WEEK 1: The Pleasure Garden (1925)

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And so, Weekly Hitch begins with the 1925 silent melodrama, and Alfred Hitchcock’s first complete and surviving film as a director; The Pleasure Garden.

For the sake of format, we’ll start with a bit about the story of the film, then my own broad impressions, and then we can get a little deeper into the history and making and interesting bits about the film. Since we’re all new to this, I don’t see much harm in feeling our way together. After all, as Hitch often said – “It’s only a movie.”

The Film:

The Pleasure Garden, filmed in 1925 (but not released until 1927 after Hitch’s third film – The Lodger was deemed a success), is the story of two dancing girls at a theatre called The Pleasure Garden – there’s the kind-hearted Patsy (played by American film star of the age Virginia Valli) and the ambitious neophyte Jill (portrayed with Jennifer Lawrence levels of crazy-eye by Carmelita Geraghty). It bares a slight resemblance to the 90’s trash-classic Showgirls – except no one has horrifying sex in a pool with Kyle MacLachlan.

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The dancing girls of the Garden

Patsy is an established (but not wealthy), showgirl, who takes pity on newbie Jill when Jill has all her money stolen. Patsy puts her up for the night, helps her meet the theatre’s boss, and cheers her on when she gets hired as the company’s featured dancer.

Soon, Jill’s fiancé – the wholesome and handsome Hugh and his friend, the suave and probably a douche-bag Levitt – arrive. But they can’t stay long because Hugh is being sent to Africa by his company. Patsy promises to help keep Jill on the straight and narrow – which is impossible, because Jill is soon gold-digging on a prince named Ivan, and all without ever sending word to poor Hugh that he’s being flipped over for a  moustache.

Meanwhile, Patsy and Hugh’s friend Levitt are having a romance, and are soon married (because unlike Jill, Patsy doesn’t give away the milk for free). Then, after a long and languid honeymoon sequence at Lake Como in Italy, during which Levitt grows slowly distant and cold, the new groom goes off to work in Africa along side the jilted Hugh, and sends Patsy back to the Pleasure Garden alone.

Soon, Patsy gets word that her beloved new husband is ill with jungle sickness – which is his excuse for not writing her for months. But instead of placating Patsy, she decides to go and stand by her man. She tries to borrow money from Jill – who is now a wealthy bitch – and Jill turns her down. But then her adorable landlords help out and Patsy heads to Africa!

Hugh has Jungle Fever.

Hugh has Jungle Fever.

And predictably in Africa, Patsy discovers that Levitt has been shacking up with a local native girl. Patsy tell him off and says she hates him, he tells her tough luck because they’re married, and then Levitt DROWNS THE NATIVE GIRL TO DEATH IN THE RIVER!

Patsy discovers that Hugh, the nice guy that Jill effed-over is actually the one with jungle sickness, and she decides to help him get better. Naturally, though, her crazy murdering husband doesn’t like this – so he comes at Patsy with a sword (after hallucinating that the native girl is a ghost come back to get him), and is shot and killed by a random guy who we’ve seen once before in passing.

Patsy then goes to Hugh and now they’re in love, so it all works out. A happy ending for all – except for the native girl.

The Result:

So, what about the movie? How did Hitch’s directorial debut turn out?

Honestly, not that bad. I’ve seen a fair number of silent films and I’ve watched some of Hitchcock’s other earlier works, and this is pretty good. Still not a great movie by  standards of actually wanting to watch it again, but good for the age.

Thing is, there are some narrative leaps and odd sequences and a couple bits where things didn’t make sense and there’s the very convenient passer-by who saves Patsy at the end. But the story had funny bits and nice arcs and the interplay between the two showgirls’ stories was well told. Virginia Valli’s performance as the pin-ball of tragedy and love is well done, and Carmelita Geraghty’s “fresh off the truck bumpkin becoming a mad diva” performance as Jill is pretty special.

The real take-away however, is that you can truly feel that there is a steady and capable hand at work behind the camera here. Hitchcock was only 26 when this was filmed, and the quality and assuredness of his direction keeps what could have been an incomprehensible melodrama, on the right track to actually being a film with a message and a story worth seeing.

