Hello again, whoever you are, and welcome to week ten of Weekly Hitch – a film studies blog in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, in chronological order, and then talk about them into a computer. It’s like having a friend show you slides of a trip to Italy, but instead of slides it’s opinions and instead of Italy it’s old movies.
This week, we enter the 1930’s with Hitchcock’s adaptation of one of Ireland’s most famous plays – there’s religious symbolism aplenty and lots more experimenting and adapting to sound. So let’s begin, with 1930’s Juno And The Paycock.
Alrighty. We’re going to try and keep things brief this week – for a couple reasons. Firstly; I noticed (as, I’m sure, have you) that my synopses are super-long, and secondly; Because I didn’t really pay that much attention to the first half. But we’ll make it through all the same.
Juno And The Paycock tells the story of the Boyle family and their troubles during ‘the troubles’ in Ireland in the late teens and early 20’s. The film begins with “Captain” Jack Boyle (Edward Chapman), a drunken ne’er-do-well who comically avoids work much to the dismay of his wife Juno (Sara Allgood), the long-suffering matriarch of the family. Juno calls Jack a ‘paycock’ – which is her Irish way of saying ‘peacock’ – because he struts around thinking he’s all fancy.
Anyhow, Jack’s out of work and the family’s daughter, Mary, is on strike and the son Johnny is an invalid after fighting along side the IRA. It’s a depressing time in Dublin and Juno has her work cut out for her keeping Jack sober and a roof over the family’s head.
Then, one fateful day, a lawyer named Charlie Bentham (John Longden – detective Frank from last week’s Blackmail) shows up with the will of a dead uncle and the family learns that the man left them a fortune! Happy days!
After that good news the family sets out and start buying up things – fancy linens and a new record player and all sorts of food and drink and makes their plans to get away from Dublin and the fighting and live near the sea. Mary, the daughter (played by Kathleen O’Regan) starts to date the lawyer – much to the unhappiness of her boyfriend Jerry, who gets dumped, and Johnny remains all moody and quiet about something.
And then, inevitably, tragedy strikes. It turns out that the young lawyer messed up the will and now the family won’t be getting any money at all! They have all their stuff repossessed and Captain Jack owes money all over and Juno is sad and heartbroken. Even the Paycock’s best friend Joxer (yep, Joxer) turns on them and mocks the Boyles hubris and downfall. But they’re not done falling.
Soon, the IRA start sniffing around Johnny trying to find an informant who sold out one of their own, and then the Captain hits the bottle, and finally poor Mary comes home in a family way – which is apparently somehow the worst thing yet.
Once word of Mary’s unwed-motherhood gets the Captain, he disowns her and storms out of the house, and poor Juno is left praying to God for help… right before hearing the gunshots that signify the death of Johnny at the hands of the IRA. Juno is destroyed, and her family along with her. It’s tragedy all around, good grief.
First off, congrats to me for a short synopsis. However, in my review of the film we’ll touch on why it was so short – which is basically because there’s not a lot to the movie.
I have been, up until now, using the retelling of the films as a means of highlighting certain interesting scenes and aspects which I feel are fairly Hitchcockian – but one of the most surprising and curious things about Juno And The Paycock is how little of Hitchcock is in there – and for good reason.
But first – how is the movie? Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s a brilliantly acted and heart-wrenching drama – but make no mistake, this is a stage play of the stagiest variety.
The picture is very static, it takes place practically in one room of the Boyle’s tenement apartment, and by and large even the camera hardly moves (both as an aesthetic choice, and due to the sound-proof box it’s still stuck in) – and none of those things are particularly Hitchcock. But while the visuals might be lacking, what Juno does have in spades in incredible performances.
The film is held together by the two leading turns by Edward Chapman as the Captain, and by Sara Allgood as Juno. Allgood, who played the role in the original stage version, is remarkable – nowhere more so than in the final scene of film in which she prays to God after hearing the death of her son and losing all hope in her daughter and husband. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and she is simply amazing – completely worth watching.
As is the world that Sean O’Casey created for his play. Juno And The Paycock begins with deceptive comedy, but soon enough – as we see the hardships all around the Boyle family, as we see the Ireland of the civil war, things begin to slowly collapse around our expectations. And even when good fortune seems to smile upon the Juno and her brood, the sense that nothing good can come of this is ever-present. It’s a stark and startling world – and Hitchcock lets it play out before us with no flourishes, no camera tricks, nothing but bare and raw performance and the words of Ireland’s greatest playwright.
And in that way, it might be one of his least Hitchcockian pictures (as many have been so far), but it’s also one of his most mature.
When the film came out, the reviews and reception were almost universally fantastic. Critics loved the picture and audience came to see it in droves. Sarah Allgood’s performance especially, was praised as one of the best of the year. But Hitchcock took and received almost no credit, apart from the acknowledgement that he did a good job in leaving a good play alone. Which is, I think, a little unfair.
It’s hard to overstate how popular and important a play Juno And The Paycock was in the 1920’s – or how important its author was, Sean O’Casey.
Juno was pretty much the greatest Irish play of the age – its performance would be met by sold out crowds all over, and its actors – the famous Irish Players that O’Casey worked with in Dublin – were as revered in their roles as any actor could be. Basically, Juno was a phenomenon. And John Maxwell of British International Pictures wanted it.
