Née Anna Sophie Ondráková

b. 15 May 1902, Tarnow, Austria-Hungary

d. 28 February 1987, Hollenstedt, Germany

Actor

Anny Ondra holds a distinctive position as the actress who starred in Great Britain’s first sound film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), although, ironically, she remained silent.  The Austro-Hungarian Ondra, who began her abbreviated English film career in 1928, was an accomplished star of Czechoslovakian and German silent comedies when she exported her talents to First National-Pathé and British International Pictures (BIP).  However, as BIP adopted sound technology in the course of Blackmail’s production, her accent proved too pronounced to portray a Londoner, whereupon she became the first performer in an English film whose voice was dubbed. Consequently, Ondra’s most renowned British role constituted her final appearance on the English screen.

Ondra’s acting career began on stage in Prague, where her family relocated during her childhood.  In 1919, she appeared in her first film, the Czechoslovakian drama Palimpsest, opposite Carl Lamac, who would become her frequent co-star, primary director, husband, and co-producer.  Of Ondra’s 91 films, she made 49 under Lamac’s direction.  During the 1920s, she appeared in numerous Czech films, as well as a handful of German and Austrian releases, emerging as a comedy star.  Ondra often played what The Film Daily characterized as ‘the little hoyden who worms herself into a series of complications’ in romantic comedies (1931: 11).  From 1928-1929, she starred in four British films: Graham Cutts’ God’s Clay (1928) and Eileen of the Trees (1928, also released as Glorious Youth), and Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1929) and Blackmail.  Although the advent of sound cinema ended her British career, she remained a star in Eastern Europe, principally making musical comedies, with occasional forays into drama.  Many of these films were made for a German production company that she formed with Lamac in 1930, Ondra-Lamac-Film.  The company released the last of its 38 films in 1937.  Subsequently, Ondra’s career waned, largely ending in the early 1940s.  Her final screen appearance was a cameo role with her second husband, German world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, in the 1957 West German comedy, The Affairs of Julie (Die Zürcher Verlobung).

Although known as a comedienne in Eastern Europe, typically starring as a sprightly, enchanting young blonde who is the object of masculine desire, Ondra played darkly dramatic roles in her British films. In God’s Clay, she plays a woman involved in a murder and its concealment – a part in which, according to a review in The Bioscope, she “makes a promising appearance” albeit given to overacting (1928:37) [1].  Hitchcock’s cinema in particular explored the underside of Ondra’s established screen persona as a ‘nice and capricious young girl’ (Bock: 347).  In The Manxman, Ondra plays a lighthearted barmaid who becomes torn between her long-time suitor, a buoyant fisherman, and her growing ardor for his best friend, a dedicated lawyer.  Playing out one of Hitchcock’s central themes, love vs. duty, Ondra’s character becomes pregnant with the lawyer’s child after receiving erroneous news of the fisherman’s death and, when the latter returns, she marries him at the urging of his loyal friend.  Eventually, she leaves her husband for her true love in misery and shame.

Similarly, in Blackmail Ondra plays the initially carefree ingenue who becomes a psychologically haunted figure of illicitness.  In what was considered one of England’s most important films and a domestic hit, Ondra again portrays a lively, capricious working class woman (Alice) whose predilection for the more sophisticated of two desiring males results in transgression and punishment by near-unendurable guilt.  More attracted to an artist than her stalwart boyfriend, a police detective, Alice naively visits the former’s studio, whereupon she fends off his rape attempt by murdering him with a bread knife.  Subsequently, her boyfriend ensures that the conscience-stricken Alice remains silent about her culpability, incriminating a blackmailer.  In Tania Modleski’s feminist reading of Blackmail, she notes, ‘the first British sound film specifically foregrounds the problems of woman’s speaking’ (Modleski: 21). Although the same is true of The Manxman, in Blackmail, the issue involved processes of production as well.  Hitchcock overcame the problem of Ondra’s unsuitable heavy Czech accent by directing Ondra to mouth her lines onscreen as actress Joan Barry recited them into a microphone offscreen.  This primitive effort at dubbing resulted in Ondra’s hesitancy when speaking, yet, Tom Ryall notes, ‘some critics [viewed] Ondra’s slight hesitations in performance . . . as a positive contribution to the construction of Alice as a vulnerable victim’ (Ryall: 22).  Additionally, although it has been observed that Barry’s uppercrust accent was unsuited to a working class character, one American reviewer wrote, ‘the [cast’s] perfect English diction [was] a genuine pleasure to listen to’ (Film Daily: 1929).  Critics felt that Ondra held her own in Blackmail, which was also released in a silent version, yet her accent foreclosed further roles in British cinema.

© Leslie Abramson

[1] According to The Bioscope review, Ondra plays the part of Poppy Stone, a victim of betrayal who becomes a vengeful murderess.  In the BFI database and IMDb, Ondra is listed in the role of Angela Clifford, a woman who mistakenly believes that she has committed the murder.  Both women cover up the crime by disposing of the body together.

Bibliography

Bock, Hans-Michael, Tim Bergfelder, Eds.  The Concise Cinegraph: Encyclopedia of German Cinema (New York: Berghan Books, 2009)

“Blackmail,” The Film Daily, October 6, 1929, p. 9

“Britain’s First Talking Film,” The New York Times, October 7, 1929

“Eine Freundin So Goldig Wie Du,” The Film Daily, October 25, 1931, p. 11

“God’s Clay,” The Bioscope, August 1928, p. 37

“London Film Notes,” The New York Times, August 11, 1929

Modleski, Tania.  The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1988)

Ryall, Tom.  Blackmail (London: British Film Institute, 1993)

 

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