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Alfred Hitchcock’s Early Career

August 13, 2015 | By

Alfred Hitchcock made his directorial debut in Great Britain with The Pleasure Garden in 1925. In 1939 Hitchcock moved to Hollywood after a series of successful hits with his early films in Britain viz. The Man Who Knew Too Much, Blackmail, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. These films are equally important to discuss the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock.

Today Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the director most associated with suspense movies. Throughout his career he directed a wide variety of films in the genre, from spy thrillers such as North by Northwest (1959) to crime thrillers such as Rear Window (1954).  Despite this, when Hitchcock began his career in Britain during the Silent Era, he directed films in several different genres. It would only be a few years after the advent of sound films that Hitchcock established himself as a well-known director of suspense movies.

Alfred Hitchcock began his film career in 1920 designing title cards for silent films. In 1922 he started working as an art director on films and in 1923 he started work as an assistant director.  Alfred Hitchcock made his directorial debut with The Pleasure Garden in 1925.

The Pleasure Garden is a very different film from the suspense movies Hitchcock would later make. The film centres on the romantic difficulties of two chorus girls at the Pleasure Garden Theatre in London.  Hitchcock would direct his second complete film in 1926 and it would also be very different from the suspense films he later made. The Mountain Eagle was about the romantic rivalry between a widower and his son. The distributor of both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle declined to release either film until after the success of Hitchcock’s third film, The Lodger, in 1927.  The Mountain Eagle has not been seen in years and is presumed to be lost.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's first released film The Lodger

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock’s first released film The Lodger

Although it was the third film he directed, The Lodger would be the first Alfred Hitchcock film ever released. It was also Hitchcock’s first suspense movie. In The Lodger a Jack the Ripper style serial killer known as “The Avenger” is stalking women in London. With the police searching for the killer, a man resembling descriptions of The Avenger rents a room from the Bunting family. Over time the Buntings become concerned that their lodger is indeed the notorious serial killer.

Not only would The Lodger be the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be released, but it would also be his first box office success in the United Kingdom.  Today a director would follow a box office hit such as The Lodger with similar films, but Alfred Hitchcock’s next several films were not thrillers. The Ring (1927), the film Hitchcock made following The Lodger, was a sports drama centred on boxing. Downhill (1927) was a coming of age melodrama. The Farmer’s Wife (1928) and Champagne (1928) were both comedies, while Easy Virtue (1928) and The Manxman (1929) were both romances. A few of the films Hitchcock made in the Silent Era were based on plays: Downhill on a play by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier; The Farmer’s Wife on a play by Eden Phillpotts; and Easy Virtue on a play by Noel Coward.  Out of the nine films Alfred Hitchcock completed during the Silent Era, only one (The Lodger) was a thriller.

Alfred Hitchcock would return to the suspense genre with what would be his first sound film. Blackmail (1929) began production as a silent film, but early in its filming British International Pictures decided to make it a talkie. A silent version was provided to theatres not yet equipped for sound. While Blackmail is often cited as the first British talkie, in truth a few sound films had been released in Britain prior to its premiere, including The Clue of the New Pin (1929) and The Crimson Circle (1929).

The climax of Blackmail - set at the British Museum

The climax of Blackmail – set at the British Museum

Blackmail centres on a young woman who finds herself being blackmailed after killing a man who had tried to assault her. It was the second of Hitchcock’s many crime thrillers, and it featured some of the motifs found in his later films. In the lead role Anny Onda was one of the earliest blondes featured in a Hitchcock film, making her a forerunner to such Hitchcock stars as Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly, and Janet Leigh. The climax of Blackmail was also set at a well-known landmark, namely the British Museum. Many of Hitchcock’s later films would have climaxes set at well-known landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942) and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959). Blackmail not only received acclaim from the critics, but it proved to be a hit at the box office as well.

Alfred Hitchcock followed Blackmail with the comedy Juno and the Paycock (1930), an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s play of the same name. He returned to the suspense genre with his next movie, Murder! (1930). Murder! centres on Sir John Menier who conducts his own murder investigation after believing the wrong person was convicted during a murder trial. Murder! included what would become one of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s later films, that of an individual falsely accused of a crime.

