The Ring (1927)
How did you decide to do a boxing story?
  I was interested--I used to go to the Albert Hall. I think the thing, strangely enough, that fascinated me about boxing in those days was the English audience that would go all dressed up in black tie to sit around the ring. It wasn't the boxing that fascinated me so much, although I was interested in the shop, all the details connected with it. Like pouring champagne over the head of the boxer at the thirteenth round, if he was going a bit groggy. You'd hear them uncork the champagne bottle and pour the whole bottle over his head. All that kind of thing I was interested in, and put it all in the picture. The Ring had a montage sequence, it was piano playing or something, and it got a round of applause at the premiere. I never heard a montage get a round of applause before, but this did. Also I began to experiment with little pictorial touches, things like the dirty old "Round One" card being pulled out of the slot and a brand new "Round Two" card going in--that's how I indicated the sudden change in the fortunes of "One Round Jack" as he was called.
The Farmer's Wife (1928) The Farmer's Wife, I would say, was again merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.
Champagne (1928) Someone had this idea, let's make a film about champagne. Any my thought was--it's kind of a corny idea really--why don't we do one about a little girl who works at Reims in the cellars and always watches the train go off carrying champagne. And then she eventually gravitated to the city and became a kind of whore and was put through the mill and eventually went back to her job, and then every time she saw champagne go out, she knew, "Well, that's going to cause some trouble for somebody." That was scrapped. They thought it was much too, they didn't use the word "highbrow," but, oh, that wasn't entertainment. So we ended up with a hodge-podge of a story that was written as we went through the film and I thought it was dreadful.
The Manxman (1929) The Manxman again was a kind of old-fashioned story. An assignment, more or less. It was a domestic melodrama, you know, the illegitimate child and the brother and the judge--one of those things full of coincidences--the brother happens to be a lawyer and the poor girl gets involved with a fisherman and so on.
Blackmail (1929)
Having shot Blackmail as a silent film, did you welcome the shift to sound?
Yes. I was looking forward to it. In fact, while I was shooting it as a silent picture, they told me that the last reel was going to be done in sound. I didn't let them know up front, but I knew there was so much of the visual in it that here and there I could go back and drop certain sounds into scenes that were completed. Having seen it once since then, I think it shows a little bit that there's no flow of dialogue where it should flow. The dialogue almost comes in like titles in the early part of the picture. But I think what sound brought of value to the cinema was to complete the realism of the image on the screen. It made everyone in the audience deaf mutes.
Blackmail. 1929
The whole first sequence is silent, except for the music. Yes. Now, here's another compromise--see, my life's full of compromises. I had intended to end Blackmail just as it began. Only this time with the girl being arrested. I was going to repeat every shot. But they wouldn't go for it in those days. A happy ending--had to be. As I wanted to do it, the detective was never going to disclose to his superior that this was his girl. He had to go through with his duty--the old love-and-duty theme. I was going to repeat all the shots of the mugging, the interview, and finally--bang! goes the cell door on the girl, and the detective and his superior walk down the corridor. I was going to hang on and let them wash their hands in the men's room and go way down the corridor to right where he met her at the opening of the picture, in the lobby. And the superior says, "Well, what are you doing tonight, going out with your girl?" And he says, "No, not tonight." And he walks out.
Ritchard doesn't play the murder-seduction scene at all like a villain, does he? No. I did a kind of naive thing there. Even in those days, I though, "Oh, we can't have a man behaving like a heavy." But then what I did was let him stand in the shadow of a wrought iron chandelier and the shadow put a black moustache on him.
Was the chase through the British Museum shot there? No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schufftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn't looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They'd go on through and I'd say, "All right, bring back the Schufftan." I did the whole none shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.
Was your appearance in the subway in Blackmailthe first time you used this personal joke? No, I'm seen in The Lodger, seated in the foreground at a desk in the newspaper office scene. And that was done just because we didn't bother to engage actors for that kind of scene. But the first big appearance was in Blackmail. It really started with the talking pictures. I didn't do it in many of the silent films.
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
How did you come to make Juno and the Paycock?
Because I liked the play very much. I think the picture's all right, though personally it wasn't my meat. But it was one of my favorite plays, so I thought I had to do it. It was just a photograph of a stage play. We had all the Irish players. It was interesting the trouble one went to for sound at that time. I remember a close-up in this very tiny studio, a close-up of the sun huddled beside the fire, and I wanted to dolly in. The camera was encased in what looked like a telephone booth in those days for reasons of sound-proofing. So I had this booth on a dolly. The off-stage sounds were the family talking in the room, they'd bought a phonograph and they were playing a tune called "If You're Irish, Come Into the Parlor." Suddenly they stopped because the funeral was going by and then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire. All those sounds had to be in the studio at the same time, and the studio was packed. There was a small orchestra, and I had the prop-man sing the song holding his note so that you got a tinny effect as on a phonograph record. There were the actors with their lines. Then, on the other side, I had a choir of about twenty people for the funeral, and another man with the machine-gun effect. We could barely move in that little studio for all those effects just on one close-up.


©1999 The Museum of Modern Art, New York