We’re back – finally – after a slight hiatus and a rather hectic couple weeks at a new job, with the twentieth week of Weekly Hitch! This is a film blog wherein I watch and think about all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in chronological order, and then I write about them here and you read half the post and then sort skim to the end and maybe look at the pictures.
This week Hitchcock brings us the light and fun and thrilling adventure/romance of 1937’s Young And Innocent. It’s a pleasure of a movie and one of the best of Hitch’s mid-thirties thrillers and the perfect palate cleanser after the paranoid panic of Sabotage.
Last time I wrote, for Sabotage, Hitchcock was all about the contrast of light and dark, but this week’s film – the fun and all-together more lighthearted Young and Innocent – is less about what we see than what we see with. Because here, it’s all about the eyes.
Beginning with a bitter fight, we find the famous actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) arguing bitterly with her jealous estranged husband Guy (George Curzon). Guy accuses her of using him to get to fame, then leaving him for young boys, boys like that Robert Tisdale who’s been staying nearby on the coast. The augment turns nearly violent before Guy goes out for a cigarette, and against the backdrop of the sea, we see that Guy has a very pronounced eye-twitch as he plots something evil.
And then the next morning, Christine is found dead on the beach – strangled with the belt from a raincoat, and young Robert Tisdale (Derrick De Marney) – the victim’s friend – finds the body before being accused of the murder! Soon Robert is up before the judge and it all looks bleak. Christine left him some money, and she had hired him to do some writing in Hollywood. Also, Robert’s raincoat can’t be found – even though he knows he left it at a roadhouse not too far away. Faced with the disbelieving crowd, Robert faints – and the young woman who comes to his aid – Erica Burgoyne (played wonderfully by Nova Pilbeam, the child kidnap victim in The Man Who Knew Too Much) – just happens be the chief constable’s daughter!
Seeing an opportunity to escape custody, and determined to get to the roadhouse and find his raincoat – belt intact – Robert sneaks out of the courthouse (stealing his lawyers glasses – eyes!) and escapes into the countryside, only to find Erica – the police chief’s daughter – out of gas on the road while out searching for the criminal.
So Robert helps Erica, even spending his last three shillings on gas for her car and she, in turn, leaves him in an old mill instead of turning him in. But later that afternoon, Erica hears her brothers and father talking about how a man on the run with no money doesn’t stand a chance – so she goes back to repay the three shillings – and she gives him some food. Robert the fugitive takes this as a sign that she believes in his innocence (she’s young, he’s innocent I guess) and soon the two of them are on the run together – trying to find out what happened to Robert’s missing rain coat.
After finding the roadhouse and getting in to a pretty fun scrap with a bunch of hobos or something, Robert and Erica learn of an old man named Will the China-mender who has the coat and can be found at a shelter for wayward men. Erica and Robert head off to find the man, but first Erica had to throw her father, the police chief, off their scent. She tells him that she is going to vista her aunt – then they stop in at the aunt’s just for a moment and have the rest of the day to themselves! Unfortunately, it’s her cousin’s birthday – so the two get caught up in party games, and very amusingly Hitchcock puts the entire adventure’s future down to a round of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ (eyes again!). But Erica and Robert escape from the aunt, they find Old Will and learn that Will got the raincoat off a man with a twitchy eye – but Will doesn’t know where he is.
Seemingly at a loss and all hope gone, Robert goes off to try and find the man himself, and Erica goes back to her life – both are sad and one is young and the other is innocent. Erica’s father realizes what’s been going on and decides to resign, it’s all very sad. But then Erica finds a matchbook from the Grand Hotel in the pocket of the coat and she heads off to gather old Will and Robert and solve the whole mystery. If Will can spot the man with the eye-twitch, then they’ll find the real killer! It’s all about eyes, see?
At the hotel things play out in fun dramatic fashion. Old Will is out of place as a hobo among the fancy-set, and in a very stunning gliding camera shot Hitch takes over the entire ballroom to land on the eye of the drummer in the band (unfortunately in black-face, more on that later) and the drummer’s eye twitches! They have their man. Soon the drummer realizes Old Will is on to him, his drumming goes all bad and Erica and Robert find the man and he confesses to everyone because that’s what killers do in the movies.
Well okay then, so Hitchcock practically remade The 39 Steps with young people and took out the spy stuff and called it Young and Innocent, but the real question is… how’s the movie?
Answer; It’s a blast!
For reals. Young and Innocent might be the funnest and frothiest film Hitchcock’s made yet. It’s practically bursting with fun and joy, and even in the serious tense moments, there’s such an air of whimsy over the whole thing, such a feeling of just good-natured joy, that aside from next week’s The Lady Vanishes – this might be the happiest of Hitch’s movies.
