Thursday 31 January 2013

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Virginia Valli, Carmelita Geraghty, Miles Mander and John Stewart

In 1925, Alfred Hitchcock was far from the legend that he would become, but he was also far from the novice you might expect, given that this was his first feature as a director. He'd actually been working in the industry since 1919, after he'd persuaded Famous Players-Lasky, the company that became Paramount, to hire him when they expanded into Britain, where a strong national cinema was struggling after the First World War. He impressed them with title designs for properties that they owned rights to but hadn't made yet and was quickly hired to run their titles department. By 1922, he had designed the titles for all eleven of their features, as well as an indie picture made by Donald Crisp, one of their directors, before stumbling into the director's chair. The company wound down as he shot a two reel comedy that studio records call Mrs Peabody but Hitch called simply Number Thirteen, but it wasn't finished and no longer exists. 'Thank heavens,' said Hitch.

His second spell as a director came the next year. Other companies were shooting pictures at Islington Studios, where Famous Players-Lasky British had been based; one took advantage of his availability when their own director, Hugh Croise, either fell ill or into disagreement with the film's writer/star, Seymour Hicks. So, as Hitch was around, Hicks hired him to finish the remake of his 1914 film, Always Tell Your Wife, a one reel comedy. As luck would have it, while he was doing this, a company called Balcon-Saville-Freedman looked round the studio and were impressed with the confident young director; when they moved into Islington, he became their assistant director under Graham Cutts. Over the next three years, he'd rack up other roles too, such as scriptwriter and art director, continuing as such as the company became Gainsborough Pictures. This would end in 1925, as the increasingly jealous Cutts refused to work with 'wonder boy' any more.

Fortunately for Hitch, the company's founder, Michael Balcon, who would later lead Ealing Studios throughout its heyday in the forties, was more than happy to keep him on. While Cutts was kept busy in England making The Rat with Ivor Novello, Balcon had Hitch shoot The Pleasure Garden in Munich. He'd already become passable in German, as The Blackguard, the second Gainsborough picture, had been shot at Neubabelsberg Studios in Berlin as a co-production with UFA. This may have been one of the most influential experiences in Hitch's career, as F W Murnau was shooting The Last Laugh on neighbouring sets, with the aim of telling its entire story visually without titles. Hitch, whose career in pictures began from his ability to write good titles, was fascinated. What he learned may not be obvious in The Pleasure Garden but is notable in The Lodger in 1927, his third film as a director, the one he regarded as 'the first true Hitchcock film', and increasingly ongoing.
Unfortunately for us, most of this material is lost today. Always Tell Your Wife no longer appears to exist, and Mrs Peabody perhaps never did in anything but nascent form. The twelve pictures Hitch wrote at Famous-Players Lasky have all been lost for years, as have the Gainsborough films. Most annoying to Hitchcock fans, The Mountain Eagle, his second feature, also shot in Germany but set in Kentucky, is also lost. There's always a hope that one day it might resurface, as one early Hitch film did recently, when three of the six reels of The White Shadow were discovered mislabeled in the New Zealand Film Archive. This was the second Balcon-Saville-Freedman picture, quickly shot as a follow up to Woman to Woman, after Betty Compson, their imported American star, talked Balcon into a two picture deal. The catch is that Woman to Woman was a huge hit, but The White Shadow wasn't, to the degree that it bankrupted the company.

Bizarrely, the footage that we have today of The White Shadow ends as a character walks down a staircase in a nightclub, while The Pleasure Garden, the next material available with Hitch's name on it, begins with a whole chorus line running down a spiral staircase to perform. Staircases would soon become a regular sight in Hitchcock films, as a psychological cue to depict changing fortunes or moral directions, up for positive and down for negative. That idea may not have been ready at this point but it's a great shot nonetheless, perhaps the best in the picture. This spiral staircase is at a theatre called the Pleasure Garden, where Patsy Brand works as a dancer and Jill Cheyne soon will, once she's robbed of her money and letters of introduction but kind hearted Patsy puts in a good word with the boss, Mr Hamilton, just to help out. These are our two leading ladies, played by two American imports, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, as was the trend at the time.

