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Week 2: The Pleasure Garden (1925)

pleasuregardenposter.jpg“The highly popular reviews at the Pleasure Garden Theater are staged by Mr. Hamilton.”
“Take a chance, Mr. Hamilton, and I’ll show you some real hot steps!”
“Do you believe in love?”
“Odd, isn’t it – he never barked at Hugh.”
“You filthy animal!”
“That’s my wife you’re fooling around with, Hugh – and you’ll pay for it!”
“She wants me to use the sword – she won’t let me rest until I’ve killed you, too!”
“How do you like that? Cuddles knew all the time!”

-The Pleasure Garden

In 1923, Hitchcock and Alma were working under British director Graham Cutts. Cutts was a mediocre filmmaker who was perfectly willing to coast on the ability of his inferiors, but resented their superior skill. Hitchcock was assistant director to Cutts on five films during a two-year period, as well as filling a variety of other roles on the set at no extra cost. Cutts repaid the service by jealously complaining about Hitch to producer Michael Balcon. Balcon, however, busily trying to run a successful British film company (no mean feat at the time), was impressed by Hitchcock’s ability to save the studio money by doing so many different things so well. Having arranged for a cultural exchange with a large German studio, Universum-Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), he sent Hitch along as assistant director on the first Anglo-German collaboration, The Prude’s Fall, in 1924.

While in Germany, Hitchcock had many opportunities to observe the work of major German directors. German cinema at the time rivaled American efforts in both artistry and technical skill, and Hitch had several opportunities to watch the direction of major filmmakers like F.W. Murnau (who was responsible for 1922’s terrifying Nosferatu and would soon film Faust in 1926) and Fritz Lang (who would go on to direct such major films as Metropolis in 1927 and the chilling M in 1931). “From Murnau,” he would later say, “I learned to tell a story without words.” Meanwhile, Cutts had had enough. After their second collaboration in Germany, he told Balcon that he didn’t want to work with Hitchcock again.

patsy.jpgThe Gainsborough director’s vote of no confidence could have meant a sudden end for Hitchcock’s budding career, but Cutts had unwittingly opened up new opportunities for the young man. Balcon offered Hitch the chance to direct his own picture, another UFA collaboration set to be filmed in Germany and Italy: The Pleasure Garden. Miles Mander and John Stuart, British actors, would play the male leads, and the rest of the cast would be filled out by American actresses: Virginia Valli (a veteran of several dozen films already), Carmelita Geraghty, and Nita Naldi (who had recently starred alongside Rudolph Valentino). Even from the beginning, Hitchcock was directing major Hollywood stars. Alma, always at his side, would be assistant director.

The movie is based on a novel by Oliver Sandys. The story, adapted by Eliot Stannard for the screen, is a highly moralistic romantic melodrama on the surface, and yet it is unexpectedly entertaining thanks to its use of humor and a few stylish surprises amidst a largely predictable plot. The film is no masterpiece, and the director himself would just as soon have seen it forgotten completely. However, despite certain flaws, it possesses an undeniable charm and points towards much greater things to come.

jill.jpgThe Pleasure Garden centers around two women, Patsy (Valli) and Jill (Geraghty). Patsy is a member of the popular chorus line at the Pleasure Garden Theater, while Jill is a fresh-faced ingenue looking for a break. Patsy gives her a place to stay and introduces her to the boss, who reluctantly grants an audition. Despite a lack of formal training, Jill wows everyone with her skill and energy, and quickly becomes the star of the show. Meanwhile, her fiance Hugh (Stuart) is about to embark on a two-year stint overseas at one of his company’s tropical plantations. His world-weary colleague Mr. Levet (Mander) is on a two-month furlough from the plantation and the four go out on the town together to celebrate Jill’s success and give Hugh a good send-off.

hughlevet.jpgPatsy notices that Hugh seems a bit distressed by the attentions being paid to his betrothed by various “stage-door tomcats,” most notably a certain Prince Ivan, and promises to keep an eye on her for him. However, no sooner has Hugh departed than Jill hooks up with the Prince, shunning Patsy and moving into her own place (and also fooling around with Hamilton on the side). Meanwhile, Levet seems quite taken by Patsy and the two of them are married. They enjoy an all-too-brief honeymoon in Italy together before he returns overseas for another two years. Upon his arrival, Hugh presses him for news of Jill, but he has none. It soon becomes apparent that he is rather a cad, carrying on an affair with a native girl (Naldi) and neglecting to write his anxious and devoted wife.

