Alfred Hitchcock often cited Young and Innocent (known in the US as The Girl Was Young) as his favourite of his British films. He wasn’t overly fond of the Josephine Tey novel, A Shilling for Candles, that the picture was based on. Hitch called the book “very, very bad” and moved ahead with slimming it down into this 1937 picture. He put screenwriters to task and had them leave out many of the novel’s characters.
What we have is a distilled version of Tey’s book, something that moves with the sort of fluidity and action of The 39 Steps. Yet it strikes with less import and even tumbles apart as it rolls into the station of its conclusion. Save for a lovely crane shot and some good humour, the last 15 or so minutes feel strangely wobbly.
Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) discovers the body of a successful actress (Pamela Carme) and is instantly charged with the crime, despite having only been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The trouble is that the real killer appears to have used a belt from his unfortunately missing raincoat in strangling the woman.
Tisdall knows the odds are stacked up against him, so he decides to make his escape during a crowded court hearing. In the confusion, he hops in the car of Erica (Nova Pilbeam), the daughter of the Chief Constable (Percy Marmont). After being on the run together, Erica is eventually convinced of Robert’s innocence and works to get him off the hook by finding the real killer.
Pilbeam was just 17 when she made Young and Innocent. She also appeared in The Man Who Knew Too Much and seemed sure to become a Hitchcock favourite until she was passed over in favour of Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes. Nevertheless, she appears mature and sharp in her role here and is entirely believable as one half of the “innocent” pair the title references.
It helps that the character of Erica is intensely resourceful and tough as nails. We first meet her as she revives the passed-out Tisdall with advice from the world of boxing. She also knows how to crank-start a car with the best of them and has no problem tooling around the neighbourhood with her dog in tow. She is not a damsel in distress, even when she encounters our “fugitive.”
This grounds the relatively light Young and Innocent and gives it two engaging lead characters to work with. From there, Hitchcock builds some comic sequences into the mix. Of special note is the hysterical sequence where Robert and Erica arrive at a birthday party only to have Aunt Mary (Mary Clare) leer suspiciously at their false excuses. Right this way, Beachcroft Manningtree.
The crane shot is one of the most famous moments in the film. Here, Hitchcock “substitutes the language of the camera for dialogue,” as he puts it. The shot, which took two days to do, descends from way up high over a crowded ballroom to zero in on the blackface of the real killer. It’s an impressive vision, suggesting to the audience that there’s more to this room than dancing and joviality.
Young and Innocent is a good film. It has many layers and works well as a sort of classic “on the run” tale. Hitchcock purposely downplayed the sexier aspects of the story due to Pilmbeam’s age, crafting what could be termed a more paternal relationship. When this is put next to scenes of Erica with her family, all brothers and her dad, it’s clear that she lives in a man’s world.
The only problem I have with Young and Innocent is that the real killer seems to come out of nowhere. This is no whodunit, of course, and Hitch took great pains to eliminate those elements from Tey’s material so that he could focus on the characters. But some connection to the murderer would’ve made the impressive ending more impactful.
It’s easy to see why Young and Innocent is among Hitchcock’s favourites of the British movies. There are two charming leads, a delightful plot and some prudently methodical set pieces. The camera does a lot of the groundwork, but the performers are up to the occasion. All in all, this is a pretty good piece of Hitchmania.