With Hitchmania in the bag, I thought I would take the opportunity to publish a few essays as a way of summing up the career of Alfred Hitchcock in my own clumsy way. The first of these essays charts the course to his first feature film.
The Hitchmania project began on February 17, 2013 with my review of The Pleasure Garden, Alfred Hitchcock’s first complete motion picture. The silent feature film first screened in March of 1926 and laid some of the groundwork for the director’s “touch.”
The path to The Pleasure Garden began with the birth of Hitchcock on August 13, 1899. He was the third child in a Catholic household that called Leytonstone home. Hitch was born in the home, in fact, which was above his father’s wholesale poultry and grocery store. It was this environment that gave the filmmaker his lower middle class roots.
It was also this neighbourhood that provided Hitchcock with his first experience with the police. Just steps away from his birthplace, a young version of the Master of Suspense was locked up by an officer thanks to an instruction by his father. The elder Hitchcock wanted to teach Alfred “what happened to bad little boys.”
That experience shadowed Hitchcock as a filmmaker throughout his career. Through 50 years of cinematic visions, the tension only seldom alleviated. And even then, this marked distrust remained.
After his father passed away in December of 1914, Hitchcock had a decision to make. It was time to select a career path. His brother had taken over the family business, so Alfred took to the world of engineering. He gained attention for his sketching (deemed “above average” by employers) and worked at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company.
This artistic edge had Hitchcock moved to the advertising and marketing department, where he developed some of the skills that would serve him so well throughout his film career.
After being excused from service in World War I due to a medical examination, Hitchcock took to the theatre. He was particularly fond of J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, a “fictional story of a girl who vanishes twice.” Hitch had always wanted to bring Mary Rose to the screen, leading right up to 1964 when he asked Marnie scribe Jay Presson Allen for a treatment.
If there’s a pattern that emerges in Hitchcock’s history, it’s that things tend to haunt him. The good news is that he makes great use of said hauntings, inserting his distrust of authority and his tenacity into each of his works in some capacity. Despite his many insistences that he didn’t put much of himself into his movies, this doesn’t always seem to be the case.
Throughout his time at Henley, Hitchcock was compartmentalizing what he learned. He filed away Mary Rose and wrote a short story entitled “Gas” that appeared in the company’s in-house newsletter. He also kept up with the news in the film industry and crafted title cards for a silent film, which he took to Famous Players-Lasky.
The film had already been called off, but the bigwigs at Famous Players-Lasky were nevertheless impressed with Hitchcock’s talents. They gave him his first job in cinema. Hitchcock was 21.
There are many accounts of this period in his life, including Tom Ryall’s Alfred Hitchcock & the British Cinema. What can be gleaned from this account – and others – is that Hitchcock meant business. He was not only a quick study, he was persistent. He studied as much as possible and learned the trade through the various positions he was given, from title design to costumes to props to sets.
By 1922, it was nearly time for Alfred Hitchcock to direct his first feature film. He had helped Seymour Hicks’ production of Always Tell Your Wife by finishing direction (this was after Hugh Croise was canned), but his first effort in the driver’s seat was a picture entitled Number 13. Only a single still remains from that film, as budget cuts took it out of production.
With the British industry in a state of financial distress, Hitchcock went to work at Islington studios for independent producers. He was an assistant director to Graham Cutts and was part of the arrangement when Gainsborough Pictures snapped up the studio in 1924. Under Michael Balcon, Hitch would receive his first serious opportunity.
But first, he had the chance to check out the work of F. W. Murnau firsthand. He took a trip to Germany with Cutts and visited UFA studios. The trouble was that things with Cutts were beginning to depreciate to the point that the “upstart crow” named Alfred was cut loose. This gave Hitch his first crack at making a movie: The Pleasure Garden.
The film was made in Germany and had the support of Balcon, which both gave it the Gainsborough blessing and set it apart from the prying eyes of the British industry. Hitch had a unique opportunity for a first-time director, but Gainsborough didn’t back him indeterminately. They actually shelved his first two pictures after poor showings at trade screenings.
Regardless, Hitchcock was on his way. His career began because of his resolve, because of his hunger to learn as much as he could and because of his appetite for the industry. Hitch was always building his toolbox, always adding to his knowledge banks. If there’s a lesson that bears out along the path to The Pleasure Garden, it’s that perseverance really does matter.
It should be noted that The Pleasure Garden has recently been restored by the BFI with a new score by Daniel Patrick Cohen. It’s an exciting development, to be sure.