It's been called Hitchcock's "bravest failure". This was a favourite of his, something a bit different that he'd managed to squeeze into a four-year period of work-for-hire on material that didn't much interest him, so he was disappointed when it failed at the box office. His studio had been jerking him around even before this and not long afterwards the two parted company.
I found it fascinating. It's a mish-mash of different styles and tones that's occasionally a bit lumpy, but contains far more creativity than his other films from 1931. Mary
and The Skin Game
are both adapted from stage plays and are conventional to the point of being staid by Hitchcock's standards. I like them, but this is more inventive.
It's based on a semi-comedic novel. Our heroes are a childless married couple, Henry Kendall and Joan Barry. Kendall is a right old moaner. He's got the face of a sneering vampire rodent and he comes home from work one day in a foul mood, complaining about his existence and wishing he had the money to live it up a bit. A few minutes later, a letter arrives from an uncle who says he understands and is offering Kendall an advance on his inheritance so that the two of them can travel the world. Soon they're off to France, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Singapore and more.
The story is perfectly reasonable, but nothing groundbreaking. What's different about the film is the way Hitchcock realises it. He does silent movie sequences, intertitles and a lot of aggressively visual storytelling that's almost rejecting the fact that this is the early days of talkies. Ironically this makes it feel far more modern than most films from 1931. Only about 20% of the film has any dialogue, but you hardly realise. I love watching Hitchcock doing silent movies and this is no exception, with something almost Chaplinesque about the way he'll shoot people from a silent-era distance rather than a talkie-era one and choreograph them for visual gags. How he'll combine music and physical action is pure cinema.
He's being similarly playful with the intertitles, which are a device that I suspect he uses more than in his real silent movies. He tries experimental camera techniques, e.g. words rising from a menu and swimming before Kendall's eyes when he's suffering from seasickness. The montages are great. One of the London stage's most popular musical and comedy stars, Elsie Randolph, has a minor role as a daft old bat. You can tell Hitchcock had a ball playing with all this.
Just as disorientating though is the storyline, which ricochets around and twice takes a screeching left turn into a completely different film. Act One is a travelogue. Apparently this is largely autobiographical, based on the Hitchcocks' own recent world tour, and even the characters' names (Fred and Emily Hill) are a bit reminiscent of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock's. This section has the wackiest direction and the heaviest silent-film influences, which at times makes it feel sufficiently disjointed as to barely have a narrative. It's almost more like a sketch show. Kendall and Barry visit the Folies Bergeres, get seasick and generally act as comedy foils for the film's real star, which is of course the settings. Hitchcock did a lot of location filming for this one, taking us Marseilles and Port Said, thus making this one of those early movies that's fascinating just for its documentary value. I loved seeing authentic people and places from the best part of a century ago.
Then, for Act Two, it turns into a movie. Suddenly we're getting character-based scenes that follow on from each other and evoke themes. This is about marital infidelity and the meandering roads that go there. Both Kendall and Barry, for their own reasons, find themselves attracted to someone else. Barry finds a soul mate. Kendall is thinking with his dick. This carries more emotional weight (i.e. any at all) than Act One, but Hitchcock's still playing around and having cruel fun with his protagonists. Kendall loses a fight with a veil, for instance. However even as they're drifting apart, Hitchcock still uses on-screen symmetry and other visual tricks to show that they're still tied to each other in ways that can't be undone. "A wife's half a mother."
I liked all this. Eventually it even found some power. We reached a satisfying finale and I assumed the film was over.
Nope. That's Act Two.
Act Three yet again goes somewhere else. It's an inversion of what's gone before. It has Hitchcock's cruelty, e.g. the upside-down drowning as everyone just stands there and watches, or else (yikes) the cat. That was both horrible and funny. However at the same time it's also turning our characters' assumptions inside-out and bringing real warmth to the film. Admittedly it's also brittle, flippant, warped, patronising and in danger of tipping over into racism, but fortunately it avoids the latter and instead gleefully undermines our Teddibly English gentlefolk by showing them to be rather disgusting from a Chinese point of view. Those table manners. Wow. Chopsticks weren't used much in London in 1931, were they?
Act Three mildly gobsmacked me. It transforms an already good story into something richer and stranger... which as far as I'm concerned means Hitchcock did his job. That's a better title than it looks. It's also a lame Shakespeare quote, incidentally, from The Tempest.
As for the acting, that's fine. I liked it. It has a touch of the silent era, but only a flavour and so it's still good and watchable. I could imagine some audiences having to take a bit of a leap to empathise with Kendall and Barry, since Kendall's a whiner and Barry's a conflicted doormat, but personally I thought their character development was rather good. Kendall manages to be engagingly unlikeable, if that makes sense, while Barry's rather lovely.
By the time we reached the final credits, my mouth was hanging open. I enjoyed it, but on reflection I do believe I'm quite a fan of this one. Underrated even compared with Hitchcock's other early work, for me this is one of my favourites of his, of any era. It's startling. It has a couple of powerful scenes. It's both dark and light. It's subversive, shooting barbs both at men and at assumptions of white superiority. It's rather pathetic to see the difference in what will sway Kendall and Barry from the straight and narrow, for instance. It's lumpy and uneven, but personally I quite like that.
"To think that place has been there all these years. All those strange people. Having their babies, cooking their funny meals."