My Century Home Page
Broadcast on Wednesday 22nd December 1999
Well, my name is Jack Cardiff. And I've been working in the cinema
a long time. First of all, I worked as a kid actor. That's why it's
so long. Because I was a kid of four when I started, in 1918. Then
in 1928 I went behind the camera and worked on a couple of silent
pictures. If I was asked; "Which do you think is the most important
event of this century?" I would unhesitatingly say it was the advent
of sound. America was ahead of us, because they made "The Jazz Singer"
in 1927. Officially, that was the first movie made with a sound
track. And that was something that was so important.
Actually before that, in 1924, I went to the Wembley Empire Exhibition,
which was a very big affair. And there was a cinema show, which
they advertised, with sound. People actually could be heard to talk.
And I was fascinated. I went inside. And indeed you saw the screen,
with actors acting. And you could hear them talking. What is was:
there was a sort of gramophone thing on the right-hand side. And
it was a bit out of sync. (ie synchronisation). But obviously everyone
was loving it. And I had a terrific thrill. Because, although I
was only eleven, it hit me. I thought: "This is it. This is a new
dimension of the cinema". And it was.
I started behind the camera in 1928. And I worked on what was one
of the last silent films made in this country: "The Informer." The
Irish Troubles were going on then. And anyone who informed - they'd
had it. And the story was about an informer who is obviously out
(ie he's been found out) and he's going to be killed. And he has
this love affair with Lee de Puti. And she tries to keep him away
from trouble, but she can't. Well, I think the producer of "The
Informer" - I forget his name - he knew that on the next stage Hitchcock
was making "Blackmail": officially the first sound picture. So the
producer said: "We've got to have a sound sequence in our picture,
to keep up with everybody." So a sound scene was devised. And the
principal actor was Johnny Butt. He was terrified when he was told
that he actually had to remember his lines. Because, previous to
this, in the silent pictures, you didn't have to know your lines.
You could say anything - "Arsenal (the football team) won again"
- or whatever you wanted to say. And you'd just put the credits
on the screen.
So we started to work in the studio. And it had to be night, because
the sound of the traffic in the daytime was noisy. The only trouble
was we had noises of birds singing at night. So we had to fire a
gun - with blanks - to quieten the birds for a few minutes. This
might have put Johnny Butt off. Because he forgot his lines, take
after take. We did about 18 takes. And after the first few takes,
the director said: "Don't worry, Johnny, don't worry. Get him some
whisky". And they sent for some whisky. And he had a few tots of
whisky. And after another few takes, he still couldn't remember
what his lines were. "Get him some more whisky." And finally he
had had about ten glasses of whisky. And he collapsed in a dead
drop on a table. And that was it. We abandoned the whole thing.
We never used the sound take on that picture. So it was 100 per
The fact was that, the first one or two pictures I worked on after
that, the sound was an awesome thing. I mean, the sound man was
like a kind of magician, who actually produced sound. There was
this enormous microphone hanging in the middle. And, believe it
or not, we were told that we had to hold our breath during the scene,
in case they heard anyone breathing. And it was a magician kind
of ritual that we had. So the advent of sound was a tremendous thing
when it first came out. Very exciting.
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