender actress. And with her, the die was cast. At the risk of looking backward from his classic blondes of the 1950s to ask whether Ondra possesses some of the qualities that would become quintessential to the Kellys, Saints, and Hedrens, I nevertheless offer that from the very earliest scenes in these two pictures, we know how untrustworthy her character is, how duplicitous. In fact, we’re reluctant to like her at first.
Except that she’s so flighty and girlish we grow more lenient; we come to see that she knows not what she does.
The more we watch her, the more we need to watch her. These films both utilize what now appears to be a ham-fisted cinematographical technique: frequent shots in which the characters break the fourth wall and face the camera directly — at first as a means of introduction, but later on as a way to pause for emotional effect. Ondra flirts at the camera as she torments her two suitors in The Manxman, an operatic tragedy of a love triangle. Clumsy though this technique might be, we learn a lot about Ondra’s true charms in the process, and we suspect that our own growing softness for her character mirrors Hitchcock’s affection for the actress.
Look at those sweet little butterfly lips, that delicate little chin, that over-permed hair. Those large eyes, that could narrow to slits or widen in horror: in sum, she’s adorable. With all those close-ups of her lovely little face, we’re able to watch her flirt, weigh a decision, worry, or fool a man (transparently). She acts the pants off of all her male co-stars, who are negligible, forgettable figures (except perhaps Carl Brisson as the happy-go-lucky Pete in The Manxman, distinguishable primarily for being a Tom Hiddleston look-alike, albeit without perhaps such a massive forehead).
But therein lies the first major difference between Hitch’s later blondes and Ondra’s appearances for him in 1929: Ondra is truly a girl, utterly lacking the cool, elegant self-possession of his 1950s ice queens. No matter that, at 26, she was a year older than Grace Kelly had been when they filmed Rear Window — Hitchcock wanted women for his later films, whereas in these very early efforts he allows Ondra to charm in a different way. Put her in a room crowded with Manx fishermen, and she glows.
And charm she does. I mentioned above that she’s portrayed early on in each film as a deceiver — the thing is, she ultimately becomes the central protagonist in each film. In The Manxman (the earlier of the two films), she steals the film out from under her male co-stars. As she lives through a marriage to the wrong man, she quickly appears as a foolish yet sympathetic girl whose haste in marrying dooms her to unhappiness. Likewise, in Blackmail she simply wanted to have a nice time with a man who gives her more attention than her boring, busy detective boyfriend — only to find herself in a tight spot indeed.
Blackmail has a simplistic storyline, but the added attraction of being a very early talkie — in fact, it sometimes appears almost as if Hitchcock arranged to dub all the sound onto the film later on. Neither is this purely a guess on my part. Ondra’s voice is entirely dubbed by actress Joan Barry, after the filmmaker determined that her accent would distract from tale.
No matter. Even without hearing her true voice in that film, we have preserved via the ever-magical YouTube this delicious little moment: a sound test for Blackmail, in which Hitchcock and Ondra engage in a delightful little bit of dirty verbal sparring. You can see immediately that Ondra is a charismatic little number — and that Hitch didn’t miss an opportunity to tell a dirty joke, and run his eyes up and down his lead actress:
Now, isn’t that enough reason to donate to the Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon — the possibility of being able to see, at your leisure, a gem like this one online? Please consider making a donation to the NPFF, and visit my colleagues’ sites to enjoy the wide-ranging conversation about the many sides of Alfred Hitchcock!