Friday, May 30, 2014

Young and Innocent (Gaumont-British, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday morning I ran Young and Innocent, the 1937 Hitchcock British film I’d already had on Beta, but which I’d just got on VHS in the same package as Rich and Strange. Young and Innocent is a masterpiece, though I can well imagine why it threw audiences in 1937 — there’s no espionage, no international intrigue and only one murder, which takes place at the beginning of the film (and, true to form, Hitchcock reveals the killer at the very outset of the plot, including a giveaway characteristic — an uncontrollably twitching eye — a clue that, in typical Hitchcock fashion, is revealed to the audience from the beginning but is unknown to the characters until about three-fourths of the way through the film’s plot) and is not even shown on screen. This film was based, very loosely, on Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles, though Hitch took little from the book but the character names, a vivid montage of newspaper headlines announcing the murder of the famous film star Christine Clay, and the idea of the innocent man and the police chief’s daughter locked together (metaphorically this time, not literally as in The 39 Steps) in a chase for the real killer while the police chase them. (Tey’s novel is too rambling and diffuse to have been filmable as written, but later she wrote a masterpiece, Brat Farrar, that would have made a wonderful Hitchcock movie; with its theme of imposture, its hidden murder and its vertiginous climax on the clifftops of Dover, it practically reads like a Hitchcock script — and Cary Grant would have been ideal casting for the dual role of the male leads.) What Hitchcock did film faithfully was the chase of man, woman and car (an old Morris Minor which is so endearing it practically becomes another character in both book and film, though Hitch and his screenwriters — Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong — should have kept the car’s nickname, “Tinny,” by which the girl who owns it — and is the only person who knows how to drive it — calls it in the novel).

It’s an oddly pastoral film, full of the subtle beauties of the English countryside (photographed, in one of those great black-and-white jobs from the 1930’s that questions the whole idea that anyone would want to make a film in color, by Bernard Knowles) and a slowly and beautifully developing relationship between the leads — including an overbearing performance by Derrick De Marney as the innocent man on the run and the remarkable Nova Pilbeam as the police chief’s daughter who helps him. Pilbeam’s performance has the same kind of edginess and forthrightness of Bette Davis’ work of the period, and one wonders what happened to her after this (she’d played the daughter in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Young and Innocent was her first adult role — and she was among the actresses considered for Rebecca, though for that film Hitchcock insisted she was all wrong as a type; which she would have been — if she had been in the position of the second Mrs. Max de Winter, she would have grabbed her husband by the scruff of the neck and burned all that crap that reminded both of them of Rebecca!). Donald Spoto’s book has a long and loving analysis of Young and Innocent, pointing out the motifs of vision (the hero steals his lawyer’s glasses to escape, the murderer has a twitch in both eyes, the children at the party where hero and heroine are socially trapped play blind man’s bluff and the heroine’s younger brothers fantasize the murderer lying dead on a beach with birds pecking out his eyes — a vision Hitchcock would later realize on screen in The Birds — and Hitchcock’s cameo appearance shows him wrestling with a small snapshot camera, trying to get a picture of the fleeing fugitive: an ironic reflection of his actual role in staging this entire story and using much more sophisticated cameras to record it as a film!) and of disguise (the murder victim is an actress, and the murderer is her secret husband; the murderer performs in blackface as a band drummer; and the hero, who knew Christine Clay and had an affair with her after selling her a story for one of her films, disguises himself to escape; “Everyone deals in creating illusion,” Spoto notes). He also points out at least two shots Hitch repeated in later films: the vertiginous rescue of Pilbeam by De Marney after the abandoned mine they’re hiding out in caves in and he has to pull her to safety from a gaping pit (repeated with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest) and the seagulls who circle the dead body of Christine Clay as she floats to shore on the beach below the house where she was killed (another forerunner of The Birds). — 3/13/95


Afterwards we went back to Charles’ place and ran Young and Innocent (which I had on tape as part of the two-pack that also contained Rich and Strange), which remains a marvelous movie — oddly pastoral and bucolic through much of its length, even though it contains a murder plot, and while Hitchcock may only have used about one-third of his source novel (Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles) he preserved Tey’s style, notably her emphasis on character development rather than the mystery itself. — 12/10/95