The production of Juno began, first with securing the rights from O’Casey for the play – and that was no easy task. Sean O’Casey hated the movies. But, thanks in part to Ivor Novello’s assurances, he ventured to London and met with Alfred Hitchcock – who has been assigned the task of reassuring O’Casey that his great play would be treated well. And it worked.
Adapted by Alfred and Alma Hitchcock – Juno And The Paycock started production in November of 1929 and, in accordance with his promises to O’Casey, Hitchcock hardly changed a thing. Most of the cast from the Dublin stage-play remained (with the exception of Barry Fitzgerald, who once played the Captain – but in Hitchcock’s version played an orator in the opening scene) and even in his filming technique, Hitchcock decided to just let the play speak for itself.
Keeping the camera almost static, Hitchcock simply filmed the play, and put almost nothing of his trademark visual flourish into O’Casey’s work – and that was probably just what O’Casey wanted. But there was a definite mutual admiration between the two. For example, O’Casey actually wrote two new scenes just for the movie version – the opening oration set out in the streets of Dublin laying out the principal themes of togetherness and how Ireland must hold strong together in the face of adversity…
Good grief, I only just realized how the whole play is basically a metaphor for the entire Irish civil war and how the family basically represents Ireland… I’m a dummy. It’s brilliant. Moving on.
The second scene that O’Casey wrote for Hitch and Alma was a scene in a pub at the beginning in which Joxer and the Paycock discuss life with a barmaid. Curiously, there are photos of Hitchcock in costume as a bartender on this set – but he must have cut out that cameo in editing, perhaps thinking it inappropriate. But beyond those two invented scenes, the play as it was staged in Dublin and London survives to the screen almost untouched.
But that’s not to say that Hitchcock didn’t add some technique at all. Given that this was only his second film with sound, Hitchcock really seems to have the medium down pat – especially given that there was still no over-dubbing available.
Take the playing of a gramophone in one scene as example. Without the ability to add music later on, Hitchcock was forced to have a live band playing off in the corner of the studio – and then he had a singer perform along with them while wearing a clothes-pin on his nose to simulate the tinny sound of a record-player. This was how it was done.
Even all the foley and background sounds would have to be recorded live. For Juno this would mean the sounds of murmuring voices, a distant funeral in the streets, gunfire, revelry – Hitchcock brought it all to life.
In the end it was a calm and seemingly easy couple months work for Hitch – but what Juno may have lacked for behind the scenes drama, it more than made up for it on the screen. Which is how the director liked things.
So here we stand then, at the end of Htichcock’s second talkie, and the question arrives – where does this fit into the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock? Glad you asked.
In my pretty uninformed opinion, Juno And The Paycock serves the director far more as something Hitchcock would strive to avoid with future films than something he would aspire to.
In later years, Hitch would acknowledge the critical praise that Juno received – but he would always feel guilty about it. That guilt stemmed from his keen awareness that the credit for the films success belonged, in his mind, more to Sean O’Casey and to the cast than to Hitchcock himself.
Hitch was aware that adaptation didn’t count as art in his eyes unless he was able to bring something of himself into the mix, and his agreement with O’Casey prevented that – so he disliked the resulting victory as much as he would a loss.
It was this same need for personal authorship that soured Hitchcock’s relationship with O’Casey after the film as well. The two had made plans for O’Casey to write an original scenario for Hitchcock – O’Casey was thrilled with the faithful adaptation of Juno – but after a meeting with Alma and a disastrous dinner at the Hitchcock’s house (so I’ve read anyway) the partnership went sour – due in part to O’Casey’s refusal to see cinema as an art on par with the stage.
So, I feel that while this project may not have bred anything new into Hitchcock’s technique or style, it made him very aware of the importance of authorship – made him strive to ensure that any success he would have in the future could be absolutely his own and no one else’s. This might account for his tendency to avoid very popular literary adaptations, or very faithful ones (Rebecca notwithstanding).
The other striking thing about Juno And The Paycock, that speaks to Hitchcock in very strong ways is the religious content. Hitch’s mother was half Irish, and he was brought up very Catholic, so the imagery and religious contemplation in the movie – discussions about whether God is indeed great or if, as Mary the daughter says in the wake of her brother’s murder, “It’s true. There is no God.” – these would all be very close to Hitchcock’s heart and appealing from a artistic standpoint.
And finally there is Juno herself. Hitchcock had a very strong mother – and he would revere her for his whole life. In the character of Juno, I imagine he saw elements of his own maternal figure, of the woman who would make him stand at the end of her the bed every day to tell her about what he learned at school. Hitchcock would always have an affinity for strong women and strong mothers – sometimes, as in Psycho, the strong mother would go too far, but if there was a mom around, you could trust Hitchcock to make her something special.
For all these reasons, I feel that Juno And The Paycock offered many reasons for Hitchcock to love the film and to want to do it justice. The material in this movie – the paranoia of Johnny, the sexual explorations of Mary, the comedy and tragedy mixed together – religion, family, motherhood, loss, and the slight macguffin (which we’ll discuss more in a month or so) of the inheritance – all of these would come to be a part of Hitchcock’s world. But, in the end, I think the most important thing Hitch took away from Juno was the desire to always be the strongest creative voice on his films – and to make sure that the credit he received was the credit he deserved.
Next week we return to murder, literally, with Hitchcock’s 1930 courtroom mystery, cleverly titled… Murder! See you then.