Alfred HitchcockBetty BalfourGordon HarkerPhyllis Konstam
Medium: film
Year: 1928
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Alfred Hitchcock, Walter C. Mycroft, Eliot Stannard
Keywords: silent
Country: UK
Actor: Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Alten, Gordon Harker, Alexander D'Arcy, Vivian Gibson, Clifford Heatherley, Claude Hulbert, Hannah Jones, Phyllis Konstam, Gwen Mannering, Balliol and Merton, Jack Trevor, Marcel Vibert, Sunday Wilshin, Fanny Wright
Format: 86 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 8 May 2012
Supposedly a comedy, but you might not guess that was the intention, plus it's dated in a creepy way. Betty Balfour's good, though.
It's another of Hitchcock's silent films, but that's not how its contemporary audience saw it. In 1928, it was the latest Betty Balfour flick. She was Britain's most popular movie actress in the 1920s, known as the "British Mary Pickford" and "Britain's Queen of Happiness". Apparently her best-known films are the Squibs comedies, which started in 1921 and got three sequels and a 1935 remake.
She's good. I liked her. She carries a film that probably should have been unwatchable. At one point I caught her pulling faces without enough emotional weight underneath, but for the most part I was admiring the subtlety and control of how she was using her face and eyes. Her "teeth" gag made me laugh. She's not quite a conventional beauty, being perhaps a little round-faced, but she brings such charm and effervescence that she's irresistible. She's like a runaway locomotive of I'm Going To Have Fun. Look at her first reaction when she realises she's been duped near the end, for instance. She's delighted because she sees it as good news for the bastard who'd been lying to her!
She's so good, in fact, that she makes you love a character who's a clueless brat. Balfour is playing an heiress who's decided to elope and so has stolen daddy's plane, flown out into the mid-Atlantic and gone down in it. This is all to meet her boyfriend on an ocean liner, which sees her going down and sends out a lifeboat in a scene that made me think I was watching a movie about the Titanic. Cost so far: one plane. Unfortunately her boyfriend is such a chauvinist and misery-guts that I assumed he was meant to be the movie's villain and she immediately has a fight with him and goes off to live it up in Paris. The character's an idiot. She's gullible, makes stupid decisions and seems to have decided to get hitched to a surly son-of-a-bitch whose every word to her is abusive and/or a put-down. She's such a bad cook that she'd give anime heroines a run for their money. She's the worst example of inherited privilege. She's appalling, basically.
However you love her anyway. She's Betty Balfour. Even when everyone around her is a crook, scumbag, liar or Balfour-basher, she laughs it off and gets on with her life at 110% velocity. You could drop a piano on her head and she'd start playing it. She's also a good-hearted person and, in her own slightly manic way, selfless.
She's also the only likeable character in the film.
Dad (Gordon Harker) is a skinflint and a bastard, happy to treat his daughter as he'd treat a business rival. The boyfriend (Jean Bradin, who's French) throws a massive snit if Balfour tries to do anything at all, get a job or take an interest in running her own life. Villains are less obnoxious. He lives to find fault in everything she does and I honestly can't imagine what the superhumanly bubbly and positive Balfour could have ever seen in him. It's like a hamster getting engaged to a snake.
Even the supporting characters will give you the willies. There's an oily guy in a moustache about whom Balfour has an imaginary sequence of him sexually assaulting her. Balfour's dressmaker in Paris looks like a vampire. The maitre d'hotel overdoes it, I thought, pushing that hand-wringing cliche so far that I stopped being able to believe in him. It seems to me that Hitchcock thinks everyone here is a parasite and/or overprivileged scum and that he's having fun at their expense. Note for instance the moment where the kitchen staff drop potatoes on the floor, pick them up and put them back on the guests' plates. It's a horrendous world of horrendous people and it's hard to see any happy ending for Balfour unless she machine-guns the lot of them and becomes a nun.
There's a prophetic story element: talk of a Wall Street crash. This is in a 1928 film. The following year saw the Wall Street Crash of 1929, kicking off the Great Depression that devastated the world economy in the 1930s and is still today the USA's most devastating stock market crash.
Did Hitchcock like this film? I doubt it. Did he even take any interest in it? Probably not. He's doing interesting stuff with the camera, but I seem to remember he regarded this as having no story. This is unfair since it's got quite a lot of plot, but it's also a bit of a parlour trick of a story and at the end of the day, it hasn't ended up particularly going anywhere.
Overall, not good. The most dated Hitchcock film I've seen to date, with all the chauvinist attitudes I've previously referred to and even a black servant who cowers exaggeratedly when Harker's angry. Your brain will reel if you try to imagine the changes they might impose if they remade this movie today. However Balfour carries it, pretty much single-handedly. She's great fun and she gets some decent jokes. I'm tempted to look her up in other things, although I certainly wouldn't call her the most heavyweight actress I've seen. She's a talented comedienne who can also do a bit of pathos when required. You could do much worse. Look out also for the background gag where a drunkard is the only man who can walk straight when the ship is heaving.
"You'll not spoil my trip. I'll enjoy Paris despite your silly ideas."