Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock


“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.


A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:


I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.


Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.



Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)


Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.


“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.

36 Responses to “Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock”

  1. Interesting short piece by Sandra Shevey where she says that Hitchcick “interpolated into the plot an antiSemitic caricature wholly missing from the play”:


  2. Maybe what “Juno and the Paycock” needed was Anna May Wong kicking a chicken. (Sounds like that “Stompin’ on a Spaniel” dance with Kathleen Widdoes in in James Ivory’s “Savges.”)

    Do you feel equal antipathy for the Ford version of O’Casey’s “Plough and the Stars”?

  3. This article speaks of SYNGE’s “Juno and the Paycock”? [clutching head]

  4. I prefer Ford’s version of the O’Casey play. Ford does not have Hitchcock’s petit bourgeois prejudices.

  5. I think that Ford’s adaptation of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars was better than Hitch’s version of Juno and the Paycock on every level. Perhaps I am biased, as I generally prefer Ford’s work anyway.

  6. Sandra Shevey’s description of a half naked Hitchcock doing the hula reminds me of Denise Duhamel’s poem Buddhist Barbie:
    In the 5th century B.C.
    an Indian philosopher
    Gautama teaches “All is emptiness”
    and “There is no self.”
    In the 20th century A.D.
    Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man
    with such a belly could pose,
    smiling, and without a shirt.

  7. There is indeed a Jewish character in Hitch’s version of Juno, and he’s very stereotyped indeed. But I’m not sure I’d call him an anti-semitic stereotype. He’s a semitic stereotype, to be sure. But he’s not as nagative a character as Lean and Guinness’s Fagin, for instance. And Juno being a pre-Holocaust film, I don’t expect too much sensitivity. It’s a little unfortunate, though, I’ll grant that.

    I haven’t seen the Ford. From interviews with collaborators, I got a rather disagreeable sense of Ford’s Irish nationalism, but maybe he modifies it for the screen.

  8. Given the subject matter of the film and the director, Ford’s Plough and the Stars is bound to have a nationalistic perspective. I think that Ford honours O’Casey’s anti-war, anti-violence sentiment when he gives the last word to the woman, as you can see in the extract:

  9. Where else could you see Mr Creosote playing the xylophone and Anna May Wong kicking a chicken but on this blog?

  10. I wonder if the makers of Paramount’s INTERNATIONAL HOUSE stole the idea from ELSTREE CALLING of using a futuristic “television” to tie together a bunch of disparate vaudeville acts.

  11. It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone looking at Elstree Calling and thinking, “Yeah, we’ve got to steal from THIS,” but I guess if anyone was going to do that, the maniacs behind International House would be the ones. They made a much more entertaining film out of it.

  12. The Plough and the Stars looks good. But it strikes an ambiguous note, for me — Stanwyck seems to accept that the women’s weeping is inevitable, and perhaps a price to be paid.

  13. Searched You Tube for clips of Marc Blitzstein’s musical version of “Juno and the Paycock” but could find none. Some of his loveliest songs were written for this show — which starred Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas.

  14. You can hear a version of Marc Blitzstein’s I Wish It So from Juno here:

  15. Wow, I can’t decide whether I’d like a musical version better. I think I probably would.

    I suddenly realised that the Scottish sitcom character Rab C Nesbitt is a version of Boyle from Juno and the Paycock, but without the same level of self-righteousness that makes Boyle so nauseating.

  16. Interesing comparison that, Boyle and Rab C Nesbit. Come to think of it, Rab’s sidekick Jamesie has many similarities to Joxer.

    Rab C Nesbitt is one of my favourite sitcoms.

  17. Off-topic, but I wonder if anyone has seen Benoît Jacquot’s Adolphe? I haven’t seen the film, but quite like the novel on which it is based. I see that Isabelle Adjani and Romain Duris are in Adolphe. I though that Duris was excellent in Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)
    I don’t really know Jacquot’s work.

  18. Me neither, I’m afraid. Adjani is frequently very interesting — nobody freaks out like her — so I’m sure it’s worth investigating.

    I think the whole set-up of Rab C has similarities to Juno. But all the earnest characters have been either removed or corrupted. This has the effect of making it a bit less depressing, but it’s still powerfully desperate at times. For those who like their comedy with a bit of gloom.