When he finally does write, he excuses his lack of correspondence by saying that he’s been sick. The ruse backfires rather drastically when Patsy hunts down enough money to pay her passage to be by his side. Jill, busily preparing for a wedding to the Prince, turns her down flat, but her parents come up with some cash that they had set aside and she is on her way. Arriving unannounced at Levet’s hut, she catches him in flagrante delicto with the native girl and drops him on the spot. It turns out that it is actually Hugh who is seriously ill and she rushes to his side.

nativegirl.jpgLevet, drunk and suffering from severe anger displacement, drowns the native girl in the ocean and stumbles off to collect his wife. Patsy agrees to accompany him back to the hut when he threatens to hurt Hugh. Once there, Levet goes crazy and thinks he sees the ghost of the girl he drowned advancing on him (the audience sees it too). He believes he can only put the spirit to rest by murdering his wife as well, but Hugh shows up with the cavalry just in time and Levet is shot dead. Patsy and Hugh, the virtuous, loyal halves of their respective couples, express their love for each other and return home triumphantly together.

smokingprohibited.jpgIt certainly doesn’t sound like compelling stuff, but it is not without it’s points of interest. The plot arcs smoothly and without digression, and the shifting fortunes of the major characters complement each other nicely. More important, however, are the brief flashes of humor or style which, even when incidental to the story, make for an entertaining experience. The opening sequence is particularly notable for its humor. Hamilton, the theater director, is surrounded by a perpetual cloud of smoke from his cigars whenever he appears, and his character is introduced puffing away in front of a No Smoking sign. He is watching the dance number that the film opens with, as a chorus line of beautiful girls in blonde wigs perform for an attentive audience of much older men. While these men watch the performance, we watch them, and seeing their almost-drooling faces is both humorous and slightly creepy. They “like to watch,” and it is an early foreshadowing of themes of voyeurism that would show up in many Hitchcock films later on.

oldmonocle.jpgThe camera pans across the front row before cutting back to the face of a particularly large gentleman with a monocle, but just before the cut we see a lone female audience member on the far right of the frame. She appears to be fast asleep. Old Monocle seems to have exceptionally poor vision, as we see a line of blobs on the stage from his perspective, until he pulls out his opera glasses to catch aouch.jpg better view of an attractive pair of legs. He follows them up to the face of their owner and we get our first glimpse of Patsy, our heroine. Delighted by what he sees, he hoists himself to his feet and squeezes out of the row, stepping on one irate gentleman’s toes as he passes by. He demands to be introduced to Patsy, and compliments her golden curl. She wryly pulls it off and hands it to him, laughing at his discomfort before disappearing backstage.

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cuddles1.jpgOut in front of the theater, Jill is robbed by a couple of very shady-looking characters and finds herself penniless and without her letter of recommendation just in time for Patsy to come to her rescue. The next scene makes a great deal of Jill’s naivete and Patsy’s amusement at her innocence, belying the reversal which will come later. We are also introduced to a new source of comic relief: Patsy’s dog Cuddles, a troublesome and unattractive animal who is only funny because he doesn’t belong to me, the viewer.

prayer.jpg

Cuddles first appears making a mess of something on Patsy’s floor (she is amused), and proceeds to get into everything he can reach as the two girls get ready for bed. Jill, kneeling to say her prayers, is interrupted by Cuddles busily licking her feet. More important to the plot, however, is Cuddles’ relationship with the two male leads. When Hugh first walks in to see Jill, she is out trying on a costume for Hamilton (and behaving in a decidedly “loose” manner, as she will for the rest of the film). Meanwhile, Patsy struggles for several hilarious seconds to get dressed so she can go out to meet her roommate’s fiance,flirt.jpg and Hugh and Cuddles take an instant liking to each other. They are rolling around on the floor together when Patsy comes bursting out and trips over Hugh, landing in a heap. Thus, Cuddles provides what film critic Roger Ebert calls the “meet cute” of the film; that is, the storytelling convention whereby a potential couple is thrown together through some memorable and unusual circumstance. There is, notably, no meet cute between Patsy and Levet.

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laughter.jpgCuddles also proves himself to be far more intuitive than his mistress. He barks incessantly at Levet whenever he appears. In terms of further foreshadowing, nature also remains unconvinced of the purity Levet’s intentions. There is a torrential downpour on the couple’s wedding day. Cuddles’ love for Hugh remains unshaken, however, and he joyfully greets him when the happy couple returns in the final scene (“How do you like that? Cuddles knew all the time!”). Make no mistake, though, he is still an annoying mutt. Patsy’s father wants to show Hugh his “wireless,” but for some reason it won’t turn on . . . Oh, Cuddles, you crazy pooch. You’ve gone and chewed through the cables.

cuddles21.jpgCuddles is the primary source of lowbrow comedy in the movie, but the best touches are less broad, like Hamilton smoking in front of the sign and Old Monocle’s shenanigans. And, certainly, it was this sort of dry, often slightly bawdy humor that would play a more prominent role in relieving the tensions of Hitchcock’s later suspense thrillers. Along those same lines, there are a few hints of more risque themes which Hitchcock would develop further in other films. I’ve already discussed the voyeuristic vibes of the opening scene, as well as a bit of the innuendo that runs through most of Jill’s later scenes. This is all part of the generally seedy theatrical world. Then, too, there is Levet’s affair, which will eventually turn murderous; it is a pairing of sex and violence which Hitchcock often specialized in.

