Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hitchcock 9 Part 2

The Hitchcock 9 returned to the Bay Area with a two week run at the PFA in August.  I saw six of the nine films in June at the Castro Theater.  That series was organized by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  I was able to watch the three remaining films during the PFA series.

One film in the Hitchcock 9 gets a third screening in the Bay Area in the upcoming months.  The Lodger plays at the San Francisco Symphony on Halloween.

The Farmer’s Wife starring Jameson Thomas & Lilian Hall-Davis; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1928)
Downhill starring Ivor Novello; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1927)
Champagne starring Betty Balfour; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1928)

Alfred Hitchcock directed all three films.

Immediately after seeing each of the three films, I was left unimpressed.  One good thing about waiting (or more accurately procrastinating) to blog is that I am able to think about the films some more.  I am typically more charitable towards the films after some delay between seeing the films and writing about them.  Such was the case with the Hitchcock 9.

The Farmer’s Wife is a comedy.  The eponymous farmer is Jameson Thomas who plays widower Samuel Sweetland.  When his daughter gets married, Sweetland decides it is time to find a new wife.  He feels confident that his prospects are good and with the help of his housekeeper Minta (Lilian Hall-Davis), comes up with a list of suitable potential brides.  The first thing I noticed was that Hall-Davis (the lead actress in Hitchcock's The Ring) is noticeably more attractive than the would-be wives.  Not only is she more attractive but she is more well adjusted.  However, she is the housekeeper and Sweetland, a landowner, merits a wife of higher standing than a mere domestic.

With a list of four women in hand, Sweetland goes-a-courtin'.  One after another they reject him and in hilarious manner.  Humbled and dejected, Sweetland returns home and his new state of mind allows him to see Minta in a new light.  Fifth time is the charm when Sweetland asks Minta to marry him and she accepts his proposal.

The plot and ending of The Farmer’s Wife is easily identifiable from a distance.  The comedic brushstrokes are a little too broad for my tastes but three weeks later, I am still able to recall (with a smile) some of the scenes.  There must be something about the film I like.

Downhill was based on a play written by David L'Estrange which a pen name for Ivor Novello & Constance Collier.  Novello plays the lead role of Roddy Berwick, a boarding school (or was it university?) student.  The son of a wealthy family, Roddy is a popular student but it also leads to his downfall or slide downhill as the title alludes.  Roddy, due his family's wealth, is falsely accused of impregnating a local salesgirl.   Rather than deny the charge, Roddy takes the rap for his best friend.  His best friend would lose his scholarship if he accepted responsibility.  In fact, the girl was never pregnant and I wonder if the charge wasn't rape.  Hitchcock abstains from detailed intertitles during this scene.  Roddy is expelled from the school for the charge.  What about paternity and child support issues?

Roddy's father is upset with his expulsion.  It seems he could just money the issue away but instead Roddy leaves in a huff or was he kicked out?  As you can see, some of the details escape me.  Roddy takes a job as an chorus boy and falls for the star of the show.  When he comes into some money from an inheritance, the actress (Isabelle Jeans) agrees to marry him.  She quickly burns through his money and cuckolds him.  Once again, he leaves in a huff.

Next, he ends up as a "taxi dancer" in a Paris nightclub.  This scene is amazing.  I'm certain that some of the "women" were men in drag and I thought it was incredible that they would depict and a bi/gay nightclub in 1927.  I felt it was clear that Roddy was "gay for pay" with the patrons but every other source I have seen refers to this scenes as a nightclub for older women.  Regardless, he is once again taken advantage of by the madam of the club.

This sends Roddy on his final descent where he ends up delirious and homeless.  Again, it's unclear to me if the final scene where he is reunited with his father is "real" or a hallucination.

Given that Novello was gay, I once again wonder about the Parisian nightclub scene.  Somewhat simplistic in plot, Hitchcock's skill was in full display in two memorable scenes.  After being expelled and quicked out of the house, we see Roddy dressed in a tuxedo so we think he is doing well.  Then the camera pulls back and we see he is a waiter in tux; not doing so well.  Then we see him surreptitiously taking a wallet and we think he has fallen to quite a low station in life.  Then the camera pulls back even more and we see his is a chorus dancer.

The second scene which is memorable is at the Parisian nightclub.  Just when Roddy appears to have made a genuine connection, the nightclub curtains are pulled open revealing sunlight.  Like vampires, the grotesque patrons are exposed and go scurrying off.

In Champagne, Betty Balfour plays "The Girl," an American heiress who, with her pilot, flies her "aeroplane" on a one-way trip midway across the ocean to catch the ocean liner carry "The Boy" (Jean Bradin).  The Boy happens to be the boyfriend.  Betty wants to marry The Boy seemingly to spite her father who is concerned that The Boy is only interested in Betty's money.  The father concocts a ruse and tells Betty that the family fortune (made in the champagne business or bootleg liquor) has been wiped out in the stock market.  The film was released about a year before the 1929 stock market crash.

As  a result of a separate quarrel, Betty and The Boy are taking a break from their relationship.  Betty finds work at a swanky nightclub as a flower girl (one of those women who sells rose or carnations to patrons for the lapel buttons).  It's not lost on Betty or the audience that this the type of club she would have frequented as a patron and now she is working there.

Since the beginning of the film, there has been a suspicious looking man (Ferdinand von Alten credited as The Man) hanging around Betty.  He shows up at the nightclub and his intentions are unclear.  Betty fears the worst but he appears to have Betty's best interests at heart.  The Boy shows up and once again argues with Betty over her job and he storms out.  Betty and The Boy have a volatile relationship.  Later, The Boy and The Father return.  The Father reveals to Betty his deception.  Betty is angry at both of them although I'm not sure of The Boy's complicity.  In a moment of pique, Betty asks The Man to take her back to America since he is traveling there the next day.  He agrees and they drive from Paris to the Normandy coast to board the ocean liner.  Once on board, The Man locks Betty up in her cabin (although there were two beds) from the outside but conveniently leaves the key in the lock.

A few minutes later, The Boy arrives in the cabin and Betty conks him on the head before realizing who he is.  They reconcile again but The Man returns and interrupts the couple.  This time The Father is with the The Man.  It turns out The Man is some sort of detective who has been hired to look after Betty.  The good news is that The Father now approves of The Boy and Betty marriage to him.  As the couple discuss wedding plans, another argument ensues.

Of the three films, my opinion of The Farmer’s Wife has improved the most.  My opinion of Champagne has changed the least.  I didn't think it was that funny and to say it was contrived would be an understatement.  Betty Balfour was definitely game but I found the film limp and lacking.

From the entire Hitchcock 9, my favorite film was The Manxman with honorable mentions for Blackmail and The Lodger.  My opinion of The Pleasure Garden also improved considerably in the 2.75 months since I watched it.

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