Week 19: Young and Innocent (1937)
“I learned something from being in the Girl Guides.”
“We mustn’t despair. Not actually despair. No desperandum!”
“Don’t forget it’s my petrol.”
“That’s alright. I was gonna take the left fork anyway.”
“Nonsense. I can’t leave you out here like a criminal. Come along.”
“What did I do with the belt? I twisted it round her neck and choked the life out of her!”
“Father, don’t you think we ought to ask Mr. Tisdall to dinner?”
–Young and Innocent
With the dark, brooding Sabotage behind him, and two more pictures left on his Gaumont contract, Hitchcock opted for the opposite extreme with 1937’s extremely light-hearted Young and Innocent . Although the title may chiefly refer to the wrongfully-accused protagonist, there is also a strong undercurrent of high-spirited, youthful innocence bolstering the proceedings. Young and Innocent claims Josephine Tey’s mystery novel A Shilling for Candles as its source, but as usual, the book served as little more than a jumping-off point for Hitch and his team of writers.
The story that made it to the screen is perhaps best described as ” The 39 Steps without spies,” featuring the same basic style and sharing many themes. Young and Innocent is as much a romantic comedy as it is a suspense thriller, and perhaps more. The film has more than a little in common with movies like 1934’s It Happened One Night, with an unlikely couple (in this case a suspected murderer and the chief constable’s daughter) on a journey which they begin as mild antagonists and end as devoted (but chaste) lovers.
For the role of Erica Burgoyne, the unsinkable constable’s daughter, Hitchcock turned to a young woman who had played a much different part for him just a few short years before. Nova Pilbeam, the child actress who had appeared as the kidnapped daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much, was now eighteen-years old and had blossomed into a genuine leading lady in her own right. As her first on-screen love interest, unemployed screenwriter Robert Tisdall, Hitchcock had Derrick De Marney, a twenty-eight-year old British actor. George Curzon, who had had a bit part in The Man Who Knew Too Much, plays Guy, the largely-absent villain of the piece (who only actually appears in the first and final scenes).
Rounding out the supporting roles are Edward Rigby as Old Will the China Mender, John Longden as Detective Inspector Kent, and Percy Marmont as Erica’s father, Colonel Burgoyne. The latter two were Hitchcock regulars by this time. Longden (here reprising his “type” as a police detective) was the male lead in Blackmail in 1929, one of several appearances in the early talkies. Marmont, of course, had played a stodgy Englishman twice before, as Commander Gordon in Rich and Strange and as the unfortunate Caypor in Secret Agent.
Young and Innocent begins on a dark and stormy night in a house near the beach where a married couple is having a violent quarrel. The wife is an actress, Christine Clay, and her husband, Guy, is furious over her relationships with other men. Guy has a curious nervous tic: his eyes twitch so that he appears to be blinking violently whenever he is upset (which he often is). The scene fades out as he stands out on the porch, looking menacingly inside at his wife with the sea crashing behind him.
This is followed by what appears to be a much more serene setting: a deserted beach by daylight. The peace is shattered, however, when the body of a woman in a bathing suit is seen washing ashore. The belt of a raincoat drifts ominously nearby. Tisdall, walking along the cliffs overhead, sees the lifeless swimmer and races out to investigate. As soon as he gets close enough to examine the body, he turns and races back up the beach to get help. Unfortunately for him, two women appear from the other direction at that very moment and spy him hurriedly leaving the scene of the crime.
When Tisdall returns with a rather thick constable, the women waste no time in casting suspicion on him and before he knows it he finds himself sitting in an interrogation room. By an unlucky coincidence (or is it?), the murder weapon is the belt of a raincoat, and Tisdall cannot prove that it doesn’t belong to him because his own raincoat was stolen from a roadside stop called “Tom’s Hat” just a few days before. Naturally, the suspicions of the police are aroused, and (realizing the seriousness of his position) Tisdall promptly passes out. He is revived in a very business-like fashion by Erica, the constable’s rather fetching daughter. He is immediately smitten, and the two flirt for a few moments before he is led away to meet with his lawyer.
This lawyer, who never seems to have tried a criminal case before, is exceptionally dim-witted and seems as likely as the prosecution to ensure Tisdall’s conviction. All in all, the poor man is feeling that his situation looks rather bleak when he is led into the courtroom, but a sudden commotion lends him an opportunity to escape. Donning his lawyer’s thick spectacles, he slips away and manages to disappear down the street while the hapless police force is still trying to mount their pursuit. It seems that the only vehicle readily available is Erica’s eccentric old car, and she is the only that can make it go. Glad to be of service, she putters out of the station with two officers aboard.
