"Stately plump." With those words, James Joyce commenced Ulysses, his novel in the modernist mode published in 1922. The two words describe Buck Mulligan, as he walks up the steps and emerges onto the turret of a low watchtower outside Dublin on the morning of Tuesday, June 16th. Mulligan isn't the main character. That person, the moody brooder Stephen Daedalus, follows shortly behind Mulligan, who is a charismatic outrageous outsider with a deeply conservative bent, a type many will have all known from their college age years.
Yet a moment's reflection brings up the observation that "stately" and "plump" are somewhat contrary adjectives. How can one be stately – dignified, austere, straight-backed – while at the same time plump – robust, hedonistic, squat? With these two words, Joyce initiates the antinomian quality of Mulligan against the dignity of Daedalus, and by contrast the rest of Dublin society against Daedalus and his one-night-only friend Leopold Bloom. If Mulligan contains contradictions, there are also contradictions between he and Daedalus, between Daedalus and society, and between Bloom and his wife and colleagues. Conflict is the order of the day in Dublin.
Firsts are fascinating. Records broken. Movements initiated. The first words of a novel or poem. The first film of a major director. "By our ends do we know our beginnings." The child is father to the man. Much is contained in that first movie, be it the extravagance of Welles's Citizen Kane, or the proximal energy of Fuller's I Shot Jesse James. Alfred Hitchcock's first completed feature film, The Pleasure Garden, contains the roots, the vestigial ideas, images, contrasts, and antinomianism of his later films. And the comparison with Joyce is not entirely unorthodox. Hitchcock was in his way a Symbolist, from the beginning inserting into his commercial projects images and ideas influenced by German expressionism and other "experimental" film movements, and he brought human consciousness – the way we think and see – into the cinematic surface.
The Pleasure Garden, like almost every other movie ever made, has a complicated production history. Hitchcock, who was born in August of 1899, was the youngest son of a Catholic greengrocer and poultry merchant whose family immersed him in both the cranky street life of north London but also bestowed on him an interest in theater and performance. A dull day job for Henley's, an electrical product company, as a graphic designer, though suitable to his skills as a planner and amateur engineer, plus a series of night courses in the arts, resulted in Hitchcock striving for and attaining a position as a freelancer title designer for Famous Players-Lasky British Producers, the London branch of what was to become Paramount. He attained full time employment in 1920 with a small scrappy studio called Islington, bearing up through various company mergers and acquisitions, and working his way through the motion picture production hierarchy from title card designer and set designer, writer, and assistant director, and five years later was handed his first successful feature film to direct.
Hitchcock designed the title cards for some 12 films, later performing more hands on work on five further films, including set design on Woman to Woman. A series of other films qualify as entries worthy of study in Hitchcock's filmography:
•In 1922, Hitchcock began an aborted two reeler called No. 13 for Gainsborough Pictures, about the residents in a public housing facility funded by the American entrepreneur George Peabody, a kitchen sink-Ealing sounding project that would have embarked Hitchcock in a career as a realist-humorist rather than a master of suspense and melodrama. The film was left uncompleted due to the collapse of financing; the film's star, Clare Greet, who had sought to help the production with her own investment, went on to appear in more Hitchcock films than any other performer, rivaled only by Leo G. Carroll, according to Patrick McGilligan in his biography of the director. An alternative title was Mrs. Peabody.
•Always Tell Your Wife, a comedy short remake of a 1914 film, which Hitchcock helped complete after the director Hugh Croise, fell ill. The first half of the film, which Hitchcock may or may not have worked on, is available in a British archive.
•The White Shadow, 1923: Hitchcock was assistant director, editor, and set designer.
•Woman to Woman, 1923: Hitchcock was assistant director and set decorator.
• The Passionate Adventure, 1924: Hitchcock was the assistant director, and also the script's co-writer with Michael Morton. The plot concerns the double-life of a man (Clive Brook) who moves alternatively between the upper class and the working class.