I should also point out that the British Film Institute undertook a restoration of all of Hitchcock’s silent-films, and the resulting version of The Pleasure Garden actually has about 20 more minutes of footage than what I saw, which apparently adds to the narrative and makes for a much better picture… that unfortunately, I haven’t seen yet.

The Production:

The Pleasure Garden landed in Hitchcock’s lap solely because of the faith and belief of his producer and the head of Gainsborough Studios, Michael Balcon.

Italian Poster for the film.

Italian Poster for the film.

Balcon was basically the founder and saviour and godfather of the British film industry. He took over the studio space when Famous Players-Laskey shut down their London operation and he kept things going while forming a new all-British studio in the form of Gainsborough. Balcon would later go on to save Hitchcock’s career again at Gaumont, and he would run the Ealing Studios that kept British cinema alive and will throughout the 40’s. Balcon was a visionary.

And Balcon saw something in Hitch. Prior to 1922, Hitch was doing anything and everything at the studio – he would do set design, assistant direct, he would draw, write – he was ambitious and eager. And while that put off some of the others he worked with, Balcon was impressed enough to give him three chances to direct, and the third finally got finished – which was The Pleasure Garden.

The production company at this time was in the midst of a German/British partnership – so a great deal of the film was shot in Germany (I think Munich) and then on location in Italy for the Lake Como stuff. (side note – two years later, Hitchcock and Alma would return to Lake Como for their honeymoon)

Hitch was seen as a risk early on, an unsafe bet at a time when the studio was on shaky financial ground – so a directing job in England was impossible, but Balcon saw an opportunity in sending the young Hitchcock to Germany. The distance would put Alfred at arms length from the financiers and would allow him to work out of the spotlight of those back at Gainsborough who would rather not see the young upstart nipping at their heels – specifically. the established director Graham Cutts – under whom Hitchcock had worked, but whose career was on the wain due to personal issues and the rising start of young tenets such as Hitchcock.

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Young Hitchcock on set in Italy

By all accounts the filming on the continent went fairly smooth, except for some budget issues off the top (the lavish expenditures of his American actresses were unexpected) and one instance when the cameraman tried to hide a bunch of film stock from authorities to avoid having to pay duty or taxes or something – but when they were found out, they lost the film and had to replace it all – which ate a big chunk out of the budget.

Producer Michael Balcon had the idea to bring American movie stars over to star in British films – which is how Hitch ended up working with the star Virginia Valli – and the partnership clearly resulted in some good work and strong performances from cast and director.

The Legacy:

As far as where The Pleasure Garden fits in amongst Hitchcock’s body of work, that’s a little hard to say. As a first stab at being a director, we can’t know how much control Hitch got to exert on the picture. There are certainly elements of his future styles and obsessions throughout the movie though.

The movie opens with young dancers going down a spiral staircase – strong elements of German expressionism, followed by lascivious men staring voyeuristically at young blonde women. Viginia Valli’s Patsy even starts off as a cool blonde, but then reveals it to be a wig – thus allowing her to be accessible and, I suppose in Hitchcock’s mind, more down to earth.

The use of camera angles shows remarkable command of the language of cinema for a young director. Hitchcock had clearly learned from the German masters, and that education shows in his bold choices of high angles and low shots – of interesting frames and the way he effortlessly establishes the dynamics and language of each scene through very carefully designed shot progressions. Hitchcock was, even at the outset, a director firmly in charge of his set and his camera.

In terms of what would become the ‘quintessential Hitchcock film’ – this early work definitely shows signs of what would come. There are elements of obsession and a rather brutal and, I thought, shocking murder of the native girl. (Hitchcock’s first of many, many murders.) The movie has touches of dark and religious humour (specifically a nice bit where Jill’s prayers are interrupted by a dog licking her feet). Hitchcock shows playfulness and a wicked streak. Class struggles and his obsession with people playing above and beyond their station are all on display – but it definitely doesn’t quite feel like “A Hitchcock Picture” yet.

For that feel we shall have to watch next week’s film… the 1927 silent masterpiece, The Lodger.

So until then, and for now… good evening.

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