  19. Haven’t seen the film you mentioned but Jacquot has an interesting if erratic career. Everything from lush melodramas created for Mrs. jacquot (uber-goddess Dominque Sanda) to collaborations with margueirte Duras (her very late self-starred items) to a video interview of Jacques Lacan (Television,) of pivotal import in Lacanian circles.
    I like his early Les Enfants du Placard with Lou Castel and Brigitte Fossey quite a lot.

  20. Now that I investigate, it appears I haven’t seen ANY Jacquot. But I adore Sanda, so I’m going to have to check his stuff out.

  21. Here’s another early Jacquot of obvious interest. It’s a modern dress version, BTW.

    Also good is School of the Flesh — a Mishima adaptation starring the fearless Isabelle Huppert.

    Jacquot is a week older than I am.

  22. And you’re both going strong!

    Only his Tosca production is available in the UK, but several others are out there as downloads, some with subs…

  23. Dominque Sanda was great in Bresson’s Une femme douce.

    Jacquot’s Les Ailes de la colombe looks interesting. I enjoyed Iain Softley’s adaptation of the Henry James novel.

    A friend recommeded Seventh Heaven, saying it reminded him of Hitchcock’s Marnie:

    David E, I see that you are an Aquarian, like myself.

  24. One of relatively few Bresson models to have gone on to an acting career. It was the one-two punch of her pretty much opposite roles in The Conformist and 1900 that impressed me greatly as a teen, for obvious reasons, I guess. Her Dietrich pose in the arched doorway in Conformist is etched upon my brain with a hormonal awl.

  25. She is very good in The Conformist.

    My favourite Bertolucci is the wonderful Before the Revolution. It’s quite a sexy film in its own way.

  26. My one viewing of that, on a grizzled VHS, was unsatisfactory. I must revisit it soon — but not until after I’ve watched my Partner DVD.

    Just enjoying Clementi in The Designated Victim, a Strangers on a Train giallo knock-off. Great title, and some surprisingly interesting characterisation.

  27. Christopher Says:

    “Ay..I might a known..makin’ luv behind my back!”
    John Laurie is probably my most favorite part of 39 Steps..Me and my cousin are always mimicking him..since he reminds of our poor dearly departed grandad..

  28. A lovely actor. I shall have more to say about him when the time comes. I have a treasured LP of J-Lau reciting the poetry of William McGonagall, Scotland’s greatest bad poet (a hotly contested title you may be sure).

  29. That sounds like one hell of a record. If you ever find a way to convert vinyl to internet, I’d love to hear it. The Northern Irish McGonagall, Amanda McKittrick Ros, is in some ways even funnier than the Scot, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

  30. A moment’s google brings me to http://oddbooks.co.uk/amanda where you’ll find much like this:

    On Visiting Westminster Abbey

    Holy Moses! Have a look!
    Flesh decayed in every nook!
    Some rare bits of brain lie here,
    Mortal loads of beef and beer,
    Some of whom are turned to dust,
    Every one bids lost to lust;
    Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’
    Undergoes the same as you.

  31. She has a command of scansion that eludes McGonagall, but her lack of command of tone is hilarious.

    The Laurie record has whistling wind sound FX and the like, enhacing his lugubrious delivery of The Tay Bridge Disaster.

    It must have been an awful sight,
    To witness in the dusky moonlight,
    While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
    Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.

  32. Farnsworth had a working, transmitting television system as early as 1927.

    The Nazis didn’t come to power until 1933, and weren’t noted for technological brilliance before then.

  33. You are right. But I believe the Nazis had the first TV network, broadcasting to the nation. Probably not until the late 30s though. They didn’t invent it but they industrialised it. Where Elstree Calling is futuristic is in the suggestion that you can own your own TV and pick up regular broadcasts on it, which wasn’t true in 1929-30.

  34. Yes. The Nazis began regular broadcasting in 1935.

    The Beeb was doing television broadcasting experimentally in 1932, and began regular broadcasts in 1936. During WWII, they shut down those broadcasts while a Mickey Mouse cartoon was in-progress. When they resumed post-ware television broadcasting, it was with that same cartoon. (Only fair, really.)

  35. The longest commercial break in history!

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