Monday, May 19, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock's Silent Features: "The Pleasure Garden"

Alfred Hitchcock directed nine silent feature films. His tenth film, Blackmail, was initially shot as a silent and then converted to a talkie (both versions exist). In the early '20s Hitchcock worked as a title designer, art director, then assistant director. He co-directed 1923s Always Tell Your Wife (first reel of this two-reeler survives) and was the director of the unfinished 1922 film Number Thirteen (footage lost).

Hitchcock's silent films, even the celebrated The Lodger are not great movies. They were his training ground; and his later films are that much more visual as a result of his having started in the silent era. His silents are of interest to the Hitchcock scholar solely and this explains why they still remain either unreleased on VHS/DVD or in unrestored state on poorly presented DVDs. However, I'll take a look at his eight extant silents (one title, The Mountain Eagle, is lost) with a series of (irregular) capsule review blog entries.

If you are looking for Hitchcock's unreleased films (such as The Pleasure Garden and Downhill, among others) I recommend this seller.

Now onto Hitchcock's first completed feature film as sole director: The Pleasure Garden (1927)-- the release date of this film has been published as 1925, 1926, and 1927. It appears that its wide release came in January 1927, so that is the year I've chosen. I will follow suit on the other early Hithcock silents (many of which were released at some point in 1927).

The Pleasure Garden (1927)
A chorus girl befriends a newcomer who soon becomes the headliner of “The Pleasure Garden” and forgets her helpful friend, her fiancĂ©, and her humble past as she pursues a prince.

Great opening titles with girl in long shot dancing in a spotlight while credits run. Fun opening shows lecherous men in the front row eyeing the chorus girls. A healthy dose of humor runs throughout the film’s early scenes (Patsy giving the lecherous man her hair “curl” that he admired so much, Jill’s fiancĂ© being announced to Patsy by the landlady as Jill’s “fiasco”), which is desperately missed as the melodrama builds. The first half of the film is palatable but the rest drags on endlessly, when the plot switches focus to the troubled marriage of Patsy (Virginia Valli) and Levet (Miles Mander), taking the action away from the theater. So different are the parts that the movie feels like two 35-minute films running sequentially. Nice dissolve from Patsy waving goodbye to Levet and a native girl waving hello to him at his destination. The Patsy/Levet subplot (melodrama with a capital “M”) ultimately sinks the film and sends it off the deep end with a bizarre final third set on a tropical isle (that has a supernatural angle). Radically uneven film is an inauspicious debut for Hitchcock.

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