Young and Innocent, the film I chose for us to watch last night, turned out to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British movies. I’d seen it several times before (the first time was in the mid-1970’s at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco) but it came across as better now than it has before. It’s ostensibly based on the 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh but she wrote plays under the pen name “Gordon Daviot” — continuing the tradition of women authors using male aliases begun by George Eliot and George Sand — and mysteries as “Josephine Tey,” including The Daughter of Time — her marvelous re-examination of Richard III, whom she’d already tried to rehabilitate in the “Gordon Daviot” play Dickon, in the guise of a mystery novel; as well as Brat Farrar, an impersonation tale that Hitchcock should have filmed with Cary Grant in the lead[s]), but in fact Hitchcock and his writers (Charles Bennett — who was to Hitch what Robert Riskin was to Frank Capra and Dudley Nichols to John Ford — Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong, “screen play”; Gerald Savory, “dialogue”; and Alma Reville, a.k.a. Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, “continuity”) only used about one-third of what Tey had written and changed the identity of the murderer as revealed at the end. Both book and film start off with the murder by strangling of international film star Christine Clay (Pamela Carme), a British woman who achieved success in Hollywood and then returned home after having secured a Nevada divorce from her British husband, who in the opening scene of the movie is shown berating her for her affairs with “boys” — i.e., much younger men. He also says that since the British courts don’t recognize a Nevada divorce, he still considers himself her husband — he says he raised her out of a chorus line and boosted her to stardom, only to be thrown aside — and we get an extreme close-up of his face to show that he has an uncontrollable twitch in his eyes that manifests itself at times of high stress.

The next thing we see is a scene at a beach in which Christine Clay’s body washes up on shore, and one of her young boyfriends, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney), finds her body. Then he goes for help, thinking she’s merely drowned instead of having been thrown into the water after she’s already been killed, and in the meantime the body is found again by two young women out for a dip in the beach. They report to the police and Robert instantly becomes suspect number one, done in not only by the police looking for the most obvious culprit (Christine was strangled with the belt of a raincoat Tisdall formerly owned; he says it was stolen while he was at a countryside truck stop but of course the cops don’t believe him) but also by the wretchedly incompetent attorney the court appoints to represent him. Robert escapes from the courthouse during his arraignment — there’s a marvelously ironic Hitchcock cameo appearance showing him outside the courthouse, fumbling with a cheap box camera trying to take a picture of the fugitive (the irony, of course, is that Hitchcock in real life was staging this entire story in order to photograph it and turn it into a commercial movie that audiences would pay to see) — and, ironically, the only person willing to help him prove his innocence is Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam, top-billed — the Brits were really trying to make a star out of her; this was her second Hitchcock film, after playing the teenage daughter who’s kidnapped in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and when Hitchcock came to the U.S. in 1939 to make Rebecca he tested her for the female lead but decided she was too self-assured, not vulnerable enough, for that role), daughter of the police chief (Percy Marmont, in his third Hitchcock film after Rich and Strange and The Secret Agent) whose department arrested him in the first place. Erica drives an old, decrepit Morris car called “Tinny” — in Tey’s novel the car practically becomes a character on its own — so old it needs to be hand-cranked to get it to start, and so decrepit the choke is controlled by a string she loops over the steering wheel when it isn’t needed — and she and Robert do a surprisingly beautiful and pastoral journey through the British countryside during which she matures as a woman, she and Robert fall in love, and they ultimately trace the missing raincoat to Will (Edward Rigby), a homeless china-mender who was given the coat, sans belt, by Christine’s actual killer. Robert is ready to give up and turn himself in when Erica, going through the pockets of the coat after they’ve recovered it from Will, finds a matchbook from the Grand Hotel, a beachside resort, and deduces that the murderer is someone who’s either staying or working at the Grand Hotel.