Sometime later, the car runs out of gas in the middle of the countryside and the police continue the chase on a passing pig cart. Erica, left behind with the car, soon runs into Tisdall, who helps her push her car to the nearest petrol station, and uses the last of his cash to fuel it up. Torn between duty and gratitude, Erica chooses not to turn him in, but not to help him either. She drops him off at an old mill, but feels guilty later at dinner with her family as her brothers describe (with great relish) the desperate circumstances faced by the fugitive. Feeling somewhat responsible for him, she returns to the mill with food. However, as they are talking, the same officers who boarded the pig cart arrive, and they are forced to escape together lest Erica be recognized.
Tisdall has little trouble recruiting her to help him in the search for his missing raincoat, beginning with a trip to Tom’s Hat. The hunt eventually leads the two to a bum named Old Will, who informs the pair that he acquired the coat from a man who “blinked” (as we have suspected all along). The coat was missing the belt before it passed into Will’s possession, and Tisdall soon realizes that he is the owner of the murder weapon. His only hope to clear his name now is to track down the twitching man.
Erica and Tisdall’s adventures include a hilarious stop-over at a child’s birthday party and a thrilling chase into a deserted mine where the ground collapses under the car (one of the film’s only moments of genuine danger). However, they fail to turn up any clues and things look bleak for everyone when the police discover that Erica has been helping the escaped murderer. Erica is miserable, her father feels compelled to resign his position with the force, and Tisdall, hoping to put things to rights, is resolved to turn himself in. Fortuitously, though, one final clue surfaces from the pocket of the raincoat and points the searchers to the Grand Hotel.
The area is crawling with police, and Tisdall keeps his distance, leaving Erica and Old Will (all dressed up in some fancy new clothes) to search the crowd for a man that blinks. Guy, the murderer, is finally revealed to the audience (but not the other characters) to be the drummer in the band just a few yards away, but they are performing in black-face. Noticing Old Will in the room, Guy grows increasingly nervous, and the pressure becomes more than he can take when the police arrive (although they are actually only their to retrieve Erica).
Finally, after losing the beat several times, Guy collapses noisily in the middle of a song as Erica is being led away. Ever the amateur nurse, she rushes to his side and notices his twitch as he comes to. With the black-face wiped away, Old Will confirms the identification, Guy confesses, and Tisdall pops up to be vindicated. Thrilled, Erica trots him over to meet her father and the three leave, arm-in-arm, to go have dinner at home with the family, and, presumably, live happily ever after.
The plot of Young and Innocent does indeed have as many holes as it seems to, but that doesn’t affect the entertainment value nearly as much as one might think. In his 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock said of this film, “It is a bastard form of story-telling. You lay out your story and you put the characters in afterwards. That’s why you don’t get really good characterizations. There isn’t time, and in any case, you know, they may not want to go.” About his British films in general, Hitch observed:
[T]he audience would accept more, the films of the period were full of fantasy, and one didn’t have to worry too much about logic or truth [. . .] One said, “An old lady with a gun, that’d be amusing.” There was more underlying humor, at least for me, and less logic. If the idea appealed to one, however outrageous it was, do it! They wouldn’t go for that in America.
That attitude is certainly the guiding light in this frivolous romp, and it is difficult not to be swept up in the gaiety of events. Nova Pilbeam is infectiously sunny, and De Marney is the archetypal early Hitchcock hero, witty and flippant even in the face of danger. There is an atmosphere, not so much of non-stop laughs, but of general good-humor all around. Young and Innocent‘s darkest moments are mere passing clouds.
Along with its basic plot structure, Young and Innocent shares with The 39 Steps the major theme of false, or hidden, identities and role-playing. Many of the characters disguise themselves for various reasons at one time or another, beginning with Tisdall hiding behind his lawyer’s thick glasses when he escapes from the courtroom. From then on he is only ever really himself when he is alone with Erica. Other disguises include Old Will’s dressing up in fine clothes in order to gain entry into the Grand Hotel and Guy’s heavy make-up before he is unmasked in the final scene.
In contrast with these more serious ruses, Tisdall plays a somewhat humorous role, family friend, when he and Erica stop off at the birthday party of her young cousin. The side-trip begins as a convenient excuse for Erica to give to her father for being gone. She promises Tisdall that she will only be inside for a few moments, but she has forgotten that it is Felicity’s 7th birthday. Her Aunt Margaret is thrilled to see her, and immediately puts her to work herding children.