whoopsie.jpgThere is also an uncredited minor character whose seems to be some sort of costume designer. He appears in two scenes; first when Jill is trying on that hideous costume for Hamilton while her fiance waits elsewhere, and second when Patsy comes to beg Jill for money, where he appears to be in charge of the bride’s wedding trousseau. To describe this character as effeminate would be a grosswhoopsie2.jpg understatement, as his behavior during every second he is on screen is overwhelmingly, even exaggeratedly, fay. If nothing else, his brief appearance begs the question: How long has the gay designer stereotype existed? Keep in mind, too, that all of these fairly subtle comedic and subversive elements exist in a movie that is ostensibly an adaptation of a simple British melodrama.

Throughout The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock demonstrates his skill in conveying a great deal of information with an impressive economy of images. At the end of their honeymoon, as Levet is just beginning to reveal himself as, if not a bounder, then at least a grumpy lout, he plucks a rose from his lapel and tosses it into a nearby canal where it floats mournfully for a few seconds before disintegrating. “You threw away the rose I gave you,” Patsy exclaims. “Had to,” Levet replies,”it had wilted.”

It’s as concise a statement of the state of his affection as one could hope for, reinforced further by the very next scene where he departs from England by ship. Patsy stands on the shore, waving frantically and dejectedly as the ship pulls away, but Levet has already retired to a deck chair to read his paper. There is an excellent transition here as the camera focuses on Patsy’s waving hand, clutching a handkerchief, and then fades to a close-up of a different arm, also waving. The camera zooms back out and we see a dark-skinned girl in garb that suggests the South Pacific islands, waving to an arriving Levet before running up to embrace him as they retire to his hut.

wave1.jpgwave2.jpgwave3.jpg

Later, after Patsy has discovered Levet’s unfaithfulness, we witness Hitchcock’s first murder. The native girl wanders out into the ocean in front of Levet’s hut for a swim and we wonder if perhaps she intends to commit suicide a la The Awakening. Then we see Levet run out into the surf after her, and we wonder if he intends to prevent her. Then we see her smile and reach out to him as he swims up and all seems well after all . . . until he deliberately places a hand on her head and pushes her under the surface with an eye on the shore to watch for witnesses. The scene presents a gruesome contrast to the glamour of the chorus line, the homey good-humor of Patsy’s lodgings, and the idyllic scenery of the Italian honeymoon, but it sets the tone for the tense finale.

drowning1.jpgdrowning2.jpgdrowning3.jpgdrowning4.jpgdrowning5.jpgdrowning6.jpg

native-spirit.jpgWhen the ghost of the native girl appears to haunt Levet for what he has done, it could be viewed as a somewhat silly and over-the-top turn in the proceedings. It is worth noting, however, that the spirit appears to come out of the wispy mosquito netting hanging above Levet’s bed, and it never moves beyond that backdrop. The implication is that Levet is deranged and hallucinating based on his guilt and the visual cues provided by his surroundings, rather than imagining things out of the clear blue nowhere. In this way, the image of the dead girl becomes as startling to us as it is to Levet.

terror.jpgFrom here, things move quickly into the tense denouement. Patsy cowers behind a rather flimsy door, eyes wide with blind terror, as Levet swipes at her with the sword a few times before he is shot by the rescue party. In typical Hitchcock fashion, once the final moment of suspense has passed, it is time to bring the film to a swift and satisfying conclusion. Everything is wrapped up nicely within two and a half minutes.

Balcon was very happy with Hitchcock’s work on The Pleasure Garden, and put him straight to work on another film called The Mountain Eagle, starring Nita Naldi. Filmed in the Alps, but set in the Appalachians, it is an odd story of small-town jealousies and hillbilly religion that disappeared shortly after its initial release and is now believed lost. Certainly Hitchcock, by then a going concern, preferred it that way. In the meantime, The Pleasure Garden was kept from release for two years in England because C.M. Woolf, one of the pocketbooks behind Gainsborough, disapproved of the finished film.

This vintage, difficult-to-find piece of early Hitchcock remains worthy of attention for the signs of life buried unexpectedly amidst a largely unimpressive story. It is worth a look on those grounds alone, though I also found it surprisingly watchable. There is every indication that it was well-liked by audiences at the time, and that was certainly all Hitch’s studio asked of him. With two complete films notched on his director’s belt, Hitchcock left Germany behind in 1927 to make his first film on British soil (along with a host of other firsts).

Next Week: Hitchcock meets the suspense thriller

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~ by Jared on January 9, 2008.

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