WEEK 13: Rich and Strange (1931)

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It’s lucky week 13 here at Weekly Hitch, which is a film studies blog wherein I watch every one of Hitchcock’s movies, in chronological order, and then I write about them and what I think about them. Sort of like a book report, but instead of books – which don’t move, I write about films – which do.

This week we’re taking a look at Hitch’s 1931 comedic travelog Rich and Strange, adapted by Hitch and Alma from a novel by Dale Collins. It’s a light and frivolous movie, and only slightly removed from plausibility, so here we go with Rich And Strange.

The Film:

Well, let’s just up front and admit that Hitch is in a bit of a creative slump, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be getting out of it for a couple more pictures – so we’d best just hurry up and get these over with.

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Modern life

Rich and Strange (also called East of Shanghai in some places) begins in London with a typical business man going about his horrible business day. Fred (played by Henry Kendall) makes his way home on the underground after a gruelling day in an office that quite reminded my of Jack Lemmon’s in The Apartment. This a very silent-film era sort of sequence and Hitch fills it with clever jokes and shots and it’s all kind of a pleasure. Anyhow…

Fred gets home to his devoted wife Emily (played by Joan Barry – who dubbed Anny Ondra’s voice in Blackmail) who is making herself a new dress. Fred starts to go on about how he hates their life – the mundane city existence and how he wishes they could see the world and be rich and she could have fancy clothes. Fred, you see, is dissatisfied with everything. Emily, on the other hand, is pretty happy with her lot and very much of the ‘things could always be worse’ way of thinking. Fred’s also pretty whiny and petulant about it all, while Joan Barry is just sweet and optimistic and self-reliant.

But the, before you can ‘convenient plot point’, a telegram arrives from a long-lost relative telling Fred that they’re being given a fortune in money against a future inheritance, and they should use to the money to see the world! Be careful what you wish for, Fred.

At the dances of Paris

At the dances of Paris

Soon Fred and Emily are sailing off to France, to take in some scandalous dancing at the famous Folies Bergère. Fred gets sea-sick during the crossing of the channel, however, and does not appear ready to enjoy their adventure.

After Paris, the cruise ship takes them down around the Mediterranean, where Fred’s incapacitating seas-sickness leaves him below deck, and leaves Emily all on her own, where she attracts the attention of a dapper gentleman named Commander Gordon (played by Percy Marmont). Gordon tries his best to get close to the married Emily, but she’s not interested in spite of them getting on even better than she does with Fred.

After a nosy passenger sends Fred a home-remedy, he’s back on his feet and enjoying his adventure. Having emerged from his sickness, Fred almost immediately meets a German princess (portrayed by Betty Amann and the most horrible accent ever put on film) who takes a shine to the now wealthy Fred, and soon enough both Fred and Emily are spending most of their time with other people!

As the cruise winds its way along Morocco (flashes of the 50’s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) and through the canal toward the East, Fred and Emily’s marriage begins to breakdown – to such a point that both leave the ship on dates, not realizing the other has gone as well – only to have Fred and Emily run into each other while in separate rickshaws.

An awkward meeting

An awkward meeting

Our couple has a brief talk with each other, and then a long talk with their respective mistresses (or is a lady’s man on the side a ‘misteress’? I don’t know) all about how their marriages weren’t working, and Fred especially does some remarkable self-delusional acrobatics in order to convince himself that cheating on his wife was really just for the best. When they arrive in Shanghai the couple decides to go their separate ways, and leave the boat with other people. Like the fella said, “They don’t always leave with the ones what brought ’em.”

It should be noted here that while Emily is by no means all innocent in this, she definitely downplays her growing affair in comparison to Fred. He’s basically falling all over the princess the moment she gets on board and is all in favour of leaving his wife, while Emily is a bit more thoughtful about things and doesn’t really decide to go off with Commander Gordon until Fred tells her how he feels.

Anyhow, now alone with Gordon, Emily learns from her new beau that the German Princess isn’t actually a princess – just a gold-digger who goes on ships and milks gullible jerks for all their money. Emily goes back to Fred to let him know that the lady is a tramp, only to have Fred not believe her! Fred’s invested so much in the idea of running off with a princess, lost his marriage and his whole reality over it – that he just can’t accept it.

Shipwreck or metaphor?

Shipwreck or metaphor?

But soon the princess takes off with most of Fred and Emily’s money, and Gordon leaves Emily because she went to warn Fred about the gold-digger. Left nearly broke and stranded in the Orient, Fred and Emily are forced back together as they book third-class passage back to their dull lives on a run-down steam ship… which then sinks!

Trapped on the derelict ship, Fred and Emily reconcile their marriage and wind up getting reduced by a Chinese junk and sail off together into the sunset – poor again, but at last happy. They get back to London, and life goes on.

The Result:

This movie is such an odd duck. Honestly. I’m not even sure what to say about it. But, I’ll still probably say a lot.

Rich and Strange is an okay film. It’s quite amusing off the top and Hitch really goes back to his silent-film tricks early. The whole first reel is practically a silent picture, even resorting to a few title cards – but it’s also really very funny and clever at the beginning. But it’s as the picture moves along that things start to fall apart.

