Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rich and Strange

On the set of Rich and Strange, 1931

Hitchcock’s own marriage to Alma Reville, 1926

RICH AND STRANGE             B-                 
aka:  East of Shanghai
Great Britain  (83 mi)  1931  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell – ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them.

—Ariel’s song from The Tempest, Act I Scene 2, by William Shakespeare, 1611

Only Hitchcock’s third sound film, this is a perfectly enjoyable love comedy that acts as a travelogue following a thoroughly miserable couple on an ocean cruise stopping in various ports of call from London to Singapore, having their dreams and love interests heightened and then dashed along the way, where much of it actually appears to float, like a daydream reverie, as if all of this was conjured up in someone’s imagination, like a working man’s fantasy, where perhaps it all takes place in someone’s head while sitting at their desk in their tedious dead-end job.  Hitchcock claimed it was inspired by his own honeymoon with Alma Reville in 1926, two innocents abroad on a strange journey with no familiarity whatsoever with the strange and exotic places they visited.  Even the names of the central characters, Fred and Emily, bear a close similarity to Alfred and Alma, but this one suffers from indifferent casting, where no one is ever capable of holding a scene, so instead some good material goes to waste.  Perhaps one would like to read something autobiographical into it, as it does have the makings of married lore, perhaps the kind of “make-your-own-version” impromptu story that a husband and wife continually recount back and forth to one another for amusement while continually changing the details.  The opening plays out like a silent film, a clever Chaplinesque working man montage that is done in silence, a choreography of workers grabbing their umbrellas in unison after work, where two at a time open them up in front of the camera, creating a blossoming spectacle from a musical without the music, until Fred (Henry Kendall) joins the fun only to discover his umbrella won’t open.  Following the stream of workers down the stairs onto the street to the subway train, the film captures what workers dread the most during rush hour, getting squashed like sardines, where every ounce of energy is drained out of you just to survive this daily ordeal.  By the time Fred makes it home, his umbrella finally opens!  Their drab apartment couldn’t look more depressing, meeting his weary wife of eight years, Emily, Joan Barry, who supplied the voice of Anny Ondra in the sound version of Blackmail (1929).  From out of the blue, like a Buster Keaton fantasy, Kendall’s rich uncle decides to send them their inheritance while he’s still alive, sending “money to experience all the life you want by traveling,” suggesting why wait until he’s dead? 

Instantly wealthy beyond their dreams, they embark upon an ocean cruise to the Far East, sending them to exotic ports of call that include land adventures such as a shopping spree in Paris, then Marseille, and Port Said in Egypt, before heading through the Suez Canal, seen under the exotic beauty of the moonlight, and eventually Colombo, Ceylan, all picture postcard perfect where things eventually get out of hand on deck.  Initially Fred is seasick and confined to his quarters, so Emily is kept company by the gracious attention of an explorer named Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont in his second of three Hitchcock films), who is all manners and old-world charm, where one does not violate social etiquette by taking advantage of the situation.  Elsie Randolph, who turns up again forty years later in FRENZY (1972), plays the Old Maid, a plain Jane character on her own that nobody wants to associate with, yet she so wants to be the life of the party.  Her continual foolishness offers comic relief, yet she also provides a cure for seasickness.  Once on deck, Fred meets a beautiful woman introduced as “The Princess,” Betty Amann, wasting no time falling madly in love, displaying his affections openly, not showing an ounce of discretion, where he wines and dines her, is deliriously drunk most of the time and behaves like a buffoon, providing attention that she apparently craves, with Fred spending money for the finest of everything, thinking this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of his life.  Emily’s courtship by the Commander, on the other hand, remains politely restrained, where a closeness develops from daily conversations, both appalled by her husband’s behavior.  “Love makes everything difficult and dangerous,” Emily confesses to the Commander — words to live by, apparently, as they are prominent themes explored throughout Hitchcock’s works.  Each of them falls in love with somebody different, and while Emily keeps her composure, Fred self-destructs, spending extravagantly while giving his entire fortune away at the mere thought of living with a Princess, leaving him ultimately betrayed, humiliated, and penniless.  Whatever chance of reconciliation exists between them is in acknowledging the shambles that they made of their lives.

For all its clumsiness and uncertainties, Hitchcock interestingly experiments with the camera in a movie that tinkers with the sacred vows of marriage, where the movie failed commercially, much to the director’s surprise, but most of it is shot as a silent film, using intertitles and long wordless sequences, freeing the camera to greater mobility, telling the story through images rather than dialogue, like using a wobbly camera to evoke the sensations of seasickness, as he did in Champagne (1928).  The film exhibits the exaggerated acting style of the silent era, heavy make up, and screen captions, perhaps confusing an audience that was already making the transition to sound films, while also experimenting with camera techniques and shot compositions, including the use of miniature model ships and water tanks.  While the couple tries to escape the boredom of their lives and the staleness of their marriage by seeking adventure, finding it only makes things worse, as anything outside their sterile existence is viewed as strange and terrifying, which they confusingly experience individually rather than as a couple, sinking back into the same old doldrums they seemingly crawled out of, this time with a bit of relief.  Marriage, equated with normality, is viewed as an empty and unsatisfying bourgeois existence, much like Fred’s meaningless job, where the idea of love is simply out of the question, as that exists only in the storybooks of fantasy.  Fred thought he was madly in love but he was deluded by his own fatal mistakes, willingly allowing his pocket to be picked, turning a blind eye to a blatant act of theft, seeing what he wanted to see, which is hardly love, but a mirage.  Emily was able to channel her shared feelings of love with the Commander, but he wasn’t the man she loved, instead it was that man out there making an idiot of himself.  Shamed and humiliated, they gather what little money they have left and start a voyage back home on a tramp steamer, but true to the reference to The Tempest, a heavy storm occurs causing a shipwreck, where the couple is locked in their cabin and can’t get out, believing they are doomed, reflecting the state of their marriage as a shipwrecked, self-imposed prison.  By the time they can escape out the window hatch, all the rest of the passengers have already abandoned ship and they are left alone, adrift at sea, until a Chinese junk passes by, offering them safe passage.  There is a bit of dark humor in the meal offered to them, which they eat heartily, as if it’s the best meal they’ve ever eaten, until they see the source of their meal hung on the cabin wall.  By the time they make it home, they’re back to the same bickering that defined their marriage before any of this adventure happened.  While the set design by C. Wilfred Arnold is notable, in a rare occurrence both Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock receive writing credits for this film, co-adapting a Dale Collins novel with Val Valentine, a rather mediocre British screenwriter that wrote dozens of forgettable scripts.  

Note – no Hitchcock cameos. 

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