Alfred Hitchcock followed Murder! with the family drama The Skin Game (1931) and the comedy Rich and Strange (1931). His next film would be another thriller. Number Seventeen (1932) was based on a play by J. Jefferson Farjeon and centred on a band of criminals who pull off a jewel heist. Number Seventeen featured two motifs common to later Hitchcock films. One was the introduction of comedy into an otherwise serious film. Another was the use of what Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin”, a plot device to move the plot along that is ultimately unimportant to the plot itself. In the case of Number Seventeen, the MacGuffin was a priceless necklace. Number Seventeen did poorly at the box office and did not receive particularly good notices from critics. Hitchcock himself did not regard the film highly. In François Truffaut’s interview with him, Hitchcock referred to Number Seventeen as “a disaster.”

As poorly as Hitchcock regarded Number Seventeen, he would regard his following movie, Waltzes from Vienna (1933) even worse. He considered the film to be his career’s low point. It was the only musical Hitchcock ever made. Both audiences and the critics largely ignored Waltzes of Vienna, a situation that has persisted to this day.

Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

Fortunately Alfred Hitchcock was about to embark on one of best periods in his career. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) was the first of his many espionage thrillers. Its plot was one which Hitchcock would visit again, that of ordinary people who find themselves mixed up with spies. The film received overwhelmingly positive notices from critics. It also proved to be his biggest hit at the British box office up to that time. The Man Who Knew Too Much also performed well in the United States, bringing the director to the attention of Americans. Hitchcock would remake The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, although the remake is not as highly regarded as the original.

Hitchcock would follow The Man Who Knew Too Much with a trio of espionage thrillers. The 39 Steps (1935) was based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It centred on Richard Hannay, who finds himself on the run after a spy he tried to help is murdered. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps proved a success with both critics and audiences. It also proved to be a success in both the United States and the United Kingdom.  Many consider its female lead, Madeleine Carroll, to be the first of the quintessential “Hitchcock blondes”.

Madeleine Carroll also starred in Hitchcock’s next film, Secret Agent (1936).  The film was based on two of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Ashenden” short stories and centred on a novelist who is recruited by British Intelligence. Unlike The 39 Steps, Secret Agent opened to mixed reviews and was a disappointment at the box office.  The film is somewhat more highly regarded today. His next film, Sabotage (1936), received somewhat better reviews, but also failed at the box office.

Hitchcock’s next film would be the crime thriller Young and Innocent. Although not as well-known as either Secret Agent or Sabotage today, Young and Innocent would prove to be a modest success upon its initial release. Its success would be dwarfed by that of Hitchcock’s next film, The Lady Vanishes (1938). Another espionage thriller, The Lady Vanishes became the most successful British film up to that time. It enjoyed a good deal of success in the United States, and was even named Best Picture of 1938 by The New York Times.

The poster of The Lady Vanishes - the last film of Alfred Hitchcock's early career

The poster of The Lady Vanishes – the last film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career

The success of The Lady Vanishes also drew the attention of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. In March 1939 Selznick signed Hitchcock to seven year contract and the director moved to the United States. Jamaica Inn (based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name), his last British film until Stage Fright in 1950, was released on May 15 1939 in the United Kingdom.

The first film Alfred Hitchcock made in the United States was Rebecca (1940). He would follow it with such films as Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Saboteur (1942) that would further establish his reputation as the Master of Suspense. While Alfred Hitchcock would attain ever greater heights of fame in the United States, arguably it was films he made in Britain that established him as a director of suspense thrillers. The Lodger, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes all met with enormous success in both the United States and the United Kingdom. And they established many of the motifs for which he became known.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

A Special Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock
Love as Obsession: Reading Alfred Hitchcock The Paradine Case
Alfred Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes

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Terence Towles Canote is the author of the book Television: Rare & Well Done. He runs the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. He has been published in Capper's Weekly, The Old Cowboy Picture Show, and other small press publications.
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