First off there’s Charles Bennet’s script, which has more twists and turns than a roller coaster. It’s simple in all the best ways – it makes a MacGuffin out of raincoat and a prince out of a pauper – and it turns two complete nobodies, a failed writer and a policeman’s daughter, and makes them into the heroes of an adventure. The script is just infused with a joyous view of the world, where even murder is something to be taken lightly and being wrongfully accused of the crime is just a simple problem to be solved, and try as Hitch might – not even his dour view of the world could darken the happiness of this flick.
And then there’s the acting. Not so much Derrick De Marney, who is pleasant and charming enough, but good grief – Nova Pilbeam, who was marvellous in The Man Who Knew Too Much, positively shines as the young woman torn between her duty to her father and her heart. She just sells it – every silly, unbelievable moment, she makes it work – and because she works, the movie does.
Hitchcock’s directing is of course masterful – hinging the safety and success of the heroes’ journey on a children’s party game, is brilliant and the way Hitch lets you see Erica’s thoughts as she realizes that Robert spent his last three shillings on her gas is fantastic. But by this time Hitch had hit a stride, he was a master – and the only thing from here on that would affect the quality of his movies would be the movies he chose to make – but never again the man who chose to make them.
Based on the novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, Young and Innocent was a seemingly straightforward production for Hitchcock, but one that brought many changes in the director’s career and planted many seeds for the future.
Among the first changes would be the departure of screenwriter Charles Bennet, who left just before production began to start a career in Hollywood – where he would live and work for the rest of his life (Bennet’s last paid writing job was, astoundingly, at the age of 93 when he was hired to try and write a remake of his play Blackmail) – this left Hitch far more reliant on his assistant and confidant, Joan Harrison for small rewrites as filming went on.
The other big change for Hitch was the break up of Gaumont-British, and the absence of producer Michael Balcon. The financiers who were backing Gaumont-British had decided to shut down the studio aspect of the production company and leave it as just a distribution company. That move resulted in the firing of hundreds of people, including Balcon and Ivor Montague – and left Hitch without a contract once again.
As for the actual filming of Young and Innocent, Hitch seemed to delight in setting young people in an adult world, and directing Nova Pilbeam in her first romantic role (she was only 18 at the time) put some extra drama on set. But, for Hitch it always was “just a movie.”
By the time everything was said and done, Young and Innocent opened to very positive reviews – and even today is one of the more watchable and certainly lighter films of Hitch’s British period.
I also suppose something must be said about his use of blackface in the climax of the movie, and while it obviously would be indefensible today – it’s no reason to disregard the work or even to think of it as being all that controversial. At the time in Britain, jazz and American band music was very much style – as was having black musicians to play it in an authentic manner. As a result, and owing to the unfortunate lack of African American musicians in England, many bands would end up donning blackface as a way of drumming up business for themselves. I’m only getting this from a P.G. Wodehouse book I read once though, so maybe it’s all wrong.
That said, however, this still remains a lesser-known and rarely screened work of Hitchcock’s, and I think that’s rather a shame.
In the end, Young and Innocent is a smaller movie on the Hitchcock scale of important works. It’s thematically simple and fun and full of the kind of light-hearted and easy morality that just feels like an earlier age – but that doesn’t make it any less a Hitchcock film.
Most surprising, I think in this film, is the bold attention given to so many symbols and motifs that would play in later Hitchcock works. This movie has a blatant and wonderful obsession with eyes – from the the game of blind man’s bluff to the twitchy eye of the killer. There’s the creepy symbolism of birds – the gulls that fly over the dead woman’s body and also lines referring to crows eating out the eyes of people and so forth. And there’s Hitch’s own fear of the police and incarceration. All of these will be visited again in the future – eyes in Spellbound and Strangers on a Train, the birds in… well, The Birds, and fear of capture are in pretty much every Hitchcock film – but it’s kind of a joy to see them all played so lightly here.
Hitch set out with the intent of making a movie for younger people, or at least about them – and as was so often the case when Hitch put himself in a new direction, the result is wonderful. There’s a lightness and fun here, that, sadly wouldn’t last through all of his films.
This is also a turning point for Hitch. With the departure of Balcon and Montague, there was nothing keeping Hitch in Britain any longer. His mentor and producer gone, already at the height of his profession, fielding offers from American studios – it was now only a matter of time before The Hitchcock’s made their way across the Atlantic. And there were also the winds of war.
Unmistakably, the threat of Germany and the possibility of another Great War were very much on the minds of Britons in 1937, so much so that Hitchcock’s next film would be a subtle by undeniable call to arms – and a firm insistence that pacifism and capitulation could not be relied upon in the face of this new enemy… although in typical Hitchcock style, this plea for steadfastness and courage would be baked into possibly Hitchcock’s lightest and most sweet, fun, joyful, and exuberant adventure.
So join me next time (whenever that may be, given my current workload which is annoying, but fun) when we dive into possibly my all-time favourite Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes.
See you then.