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Week 13: Rich and Strange (1931)

richandstrangetitle“Mr. Baker will give his twelfth talk on accountancy in three minutes.”
“The curtain’s gone up too soon! They’re not dressed!”
“I couldn’t wear this! People will think we’re not married.”
“Don’t you forget you’re coming with me to buy my carpet, too!”
“Go have your dance with the gossip woman. Then she will not look for you.”
“If a woman can’t hold her man, there’s no reason why he should take the blame.”
“I like being shipwrecked! It’s not half as bad as people make out!”

Rich and Strange

fredHitchcock’s Rich and Strange, adapted from a contemporary novel by Dale Collins by Hitchcock, Alma and Val Valentine, is a romantic melodrama that begins as a screwball comedy, continues as a travelogue, segues unpleasantly into a morality play, then throws in a shipwreck before hopping a Chinese junk right back to where it began. Hitchcock later called it “just an adventure story,” though that description hardly does justice to this largely shallow hash of elements.

emilyA young couple, Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily (Joan Barry, who had previously provided the voice for Anny Ondra’s character in Blackmail), jump at the chance, offered by a rich uncle, to escape the dull routine of their conventional British lives and see the world. On the voyage they fumble through a series of silly misadventures, most of which result from falling foolishly in love with other people. After losing most of their money and nearly losing their lives, they finally return home once more, relieved but not much wiser.

More than anything, Rich and Strange, the director’s 6th talkie, plays very much as a throwback to the director’s silent days. This is true both of small stylistic touches that crop up repeatedly throughout the movie, and of the story it is telling. Hitchcock falls back once more on the “unfaithful lover/awkward triangle” theme that had been a staple of his early films. In tone, this effort is probably closest to 1928’s Champagne, with its frivolous depictions of wealthy revelry and slightly-jarring moralizing.

It is almost as though Hitchcock, after four rather thin and talky stage adaptations in a row, finally saw some material that was a bit more malleable to the cinematic form, and took advantage of it. This is not to say that the movie ultimately succeeds on most levels, merely that there is a noticeable departure from some of the problems of the other early talkies.

quittingtime1The first four minutes of the film have no dialogue at all, and one might almost think that the film is silent at first. In a crowded room full of cubicles, ledgers are closing and people are getting up. It is the end of the day. Throngs of employees fill the halls of the office building, each man wearing an identical black bowler hat, the women also wearing similar attire. It is raining outside, and the employees step out the door, two-by-two in rhythmic unison, opening their umbrellas in a single smooth motion and heading home; all but one, that is. Our hero, Fred Hill, out of step with his fellow office drones, wrestles haplessly with his umbrella for several seconds, but it refuses to open. Grimacing, he braves the rain unprotected.

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undergroundA camera mounted on the rails pans rapidly past the tightly-packed crowd waiting to board the tube. As it comes to rest they shove their way aboard, and Fred finds himselffeather standing next to an older woman with a garish feather in her hat. He accidentally snatches it out as the train gets underway, but she doesn’t notice until he tries to give it back. Annoyed, he glances at the advertisements that line the walls above the train windows, describing experiences he won’t be having tonight: theater revues and fine dining.

newspaperfumbleBalancing himself carefully, he lets go of the strap overhead and attempts to open his newspaper, which promptly falls apart as he tries to open it. After wrestling with it for a moment, the first item his eyes fall on bears the headline, “Are you satisfied with your present Circumstances?” As his eyes shift left and right, the answer to the question seems obvious.

brokenumbrellaTo this point, the movie has played as standard silent slapstick, but now Fred arrives home and dialogue enters the picture. Emily is waiting cheerfully with a steak and kidney pudding for dinner, and she irritates him immediately when she asks brightly, happycouple “Have you broken your umbrella?” She is busily at work on making herself a new dress on the sewing machine, and she asks Fred whether he’d rather stay at home and listen to the wireless or go out to the pictures. Fred has no interest in either option, and he finally explodes with the frustration of his ordinary life.

seachangeEmily is not impressed by his outburst, but just then the mail arrives. Expecting nothing but bills, Fred sorts listlessly through it until he comes upon an unexpected item: a letter from his magic plot device . . . err, that is, rich uncle. The uncle is aware of his nephew’s restlessness, and sees no reason why he should have to wait for the death of a relative to experience life. He can have his inheritance early, and travel the world on it. Fred and Emily are both thrilled by this turn of events, and as the scene fades out, Fred stares rapturously up at the large painting of a ship hanging over the mantle.

intertitle1At this point Rich and Strange puts another trick from the silents back into circulation: the intertitle. They appear at several points throughout the rest of the story, telling us where we are, when we are, who we’re looking at, what is about to happen and, in at least one case, what has just happened. Perhaps it was meant to evoke some feelings of nostalgia and appreciation for the old days (not so far gone at this point). Perhaps Hitchcock, who, after all, got his start in the business designing intertitles, simply missed them.