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As a story about dissatisfaction in the modern age (modern being 80 years ago) the movie never does find a solid footing, because it very quickly becomes about romance and love and a whiny guy who wants a princess, and the basic premise – that home is boring and bad and ‘out there’ is fun and good – is never really explored again. It’s just sort of forgotten.

Then there’s the romances themselves. Joan Barry, who plays Emily is honestly fantastic, she plays the wide-eyed wife in the big world really well and she gives such an easy confidence to her performance that I spent the whole movie on her side, which was easy because Fred (played by Henry Kendall) is so whiny and deceitful and foolish that I can’t even. He’s just a jerk, and he so openly starts chasing after the princess that I can’t believe anyone in the 30’s would find the movie at all interesting.

Hitchcock on location

Hitchcock on location

But all the same, this movie has a lot of Hitch in it – his love of places and experience and clothes and grand times and exotic things. It honestly feels like one of the most Hitchcockian non-Hitchcockian film of them all. And the movie is so crammed full of ideas, from the nerdy spinster passenger always trying to join in, to an awkward moment with a cat at the end, to the opening sequence – the entire movie is busting with creativity that it’s still a pleasure to watch.

And speaking of creativity – Hitchcock’s use of camera angles in this movie is really fascinating. There are compositions and choice made here that I don’t think he’s ever tried before, and some that perhaps he never tried again – curious experimentation and blocking – the whole movie feels like Hitchcock not really caring what anyone thinks… which is probably for the best.

Critical reaction to Rich and Strange was pretty abysmal by all accounts. Reviews were pretty harsh, calling it too old fashioned and too boring and too satirical to be taken seriously. In the end, Rich and Strange was just one more step down for Hitchcock in a descent that would nearly end his career before it truly began.

The Production:

Rich and Strange began life as a novel by Australian writer Dale Collins which was procured by Walter Mycroft at British International for Hitchcock. But once Hitchcock decided to take on the project, things became far less about the source material, and far more about Hitch and Alma.

Basing some of the script on experiences from their own honeymoon, Hitch and Alma turned Rich and Strange into an almost autobiographical film. In fact some have called it Hitchcock’s most autobiographical film – a theory perhaps supported by the fact that the main character names – Fred and Emily – sound just a bit close to Alfred and Alma.

On the set of Rich and Strange

On the set of Rich and Strange

After ransacking their honeymoon, Hitch and Alma took their daughter on an around-the world cruise – which offered more research opportunities and upon their return they set about writing a script with Val Valentine (a journeyman screenwriter of the British industry) and, like The Ring, crafted a story designed to showcase the best of Hitchcock’s abilities. Which, this time around, didn’t turn out so well.

After many revisions and notes from Maxwell and Mycroft at BIP, even while crews were travelling the world gathering footage of Morocco and Paris and the Orient to insert into the film, principal photography began in the summer of 1931 with the picture already seen as problematic by Hitch’s producers.

Movie ahoy!

Movie ahoy!

One interesting aspect of the film was the engineering of a large indoor set involving a boat in water which was used to film some of the scenes surrounding the steamer’s capsizing and Fred and Emily’s rescue – a technique which Hitchcock would later revisit in Lifeboat to amazing effect.

By December of 1931 Rich and Strange was completed and started screening, but both critics and Hitch’s producers decided the film wasn’t worth the trouble – and for John Maxwell and Walter Mycroft, their best and most expensive director was starting to seem like a bad investment.

The Legacy:

Well now, what do we do about Rich and Strange? Quite like The Skin Game before it, this film is such an oddity and falls during such a low period in Hitchcock’s output that it honestly doesn’t merit much discussion in terms of what the film might mean to future Hitchcock… and yet I’m still talking.

Old style romance

Old style romance

Rich and Strange is pretty much a throw back, it feels like Hitch is trying to go back to silent films, to the things that worked in The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife and so on – it honestly feels like an artist who doesn’t know what kind of artist he wants to be. On the one hand, his biggest successes have been with thrillers, and yet he keeps going back to melodrama. It’s almost as if he needed to strike out hard with these last BIP films in order to realize where his talent and future lay.

But, that’s not to say that there’s nothing useful to take away from Rich and Strange. Hitchcock definitely regained some footing in terms of purely visual filmmaking, and this film – along with Champagne –  reenforce a love of location and of finding the excitement in filming in different lands and cultures. That would become a pretty big aspect of Hitch’s talent in years to come, starting with The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and carrying on all the way through Topaz or North By Northwest. Hitch loved being somewhere else and sucking the marrow out of every place he went.

Some cheeky comedy

Some cheeky comedy

Another stand out in this film, in terms of the future, was Hitch’s sense of comedy. Even though this picture isn’t a comedy in the strictest sense (far more among the moralistic melodrama line like most of his films up until now), Rich and Strange has elements of slapstick and wordplay and situational comedy and even some gallows humour – all the things that Hitch would spend a lifetime injecting into his work.

And luckily for us they’re mostly better works than this.

So come back next week, because we’re only two films away from the start of something amazing… unfortunately those two films include next week’s movie, the nearly incomprehensible 1932 Thriller/Spoof/Train wreck Number 17.

See you next week.

 

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