Czech actress Anny Ondra didn’t make the transition from silent films to talkies, but her film legacy now includes a surprising footnote. She may be the first woman to receive a “That’s what she said” joke onscreen—courtesy of her part in an early Alfred Hitchcock talkie.
If you’ve ever seen Singing in the Rain, you have an idea of how difficult early film studios found the transition from silent movies to sound. At the end of the 1920s, many directors found themselves scrambling to redo their silent films for an audience newly hungry for sound after Al Jolsen’s 1927 revelation, The Jazz Singer.
As production for Hitchcock’s early thriller Blackmail began, his studio, British International Pictures, decided to convert it. While all of Hitchcock’s classic film techniques made the transition easily, Ondra’s accent didn’t.
A veteran of silent films in the Twenties, Ondra was one of the first of many “Hitchcock blondes,” the model he would use in his films throughout his life. But as part of the new age of cinema, studio producers weren’t sure her bubbly voice and thick accent would make the cut. Eventually, actress Joan Barry would be brought in to dub Ondra’s voice. But initially, Hitch held a screen test with Ondra, for producers to decide whether she needed a vocal stand-in.
In that screen test, which the British Film Institute (BFI) shared on YouTube four years ago, Ondra confesses herself to be “terribly frightened” of the experience, while “Hitch” puts her at ease with a series of racy jokes.
When Ondra gets flustered and turns her head away from the microphone briefly, Hitch’s droll wit makes the immortal moment happen. Referring to the sound test they’re running, he asks her to stand still:
“Stand in your place, otherwise it will not come out right—as the girl said to the soldier.”
As BFI put it:
There is something enormously satisfying about the fact that this brief minute of film contains some of the first words spoken on film – and that they should be quite so saucy.
Although the video is over 85 years old, redditors recently began asking whether this could be the origin of a joke that’s only recently reached meme status. While the “that’s what she said” joke comes from an old British joke that may have predated the film, the film itself is certainly the earliest form of the joke ever caught and recorded for posterity.
“And it’s Alfred Hitchcock saying it,” noted redditor banjoman74, “which makes it even better.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that the actress in the screen test was Barry. The actress is Ondra. We regret the error.
Screengrab via YouTube