It takes a little while to get properly moving. There are strong visuals, like the opening staircase shot or one soon after that has an elderly man focus in with his glasses and pan over a chorus line of legs to find his favourite girl. There are eyecatching scenes like the one where the girls undress back at Patsy's place to share the same bed. There's even drily subversive humour, such as when Jill kneels down at the bedside to pray and Patsy's dog distracts her by licking her feet. Generally though, it doesn't feel smooth, hardly surprising given the chaos that accompanied shooting on the financial front. Hitch ran out of money shooting in Italy, as his leads racked up more bills than planned and he had to buy new film after Italian customs confiscated everything he had, despite having an Italian baron, Gaetano Ventimiglia, as his cinematographer. They got it back later, but that didn't help at the time. At least, it all proved to be a learning experience.
He was also hindered by having to work with a completely predictable melodrama, written by Eliot Stannard from a novel by Oliver Sandys, hardly the sort of material that he would quickly become known for. Sandys was a male pseudonym for a woman who usually wrote as Countess Barcynska, just the sort of name you might expect to have written something this melodramatic. At least ten of her novels and stories were adapted for the screen, nine in the twenties with a late one in 1933, but the basic story here doesn't promise much for the others, especially given that Stannard, who had been writing scripts since 1914 and was prolific in the twenties, is clearly better than this. He went on to write many of Hitch's formative films as a director, including everything from 1925-29 except Blackmail. Even the title here is frustrating, as the Pleasure Garden has less and less to do with the story as time runs on. What it really has to do with is two ladies and their two men.

At the outset, Patsy is established at the Pleasure Garden, while Jill wants into the business. Patsy is clearly a good person, putting up the other girl and helping her kickstart her career, and initially it seems that Jill is too. Yet even during her audition, she begins to upset the girls that she'll go on to work with, and her abhorrent behaviour increases along with her professional stature. When her fiancé comes to see her at Patsy's, she isn't there. She's at Hamilton's apartment, the suggestive intertitle only temporarily misleading. 'Let's not have any suggestions like that,' she tells Hamilton when he gets fresh, 'until I have my own house to invite you to.' That doesn't take long. When she moves out, she leaves a note for Patsy saying that she can't stay in cheap lodgings now that she's almost a star. When Patsy raises her reputation as Hamilton's kept woman, she dismisses her and carries on with Prince Ivan.

Why would her fiancé ignore this sort of behaviour, you might ask. Well, that's Hugh Fielding, her childhood sweetheart, and he's conveniently working overseas on a plantation, saving up enough to allow them to get married. To cement the contrasting fortunes of the two leading ladies, Patsy falls for a friend and colleague of Hugh's called Levet. They become close, but when he asks for more she interprets it as a proposal, which he agrees to when she seems accepting of not going back to the plantation with him. A quick marriage and an Italian honeymoon at Lake Como later and we're back to where we were: the girls working at the Pleasure Garden and the guys on their plantation. The comparisons are hammered home. Hugh cares for Jill, but she's sleeping her way to the top. Patsy cares for Levet, but he was just making a conquest. When he throws away the rose she gave him, his words cover her and their relationship too: 'Had to. It had wilted.'
If you can't see where this is going, you either don't have any imagination or you have more than is needed to navigate something this predictable. If there are surprises here, it's in how far things are taken. While the first half is melodramatic in the extreme, the second half is more reminiscent of an edgy precode, merely without sound, or perhaps a less morally grounded take on the sort of melodramas that Lon Chaney specialised in. We're taken on an increasingly eye opening journey into adultery and alcoholism, madness and murder, which is a heady mix indeed. While it never once takes a step that isn't telegraphed far in advance, often as far as the outset of the movie, it does often step a little further than I ever expected it to, keeping eyes wide as each successive taboo is broached. There's a sinister tone to some of the plantation scenes that is notable, but the manipulation is by the characters not by the director, so it doesn't feel particularly Hitchcock.

He did well with his cast. I was impressed by Virginia Valli, a major Hollywood star at the time, who makes Patsy feel much more believable than most silent movie actresses even aimed for, though she still has her histrionics. Her friend, Carmelita Geraghty, is more traditionally overdone as Jill, though her role is more overdone too. They're both easy on the eyes and they back that up well, however limited by the material they are. John Stewart is capable as Hugh, but he's overshadowed by Miles Mander, who steals the show late on as Levet, reaching into the depths to stagger and twitch and try to build danger and unpredictability into a part that still has a clear direction. The four of them get by far the most screen time but others do get opportunities. Patsy's landlords, the Sideys, are treated well, while the costumer taking care of Jill's trousseau is either a flagrant queen, an escapee from an expressionist horror movie or both. It's a Dwight Frye sort of role.

I wonder if the early technology was a Hitch touch. He was frequently ahead of the curve when it came to technology and Mr Sidey has a small wireless set with a posh looking pair of headphones. Certainly Hitch's predilection for icy blondes hadn't manifested itself yet, both leading ladies being brunettes. Of course he hardly had power over casting at this point, the cast being given to him in a package with the rest of the assignment. He was also busy getting married at the time, to Alma Reville, his long time editor and continuity girl, his current assistant director and surely the person who would prove most influential throughout his entire career. One other thing he had no power over was the film's release, which was promptly held up. In fact, while his first film was shown to the press in March 1926, it wasn't released until after his third, The Lodger, had proved a massive hit in 1927. Even at that point, it was just an interesting footnote. The Lodger was the future.

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