Whatever the logic behind their inclusion, the overall effect feels lazy, superfluous and more than a little clumsy. There should be a better way for the audience to tell the difference between Marseilles and the Suez Canal. And, flashing “Fred had met a princess!” on the screen immediately after Fred is introduced to, yes, a princess, is unintentionally hilarious at best.

seasickcameraAs the couple crosses the English Channel, Fred has his first bout with seasickness. He feels a bit woozy while trying unsuccessfully to target Emily with the camera lens up on deck and goes below. Hitchcock employs his favorite POV tricks to indicate seasickness here, as in Champagne, by blurring and wobbling the shot as Fred peers through the lens.

parisThe Hills fly through France largely by way of a whirlwind montage, which adds little of substance to the proceedings. Their heads swivel back and forth in close-up shots, interspersed with location footage of the famous landmarks of Paris (all of the location shooting is edited in around the main action taking place on small, mostly interior sets). They attend an extravagant stage revue and Emily is mildly scandalized by the showgirls’ costumes. On the way out she gets felt up in the lobby and seems generally uncomfortable.

confusionShe and Fred stay out late drinking, and stagger back to their hotel room with some difficulty. There is some mild amusement here: Fred confusedly believes the elevator dial is a clock and resets his watch, only to have the time change when the elevatorprayer moves. As the two climb into their separate Ricky-and-Lucy-style beds. Fred slips and lands on his knees, where he remains for a few moments while he collects himself. Emily, glancing over her shoulder, is convicted by his piety and gets on her knees as well to say her prayers. Fred, rising to his feet once more, spots Emily praying and joins her.

gordonThe next day, they board “the big ship bound for the Far East” and meet some of their fellow passengers. Fred soon feels queasy and disappears below-deck, leaving Emily to converse with Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont) and a nameless character referredoldmaid to as “the old maid” (Elsie Randolph). Randolph’s character, as her title indicates, is a broad stereotype; a parasitic and profoundly irritating gossip who is comical only because she on the screen rather than in the room. Gordon is a genial bachelor on his way back to his post in Asia. With her husband confined to quarters, Emily and he become fast friends.

friendsThey sit and talk on deck together for hours, day and night, as the ship makes it way across the Mediterranean. The friendship remains purely platonic, at least on the surface, until one fateful night when they take a walk in a remote corner of the upper deck in an effort to escape from the old maid (who, of course, wants to play a card game). The beauty and solitude of the scene, and the ambiance of the music floating up from below, lead to a passionate embrace, after which they return quickly and quietly to a more populated area of the boat.

eyeshotThe old maid, suspecting nothing, comes upon them again and provides Emily with something she believes will have Fred back on his feet. Sure enough, the next morningprincess he feels well enough to escort his wife up on deck. As they stroll, someone playing a nearby game throws something that hits Fred in the eye. Upset at first, he becomes much less cross when he catches sight of the woman who threw it . . . particularly when he learns that she is a princess (played by Betty Amann).

homewreckerNow there is no chance of Fred noticing how friendly his wife has become with Commander Gordon, and he doesn’t seem to care whether she notices his feelings towards the Princess or not. It is worth pointing out the fundamental difference in the way each spouse cultivates a relationship on the side. Emily and Gordon both seem a bit ashamed of the attraction they feel for each other, and neither of them has any serious intention of acting on it, or of ending Emily’s marriage. Fred and the Princess are just the opposite. She is brazenly seductive. He is slavishly devoted, and generally behaves like a cad.

rug1As the ship drops anchor at an Egyptian harbor, husband and wife go ashore separately, and the old maid casts about for a victim to come help her bargain for a rug. A bit of visual comedy surrounding this purchase takes uprug2 most of this interlude. Gordon and another British officer (referred to only as “the Colonel”) accompany the old maid, who makes a great show of picking out just the right rug. As she pays the vendor, Gordon notices Emily wandering alone through the crowd and goes to join her. The Colonel, too, makes use of the opportunity to escape, leaving the old maid alone and a bit confused.

costumes1Somewhere beyond the Suez Canal, a costume ball takes place aboard the ship. Emily goes as a milkmaid and Gordon seems dressed in some sort of 18th-century-stylecostumes2 riding cloak. Fred and the Princess both wear Arabic garb. As the old maid, in a shepherdess outfit, extracts a dance from every man in sight, both couples wander away from the crowd. Emily returns to the party after a few minutes, in case Fred is looking for her. However, he is busy getting himself invited back to the Princess’s cabin for an illicit rendezvous.

oldmaiddanceThe Princess slips off to cabin 19, and Fred returns impatiently to dance with the old maid so she won’t wonder where he is later. It is clear, however, that his mind is elsewhere. When she coyly asks him how old her costume makes her look, he absently replies, “Nineteen.” Finally, unable to take anymore, he signals to the band to cut the song short, settles the old maid in a chair, and disappears to “fetch her a drink.” Busily making sure no one is following or watching him, he walks into the wrong cabin at first, then finds the right place and disappears inside.

drinksSometime later, the four meet up in the dining room and Fred and Emily end up sitting next to each other across from the Princess. She notes innocently that it is “a perfect night for lovers,” prompting husband and wife to steal sidelong glances at one another while they quickly take a drink.

leaving1From here, events move on apace. Fred and the Princess plan to run away together. Emily, knowing what’s coming, accepts Gordon’s proposal of marriage on the last night of the voyage. She will return home with him and try to forget how badly leaving2Fred has treated her. The ship arrives at its final destination, and Emily hops into a carriage with Gordon. Fred has already set up shop at a hotel with the Princess, and it appears that the two will simply go their separate ways without ever talking about it.