Tisdall, meanwhile, is growing restless outside, and has just resolved to leave Erica a note and go on without her when Erica’s Uncle Basil pulls up. Tisdall explains that he is a friend of Erica’s, and Basil is horrified at her leaving him outside. He insists that Tisdall come in with him, explaining with unwitting accuracy, “I can’t leave you out here like a criminal.” On the way in, Tisdall swipes a small stone garden gnome to pass off as Erica’s birthday gift to Felicity, and Margaret exclaims obliviously that it will fit right in with “the one’s we’ve got” while Basil cocks a knowing eyebrow.
In response to Margaret’s nosy inquisitions, Tisdall gives his name variously (and outrageously) as “Beachcroft Manningtree” and “Beachtree Manningcroft.” He also stumbles badly when Erica claims (out of his hearing) that he works in advertising. Discussing his job with him, Margaret comments that it must be difficult to “hit the right note” and he assumes that she has been told he is a musician.
The two are immediately eager to get away, but every time Erica informs her aunt that “we really must be going,” she agrees brightly and then directs her niece to help serve dessert or organize a game. Before they know it, the would-be fugitives are standing miserably about wearing very silly hats and without hope of escape. They have confounded the police twice, but are powerless to get away from a child’s party.
Basil, who is certainly aware of more than he lets on and obviously accustomed to employing subterfuge on his overbearing wife, gives them their opportunity during the game of blindman’s buff. Once Margaret is blindfolded and feeling about, he motions Erica and Tisdall towards the door with a nod. Margaret nearly blunders right into them as they edge around her, until Basil leaps in front of her and gets himself caught. When Margaret realizes the two are gone, of course, she is most put out.
The birthday party is a very funny scene, full of sight gags, one-liners, and a precocious and amusingly-solemn child (Margaret and Basil’s son). Hitchcock later referred to the scene as the key to the whole film, although it was actually cut from the American release. Certainly this scene plays out the film’s larger themes and concerns in miniature. Although it is light and playful in tone, it deals overtly with the idea of false identities on the one hand, and on the other with Young and Innocent ‘s major recurring motif: sight, particularly accurate sight, versus blindness.
From the very beginning, Young and Innocent draws our attention to its characters’ eyes and their faculties of vision (as, indeed, numerous Hitchcock films do). The villain, of course, has the twitch around his eyes, indicating immediately that there is something not quite right or trustworthy about him. When Tisdall discovers the body on the beach and runs for help, the two women who see him immediately misinterpret the scene, setting in motion everything that follows.
Tisdall’s lawyer, an extraordinarily imperceptive fellow, has poor eyesight to match. And when Tisdall escapes from the courthouse (wearing, of course, his lawyer’s eyeglasses), Hitchcock makes his cameo, standing on the steps outside with a small camera in his hands. He is a photographer prevented by the movement of the crowd from capturing the scene with an objective lens. And, as I noted above, the game of blindman’s buff at the end of the party scene is a part of this as well. Margaret, who cannot suss out the truth despite her suspicions, is the one wearing the blindfold.
The climax, too, is set in motion when the heroes suddenly spot a previously overlooked clue. And, once Erica and Old Will are inside the hotel, everything depends on their ability to visually pick a needle out of the haystack of the crowd around them. Once the murderer has given himself away, Erica must still peel back the layers of his disguise in order to reveal him for what he truly is to those less perceptive than herself.
The film’s most memorable and talked-about moment, though, is a magnificent crane shot taken in the hotel after the two searchers have settled down at their table and begun to look around. Hitchcock cuts out to a wide, aerial shot of the hotel lobby and, in a long take, moves the camera across the whole length of the room, passing into the dancer-filled dining room. Without cutting, he slowly zooms the camera in over the heads of the crowd as the band (rather significantly) plays a song called “The Drummer Man” until he has tightened in on an extreme close-up of the drummer’s eyes, which begin to twitch.
Considering the number of people involved (in both the crowded lobby and the dining room), the movement of the camera between rooms, and the accompanying musical number that sets up the scene’s big revelation, it is almost certainly the most impressive technical achievement of the director’s career up to that point. It is truly an awesome display of vision, coordination, and planning that, as always, draws our attention inexorably to the very spot where Hitchcock wants it to be.
Young and Innocent is only rarely discussed beyond a mention of its amazing crane take. Among Hitchcock’s six great British suspense films of the 1930s it is easily the most lightweight, and deliberately so. It represents Hitchcock at his most formulaic, but it is certainly not without its charms. In any case, it’s not difficult to see how the film, despite its obvious appeal, could be eclipsed by Hitchcock’s follow-up. Generally viewed as the peak of his British career, it is a brilliant amalgam of the most successful elements he had discovered as a filmmaker and storyteller up to that point, masterfully assembled into a funny and thrilling film.