Britain really lucked out with its first talkie — what made Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL great was that he’d made it first as a superior silent. Shooting sound scenes and dubbing Anny Ondra made it less great in most ways, but it was so good to begin with it survived the conversion. It took Hitch several more films before he could repeat the trick, internalizing the balance between dialogue and purely visual storytelling.
LES TROIS MASQUES is your Pathe-Natan film for this week. It’s officially the first French talkie, but because no sound stage was ready in France, it was shot in England, at the studio of John Maxwell, the Scottish barrister turned movie mogul who also produced many early Hitchcocks. Although already filmed in 1921 as a silent, this version is every inch the early talkie, with all the longeurs that implies. The camera never seems to be in entirely the right place, as if it’s shunted sideways to make way for a microphone, or maybe another camera. Scenes trundle on, mere records of time passing, and though pleasing design (by future director Christian Jacque) means there are some attracting images, nothing catches dramatic fire. Use of sound is generally for novelty value rather than really creative, with some background music and a storm scene no doubt adding interest, and the novelty of hearing their own language spoken probably wearing off for French audiences before the film ends.
Still, this was a throwing down of the gauntlet. While other producers in France saw sound as a death-blow, Bernard Natan seized it as an opportunity — films that spoke French in their original form would have an edge in the marketplace over dubbed American films. That might not be enough to conquer Hollywood, but it could allow the national cinema to carve out its own personal space — and it did. And this after MGM’s vice-president Arthur Loew had declared that, thanks to talking pictures, in ten years time English would be the only language spoken in the world. Against this background, the decision to make French talkies looks momentous.
Director Andre Hugon would make several films for the company, and to his credit he does throw in a few close-ups here, saved for moments of maximum dramatic impact. The film is in fairly wretched condition, with no good elements known to exist, and my copy comes from a VHS off-air recording which is likewise showing its age, so the movie may have other virtues obscured by the poor resolution.
Still, this was just the beginning, and the studio’s very next production, filmed on French soil, would be fluid and even dynamic, and creatively intermingled visual and auditory rhythms. It’s a slight piece, but I think it’s worth posting in its entirety…