Despite Fred’s behavior, Emily still harbors feelings of guilt about walking out on her marriage. Then, Gordon informs her that the Princess is actually a fraud, a con artist who intends to take all of Fred’s money and leave him in the lurch. Somehow, we have already sensed instinctively that this is the case. A beautiful princess would never attach herself to a towering lackwit like Fred. Emily is torn, but finally decides to leave Gordon and return to warn Fred, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

She arrives at the hotel room, and the Princess leaves them alone. An argument ensues, as Emily attempts to convince her husband of the Princess’s duplicity. He arrogantly refuses to believe her, and finally storms out. While he is gone, a letter arrives from Gordon, declaring his love for Emily but accepting her choice to remain with Fred. Just as she finishes, Fred slowly comes back in with the news that the Princess has absconded with all of their money.

foolishboorEmily is very supportive, expressing disgust at the other woman’s actions, but Fred, who ought to fool like the greatest fool in the world, continues to behave proudly and express annoyance at his wife. He really is a prize bounder, and his attitude is so off-putting by this point that there is no way he will win back the sympathies of the audience, protagonist or not. As a contemporary review put it, “The hero is unsympathetic, a foolish boor, and the film neither excuses nor explains him.”

In any case, the couple uses the minute amount of cash that remains to them to purchase a spot in the bowels of a steamer headed back to England. They share a small cabin, and are barely on speaking terms until the ship runs into some sort of giant plot device, ripping open the side and allowing water to gush in.

sinkingIt is late at night, and Fred and Emily are both in bed. The collision knocks something off of a shelf and lands on Fred’s head. Emily rushes to his side to clean the cut, then they both try to get out. Some sort of pipe has fallen in front of the door, trapping them inside and their porthole is already submerged. As water begins to seep into the room under the door, they huddle together on the bed. Sure they are about to die, all the misdeeds of the trip are forgiven and forgotten. Eventually, they fall asleep.

seepageThe sequence would be capable of generating more genuine suspense were we not so thoroughly fed up with the main characters by this point in the story. Still, the thought of being trapped on ship that is sinking to the bottom of the ocean is a powerful and affecting one. The situation makes itself felt, even if the characters trapped in the midst of it don’t.

porthole1They wake up to find that the ship is still afloat, and they manage to climb out of the porthole and up on deck. Their boat is drifting and deserted of every living thing save a black cat. Still in their pajamas, they find large sailor coats to put on, and a very baggy pair of pants for Emily (another comical dressing scene!).

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junk1They wander around a bit and help themselves to some liquor from the bar, but before they can seriously start to wonder what they ought to do a Chinese junk appears alongside. The occupants of the ship don’t appear to be particularly interested in either Fred or Emily, and while they busily loot the derelict the couple invite themselves aboard the neighboring ship and get comfortable.

junk2junk3junk4

These particular Chinese sailors are a silent, scary bunch, and Fred and Emily are largely ignored as the ship sails away. There is a pregnant woman on board, and she brings them a meal at one point. Husband and wife tuck heartily into what seems to be a sort of meat stew, enjoying it very much until one of the sailors comes up on deck and tacks the pelt of the black cat to the wall. Later on, the baby is born and Emily is horrified when the father pours cold seawater over his newborn infant. The couple is drawn closer together, not only as a result of their troubles, but because the others on the boat are so totally alien to them.

stew1stew2stew3baby1baby2baby3

Their adventures come to an end at last back in their small, ordinary flat in England. The landlady welcomes them joyously home with a warm fire and dinner on the table. Fred glances up distastefully now at the painting of the ship hanging up over the mantle, and it seems unlikely he will ever set foot on another boat again if he can help it. After the landlady leaves, the couple share a private kiss, fully reconciled at last, but a few seconds later they have started another trivial argument about the future as the final fade-out creeps in.

In an interview decades later, Hitchcock recalled that, “There was an amusing sequence at the end […] after it’s all over, they meet me in the lounge. This is my most devastating appearance in a picture. They tell me their story, and I say, ‘No, I don’t think it’ll make a movie.’ And it didn’t.” The scene he described is not known to exist in any version of Rich and Strange, but it is a very telling image of how the director felt about this stage in his career in general (as well as this film in particular).

The movie did not do well, either critically or financially. A contemporary reviewer noted, “Admirers of Mr. Hitchcock’s work will be dissatisfied […] Mr. Hitchcock is clearly out of form.” Hitch’s time at British International Pictures, which seemed so promising during his silent period there, was finally drawing to a rather pedestrian close with an unfortunate run of forgettable adaptations during the early years of sound pictures.

Next Week: Hitchcock directs a train wreck

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~ by Jared on March 26, 2008.

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