Monday, June 17, 2013

Jason watches The Hitchcock 9--part 3

And the finale, 4 more Hitchcock silent films on Sunday.

We jumped right in at noon with THE FARMER'S WIFE (1928), probably the  funniest romantic comedy of the weekend. A widowed farmer (Jameson Thomas) decides he wants to take on a new wife. So he turns to his faithful and lovely housekeeper (Lillian Hall-Davis) and...has her help him write up a list of all the eligible women in town. And then he goes a' courtin'...with hilarious and disastrous results. One rejects him, one is eager to do all the wifely work--except finding "comfort in a man's arms." One just goes loco with hysterics. And besides, none of them are much to look at. Each time he comes home more an more dejected and dispirited. He's almost ready to abandon the whole venture when he realizes what the audience knew from the beginning--that his perfect wife was right there in front of him the whole time. Kinda silly, kinda sappy, but it actually works. And it features a hilarious supporting role by Gordon Harker as the handyman. Harker also showed up this weekend as the father in CHAMPAGNE and Jack's trainer in THE RING.

The amazing one-man-band Stephen Horne accompanied again, and did a great job.

While the misogyny in THE FARMER'S WIFE was funny and absurd (and there was a lovely paragon of womanly goodness in it all), the next feature, EASY VIRTUE (1928) was downright cruel. Based on a Noel Coward play, Hitchcock and scenario writer Eliot Stannard did a great job of visually telling a dialogue-heavy story. Note, I haven't seen the play, so I don't know the technical differences. I can only imagine how it would be different on stage. I do know they start with the courtroom scene that is actually the climactic finale of the play. In it we learn that Mrs. Filton (Isabel Jeans) is in a divorce case with her husband. Although he's a drunkard who beats her, the verdict is against her because she allegedly had an affair with an artist who was painting her portrait (the way it was portrayed, I believe she didn't actually do anything untoward, it was the artist who propositioned her, but his love letter dooms her.) So she runs off to the French Riviera to start a new life. And is successful...for a while. She meets and marries a handsome young man and maybe her life will turn around. Unfortunately, his parents don't like her, and start doing a little snooping. Like I said, downright cruel. And there were Hitchcockian flairs other than the mistreatment of a woman--most notably the opening scene shot through a monocle.

Judith Rosenberg once again did a fantastic job accompanying. She's already a regular at Niles and at the PFA, and I hope she becomes a regular for the Silent Film Festival, too.

Then for the penultimate show we went back to Hitchcock's very first film (at least, his very first finished feature film), THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925.) And from the start females--particularly as the agents or victims of cruelty--are central to the story. Also, from the start he's a master of cinema. He had worked pretty much all jobs on a movie set before sitting in the director's chair, and it's clear he not only soaked up all the knowledge about how to make a film, he also had a keen mind to invent new methods. Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) is a naive young girl with an invitation to audition for the chorus at the titular nightclub, the Pleasure Garden. But before she even gets into the door, her letter and all her money are snatched by a pickpocket. So she stays with a kind, wiser chorus girl Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli.) The next day Jill pleads her way into an audition, and really wows them, so she's well on her way to being the new star. While she is becoming a star, her fiance Hugh (John Stuart) is sent off to Africa by his company. Hugh's friend Levett (Miles Mander, whom I assume got teased as being the "mild-mannered Miles Mander",) takes a bit of a shine to Patsy, and they get married before he leaves to Africa to join Hugh. While there he, of course, philanders around and has no intention of returning to his wife. Jill, meanwhile, is fooling around with her admirers, especially a prince. Low morals, high decadence, and a bit of the African fever. Hitchcock certainly started with both mastery and flair.

And speaking of mastery and flair, Stephen Horne accompanied again. I'm losing track of how many instruments he plays, but I'm sure at least piano, flute, and accordion were in there.

And finally, we ended the night--and the weekend--with THE LODGER (1927): While this was his third finished feature (after the unfinished NUMBER 13, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, and the lost FEAR O' GOD aka THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE) this is the one that Hitchcock himself described as "the first 'Hitchcock' picture." A lot of the themes he would become famous for are developed here. Sinister men, murder, blonds, red herrings, mistaken suspicion, and of course high suspense. Ivor Novello stars as the titular lodger. We start with reports of a madman murdering blonds in London (the film was based on a book based on the Jack the Ripper murders.) The Avenger--as he calls himself by leaving his triangular note--is known to wear a scarf to cover his face. Soon enough, Ivor Novello shows up wearing a scarf over his face and asking to rent a room right in the middle of where all the murders have been taking place. Immediate suspicion ensues (going against type--another Hitchcock favorite--matinee idol Ivor looks downright creepy as the lodger.) It doesn't help that he hates to even look at portraits of blonds. Or that he's always pacing in his upstairs room (Hitchcock shows some special effects wizardry by having the ceiling dissolve so we can see the soles of his shoes pacing above.) Suspicion only gets worse when he actually becomes kind of friendly with the daughter of the house, Daisy (June Tripp, credited only as "June.") That's especially bad because her boyfriend Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen from THE MANXMAN) is a detective who is put on the Avenger case. Wonderfully suspenseful, and heavily influenced by German expressionism (particularly the  fog and the shadows--like the iconic shadow cross over the lodger's face.)

You know, he had such a long career in talkies that some people forget Hitchcock did silents. And even if you see them, sometimes it's hard to see the hand of Hitchcock in his early works (particularly the romantic comedies.) But this one--even if you took away the credits you could see Hitchcock at work here. Even if you didn't know his career spanned that far back, you could watch THE LODGER and guess that if Hitchcock didn't make it, he was heavily influenced by it. In that way, it's the perfect ending to the Hitchcock 9 weekend. If you're not going to do them chronologically, at least end with the most Hitchcockian one.

And once again, the marvelous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment. Looking forward to seeing them again (and all the other accompanists) at the SF Silent Film Festival in July.

Total Running Time: 355 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,496
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