Friday, April 13, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #1 - The Pleasure Garden

ME: Hey, Lauren, could I ask you for a favor?
MY NEIGHBOR ACROSS THE HALL: Sure. What do you need?
ME: Could I borrow your home?

The Wilsons haven't had a videocassette player for almost four years. Frankly, we haven't needed one. Once we went DVD, we never looked back. And other than needing to find a way to transfer some of these old VHS tapes I've got in a steamer trunk, it's worked out just fine. Of course, it figures that when I finally got my hands on a copy of Alfred Hitchcock's directorial debut, it would arrive in tape form. Thanks, Chicago Public Library.

Still, if you can't use your neighbors for things you need, what the heck are they good for? Fortunately, Lauren was game, and I've cat-sat for her enough times that I still have a slight advantage in the getcha-back department. So it was Movie Night at the neighbor's.

The Pleasure Garden is the story of a country girl named Patsy (the lovely Virginia Valli) who comes to the big city to join a chorus line. Of course, she's never set foot on a stage before, but her ability to Charleston on command wows the theater impresario, and a fellow chorus girl named Jill (played by the wonderfully-named Carmelita Geraghty) takes her in as a roommate. So life is pretty good for Patsy.

Naturally, men come along and ruin everything. It seems Jill has a fiancé named Hugh (John Stuart, who looks like Joseph Goebbels). Sadly, Hugh is going off to work on a plantation for the next two years (!?), but Jill has promised to wait for him. Yeah, right. Jill is barely waiting for Hugh to leave, since she's now taking gifts from the producer of the show and soliciting the affections of a German prince and generally acting like a brazen hussy. Poor Patsy can hardly understand what's going on, especially since she's conveniently falling for the affections of Hugh's nasty co-worker, Levett (an appropriately slimy Miles Mander). Is it possible that Levett is also carrying on with some native plantation girl? Oh, this can't go well.

Does this plot sound like a soap opera? It sure is. The Pleasure Garden is pure melodrama. Lauren kept commenting that Patsy was aptly named. True enough: she believes everyone, falls in love out of pure plot contrivance, is just plain nice at every turn, and makes atrocious decisions every step of the way. She's the original insufferable heroine. Most of the characters are straight types, right down to the homosexual costume designer. (I'm not trying to cast aspersions, but it's a silent film, and you could still hear him swish. Gay stereotypes are clearly not a new thing.) In fact, the most likeable character in the movie is Patsy's dog, Cuddles. Believe me, if you ever see this movie -- and I'm reasonably confident that you never will -- remember to trust the dog. He knows all.

Still, I'm not watching this to get a realistic depiction of the lives of chorus girls in the 1920s. No, I'm here for Hitchcock, and I'm happy to report that, despite the thin plot, despite the lack of sound, despite everything, there are touches of the master in place, even at this early stage. The very first scene of the movie, establishing the theater where the chorus girls dance (or, more accurately, do this strange sort of dance-strut-bouncing thing), is an unexpectedly complex shot for 1926. After an amusing setup of a torrent of chorus girls hurrying down a spiral staircase, we get the full stage, shot from way up high, at an angle to capture the adoring audience. I have to think that few directors of the period were attempting anything so advanced. That Hitchcock chose to lead off his first picture with it definitely singles him out as someone looking to get noticed.

I suspect that Hitch had a particular affection for the character of Levett. After all, Levett is completely and utterly amoral. He marries Patsy even though he clearly has no interest in her beyond getting into her bloomers. He goes off to the plantation and immediately becomes a womanizer, a drunk, and unpredictably violent. Also, he has a sinister mustache. Hitchcock also has a special place in his heart for villains, and even though this one has no redeeming quality at all, he gets enough screen time being evil to make you think that Levett is just as beloved.

Levett features in the most Hitchcockian scene of all: our first Hitchcock murder. It's not especially well-filmed. It's an underwater murder, and was evidently very difficult to film. (The actress originally hired refused to go into the water because she was menstruating; medical science has advanced somewhat in 80 years.) But the aftermath, in which the victim's ghost haunts Levett, feels like classic Hitch.

So, Alfred Hitchcock's career is off and rolling. His first's not great. It's hackneyed. It's clichéd. But despite all that, it's not boring. The director has a smart eye, and we're going to see it put to good use.

And if not, I foresee a big future for Cuddles.


Anonymous said...

Think you've got the roles of the characters a bit mixed up in your first paragraph: Jill is the 'country girl' and Patsy the chorus girl who takes Jill in as a room mate and introduces her to the theatre owner where she works.