• The Prude's Fall, 1924: Hitchcock was the assistant director, the art director, and the sole credited screenwriter, the script based on a play.
• The Blackguard, 1925: Hitchcock was assistant director, art director, and adapted the script from a novel. Apparently made before The Prude's Fall, it may have been released after. It's a love story set against a backdrop of art (music) and revolution.
Hitchcock was aggressive and self-promoting, and clearly on the rise, which sparked the ire of Graham Cutts, a fellow director at Hitchcock's then home, Gainsborough Pictures, and for whom he was art director and assistant producer on the films mentioned above. Producer Michael Balcon, who supported Hitchcock, at least at the time (they had a falling out during the war years over Hitchcock's relocation to America), arranged for the young upstart to direct a British-German-Italian co-production in Europe in collaboration with the German studio Emelka, a competitor of UFA. Hitchcock tells lengthy and amusing stories to Truffaut in their interview book about the numerous mishaps surrounding the production. When completed, Cutts, who also had an executive position at the studio, blocked the film's release (as he later declined to release a subsequent Gainsrough-Emelka co-production, the now-lost The Mountain Eagle), and only the success of Hitchcock's third film, The Lodger, unlocked The Pleasure Garden from its bondage (according to Jane Sloan's filmography).
The Pleasure Garden is an adaptation of a melodramatic novel written by Marguerite Florence Barclay under the name Oliver Sandys. The script was credited to Eliot Stannard, a prolific but now little known screenwriter who was a close collaborator of Hitchcock on his silent films (Charles Barr offers more detail about Stannard's life and career, as does McGilligan). The tale concerns the divergent paths of two chorus girls, Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), a social climber who uses sex to advance her career, the other Patsy Brand (American actress Virginia Valli) who enters a bad marriage. Like many a melodrama of the time, the narrative begins in a theatrical setting and eventually migrates to an exotic locale, in this instance Africa, where Patsy's husband Levett (Miles Mander) is stationed by his business, and where he lives with a native "wife." As in so many forthcoming Hitchcock films, but also as in many screwball comedies and other narrative conventions, there is a flipping of mates: Jill's naive fiancé, a co-worker of her husband, ends up as her second husband.
The first image of the film is of a spiral staircase down which a group of chorus girls are running to make their entrance. The image is framed within the frame, so that the focus is on the thinness of the staircase, but also on the chorines' legs. The second shot is of the stage itself, with the dancers, and the third shot is set backstage, from behind a man watching the chorines. Thus the first shot engages our voyeurism, and the third shot underscores watching and voyeurism as a theme in the film (as well as the career of Hitchcock in general). The man looking out onto the stage turns out to be Mr. Hamilton (George Snell), a theatrical entrepreneur who advances the career of Jill. Later in a rather broad joke, Hamilton is shown smoking under a No Smoking sign, an indice of his command of this domain. Someone is always watching in this film, or seeking to avoid being seen, from the music hall patrons to the pickpockets loitering outside the theater, and more. Later, Jill is observed and commented upon in a restaurant.
Numerous other Hitchcock themes come up. There is the jovial fetishism of shoes and feet, with lecherous stage door Johnnies focusing on that part among others as they objectify the dancers (a joke borrowed perhaps from a gag in a von Stroheim film). In a visual joke, one letch has blurred vision until he raises his binoculars to his eyes, Hitchcock introducing, by way of this trick, the subjectivity of consciousness that will be crucial from this early point on in Hitchcock's work.
The lecherous rich men in the front row also raise class issues, which will permeate Hitchcock's subsequent films. Jill is a social climber and enters into an engagement with a louche Russian prince, will Patsy marries "up" with what she thinks is a dedicated and hard working executive. As in Suspicion and Rebecca, Patsy is marrying someone who is an illusion, and lovers are often not what they seem in Hitchcock's films. And here the rich use the chorine pool as a meat market to sate their lusts otherwise difficult in the stiff society of their peers.
