Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Pleasure Garden

THE PLEASURE GARDEN          C+            
Great Britain  Germany  (75 mi)  1925  d:  Alfred Hitchcock 

Hitchcock’s first feature film at the age of 25 is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the assistant director Alma Reville became his eventual wife and lifelong companion, often thought to be the only other trustworthy person in the room for Hitchcock, as she was a talented writer and editor in her own right with a sharp eye for finding mistakes and inconsistencies in the frame, where at least initially, he was working for her when they first met in the London film studios of the 1920’s and were married shortly after this film was released.  But the film is also significant as the first two Hitchcock efforts (the second, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE has been lost) were filmed in German studios, mainly in Munich, where it’s likely Fritz Lang had already begun shooting METROPOLIS (1927) at UFA Studios in Berlin, which began in May 1925, generating an interest in German Expressionism, which was a central influence in THE LODGER (1926), but also later films like Suspicion (1941) and Marnie (1964).  As a production assistant, Hitchcock was sent to visit the huge UFA studio facilities in Germany and met F.W. Murnau, even watching Murnau directing THE LAST LAUGH (1924), a silent picture that dispensed with the use of title cards and told its story entirely through visuals only.  Finally it must be noted that one of the earliest images in a Hitchcock film is that of an older man developing an instant obsession with a blonde, one of the director’s own major obsessions, as that customer is one of many of the older, well-dressed men ogling at the legs of the showgirls on display, which happens to be the first images of the movie, where the girls literally introduce themselves to the audience by walking down a circular staircase before they get into their dance routines.  The restoration has done wonders for this film, adding twenty minutes that were presumably lost, while also adding a color scheme, including sepia tones, blue, and purple, literally transforming the look of the film.  Hitchcock got his start as a designer of what were called “art titles,” embellishing the silent era title cards that provided the dialogue, adding themed backgrounds and illustrations, while he also wrote scripts, provided the art direction, and worked as an assistant director.  These art titles have been added to the film, helping establish a more natural rhythm.  From the outset, where there’s a dancer performing over the opening credits, it’s an interesting prelude of what’s coming, as it’s basically a film about two London chorus girls working at a club called The Pleasure Garden whose lives move forward in differing directions.     

The opening of this film feels familiar, as it could easily have been swiped in the making of Howard Hawks’ Funny Girl (1968), where Fanny Brice has an initial rejection as a Ziegfeld Follies girl, but steals the show once they hear her sing.  Similarly, Carmelita Geraghty as Jill is a hopeful chorus girl whose dreams are initially dashed.  As she has no place to stay, she is quickly taken under the wing of another chorus dancer, Patsy (Virginia Valli), who should have known to suspect something when Jill hogged the pillow from the opening night, but they try again the next morning, where they decide to give Jill another chance, almost as a joke, as she admits to never appearing onstage before, but her exuberant dancing impresses them enough to give her a featured role.  As the film progresses, Jill is more knowledgeable than she seems, where manipulating others to get what she wants seems to be her primary specialty, while Patsy is exactly what she seems, kind hearted and more concerned about others than her own welfare.  When Jill’s boyfriend comes to pay a visit, Hugh (John Stuart) brings along a friend, Levett (Miles Mander), who takes an interest in Patsy, where Jill agrees to wait for Hugh, as he’s about to leave to go overseas to West Africa for two years as part of his job.  It’s all Patsy can do to keep guys from pawing all over Jill, especially the money grubbing Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg), who seems to give her whatever she wants, but she promises Hugh she’ll take care of Jill before he leaves.  Meanwhile, Levett and Hugh are working partners so Levett is also about to leave, but he inexplicably convinces Patsy to get married first, where we see them in blue tint honeymooning along the banks of Lake Como in Italy, which is something of a disaster, as there isn’t a hint of romance, expressed when he throws away the rose on his lapel that Patsy gave him, explaining “It had wilted.”  Of interest, Hitchcock and Alma Reville took their own honeymoon at the exact same spot 18 months after filming.

Unfortunately, the film drags after that, where Patsy continues to pine away for her husband even after he’s proven to be a lout, while Jill is safely in the hands of the Prince, long since forgotten all about Hugh.  When we see shots of West Africa, presumably Ghana, Levett is sleeping with a native girl (unknown actress inaccurately credited as Nita Naldi, who was in the United States at the time of the shoot) that leaps into his arms when he returns, where she waits on him hand and foot, like an obedient slave girl, while he does nothing but drink nonstop and order her around.  It’s impossible to see how the British are benefiting by his service, which may be Hitchcock’s offhanded comment on British Colonialism.  Patsy continues to write, but her letters are unanswered until finally Levett makes a pathetic excuse about how he’s been unable to write due to a high fever.  This sets Patsy in motion, as she believes he needs her, so when she makes a surprise visit, she’s the one who’s in for a surprise, discovering a half-crazed, perpetually drunken Levett with his native girl, while Hugh is the one laid up with a fever, so she leaves her husband and nurses Hugh back to health, finding more comfort in a man who is actually happy to see her in this godforsaken place.  But not before the emaciated Levett goes full-throttle crazy, drowning the native girl (who at the time is attempting suicide, not sure that’s *ever* been depicted before, a rare moment indeed!), demanding his wife return to him, not exactly a well-thought out plan, and then has delirious, ghostly visions of the girl returning as an apparition, haunting him and driving him even more crazy.  The whole African sequence is disappointing, like a cheap melodrama, where Levett’s behavior is simply despicable, where racist colonial attitudes are everpresent, and the whole chorus girl segment disappears entirely.  The energetic enthusiasm of the more interesting dancing opening simply dies out after Patsy’s dumbfoundingly mistaken marriage, where all that’s left are troubles and travails in the tropics.   

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