The Gaumont-British studio, where Hitchcock filmed Young and Innocent, had just gone through a major reorganization before the movie was produced — Hitchcock’s original producer, Michael Balcon, had just jumped from the company to head a British subsidiary MGM had launched (mainly to sign Robert Donat, the international star who refused to work anywhere but his native England, so MGM set up a British operation to be able to put him under contract and use him at home), and Hitchcock found himself working in a smaller studio than he was used to and with a significantly lower production budget. Instead of scrimping on the entire movie, he decided to shoot the works on two openly spectacular scenes and really hold down costs on the remainder — which accounts for the wretchedly obvious model work on the two shots of passing trains and the painted backdrops we see in several scenes. One of the big scenes is when Will tells Robert and Erica they can hide out from the police by driving into the cave of an old, disused mine — only the mine’s floor caves in under the weight of Erica’s car as soon as they drive in, and Robert has to rescue her from certain death in a scene Hitchcock duplicated almost exactly, setup for setup, 22 years later with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. The other is towards the end, in which Erica has bought a dress outfit for Will (who’s complaining that the new boots are pinching his feet because he hasn’t had a chance to cut holes in them to accommodate his corns the way he had with his old ones) so the two of them can enter the Grand Hotel and search for the killer. In a scene that required Hitchcock to use two soundstages and build an extensive Grand Hotel interior set that extended between them, he does a long camera track from Will and Erica walking through the hotel lobby onto the dance floor of the hotel’s nightclub, then keeps the camera moving towards the bandstand — where a white singer is holding forth in front of a band performing in blackface — and, as the singer belts out a song singing the praises of his band’s drummer (“No One Can Like the Drummer Man”), the camera keeps traveling until we get an extreme close-up of the drummer’s face, and we see his eyes start to twitch. It’s typical of Hitchcock that we get the information that the drummer, Guy (George Curzon), is the killer well before the characters do — and that he has Guy recognize Will before Will recognizes Guy. The sight of Will (“outed” by a lap dissolve that penetrates the evening dress he has on to the appearance of the tramp we saw in the previous scenes) freaks Guy out; he tries turning away from the stage and playing a xylophone (a frequent double for drummers who also wanted to play a melody instrument) in the middle of a number (for which he’s upbraided by the bandleader: “I pay someone else to make the arrangements”), then during an intermission he belts down a large number of pills (explaining to one of his bandmates they’re a prescription to control his eye twitch), and when the show starts again he freaks out completely, becomes nonfunctional, collapses on the bandstand and, when he comes to, blurts out a confession to Erica, Will, Robert (who’s just come on the scene) and the cops in the audience who’d come there looking to arrest Robert. It’s not clear whether Guy lives to stand trial or dies on the spot, but Robert is exonerated and the police chief asks his daughter to invite her new young man to dinner.

Young and Innocent is a fascinating movie, partly because so much of it is quiet and pastoral in mood (it’s hard to remember that both these “young and innocent” people are fleeing the police because he’s accused of a murder he didn’t commit), partly because there are scenes that anticipate later Hitchcock works (like the seagulls that cluster around Christine Clay’s body on the beach — Hitchcock wanted to include the scene Tey described of the gulls pecking out the dead Christine Clay’s eyes, which would have brought this film even closer to The Birds, but the British Board of Film Censors nixed it), and partly because of the intense acting of Nova Pilbeam. It’s typical of Hitchcock’s subtlety that Derrick de Marney’s character comes off as an obnoxious little pill (he received money from Christine Clay, though he says it was payment for a film story he sold her, and he was left 1,200 pounds in her will, which the cops think was his motive for killing her) and it is Pilbeam’s character who takes command of the investigation. Wearing the blonde hair bob that was the hallmark of Hitchcock’s later “cool blondes,” Pilbeam turns in a quite daring performance for 1937, a convincing feminist heroine who takes command of her boyfriend’s exoneration and bucks up his spirits when he’s ready to give up and turn himself in. She’s a quite remarkable actress and it’s a real pity she didn’t become more of a major star (her next project was, of all things, an experimental TV-movie for the BBC called Prison Without Bars). The U.S. distributor of Young and Innocent changed the title to The Girl Was Young (which makes no sense at all) and cut one of Hitchcock’s most audacious scenes — in which Robert’s and Erica’s escape is delayed by a courtesy call she puts in to her aunt (Mary Clare) and she gets roped into a game of blind man’s bluff at the birthday party of her nephew; it doesn’t really add to the plot but it screws up the tension in the way Hitchcock was so fond of doing, and it helps to have it there. Young and Innocent was considered a minor Hitchcock at the time (and certainly the course of the de Marney-Pilbeam relationship mirrors that between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps two years earlier in his canon), and when David O. Selznick’s British representative saw it he thought it was a bad movie and sent a memo to Selznick saying he wondered if Selznick would really want to hire its director — to which Selznick didn’t reply until he’d seen the film himself, after which he cabled, “Regret to say I do not agree with you.” — 5/30/14