The contrast between the different social classes is just one of many contrasts. There is also the contrast between the Pleasure Garden, the name of the music hall, and the "real" garden where Levett is stationed, one a place of fake sin, the other an Eden ire with real sin. There is the contrast between the fantasy of marriage as a pleasure garden and its hard reality as Patsy discovers. But the principal contrast is the dichotomy between Patsy and Jill, who are like the queen versus the mouse in so many Hitchcock films, such as Stage Fright. We meet Patsy first. She is an insouciant and lively young woman, a fake blonde as per the requirements of the job, and unthreatened by the flirtations of the Johnnies. Jill is a brunette with a cold, hard, career minded mentality. Patsy, by contrast, is generous and trusting. When she first sees Jill, the newcomer to the big city has been robbed. Patsy openheartedly invites her back to her flat. Later, when Jill negotiates for herself a good paying dance job, Patsy cheers her on, without jealousy. Patsy is however naive enough to fall for Levett and see the marriage turn sour as early as the honeymoon at Lake Como. When Patsy learns, falsely as it happens, that her husband is ill, she raises the money and leaves for Africa to take care of him. She is a nurturer but that impulse is thwarted by the society itself, less a garden than a snake pit. She is the first in a long line of Hitchcockian nurturers, which also includes men, suh as Mark Rutland in Marnie.
A sexy scene has Patsy and Jill disrobing, and Hitchcock suggests the scene through indirection, via shots of clothes being thrown onto a chair. The raciness of this first official film is notable, but even more so if one knows a little of Hitchcock's background, lower class and Catholic. Hitchcock is showing the sort of naughty suggestive attitudes that have made schoolboys lead secret alternative lives since the invention of school. The result is a love-hate relationship with sex and naughtiness, as embodied by the mercenary Jill. There is one creature on the premises who can sniff out Jill's real self, however, the pet dog of Patsy's landlords, who can discriminate between suitors and who can tell from Jill's bare feet that she is "dirty." Hitchcock and his screenwriter also include a costume designer who evinces some of the coded gay mannerisms that knowing spectators were sure to notice. In addition, informal prostitution as a way of life is alluded to.
The narrative of The Pleasure Garden is divided into roughly four acts. The first act ends with Patsy and Jill retiring in Patsy's apartment. Act two ends with Levett kissing an exultant Patsy, who has accepted his hand in marriage. Hitchcock's first screen kiss is fraught with deceit and ecstasy. Act three ends when Patsy decides to rush to her supposedly ill husband's side. Act four comprises the revelation about Levett's real character and Patsy's transition to another man. Each of these acts hinges on a decision, and each decision charts the progress of Patsy's developing personality, and her path to and beyond disillusion. In one scene, a bad luck hat is thrown on a bed, as in Shadow of a Doubt. The progress of these acts is the advance of Patsy toward enlightenment and true love, and the vehicle of her advancement is the decisions she makes, each decision resulting in another piece of her evolving identity.
The Pleasure Garden is an awkward melodrama of interest because it is Hitchcock's first film, and because of his evident creativity with editing and the camera, his Lubitsch-like visual wit. Michael Walker, in Hitchcock's Motifs, points out the startling moment when the film cuts from a close shot of Levet's hands drowning his wife to Patsy's hands offering comfort to Hugh. But with notable exceptions, silent dramas aren't complete movies, and we can rarely watch a run of the mill silent film for the pleasure or artistic resonance. The run of Hitchcock's silent films will portray him struggling for his artistic identity, which really only flowers once he uses sound.
The standard guides to Hitchcock's life are John Russell's Hitch, Donald Spotto's The Dark Side of Genius, and Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Surveys of Hitchcock's English films include Charles Barr's English Hitchcock, Maurice Yacowar's Hitchcock's British Films, and Tom Ryall's Hitchcock and the British Cinema. Also helpful is Jane Sloan's Alfred Hitchcock: The Definitive Filmography.