It's the first feature film ever directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It's also a German-English silent film, made in Germany while Hitch was working over there, observing the German Expressionists like Murnau and Lang. It was a flop on original release and still today not everyone loves it, but I thought it had lots of Hitchcock's gleeful malice, a surprisingly challenging story and more ambiguous character work than you'd get in most movies today.
It's based on a novel. There are two girls (Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty) and two boys (Miles Mander and John Stuart). Romance will blossom, but it will also get stamped on, betrayed, left to die and worse. The Pleasure Garden of the title is a London theatre in which Valli is one of the chorus girls being leered over by fat, disturbing old men in the front row. She receives propositions, which she rejects. However one day Geraghty turns up, penniless (robbed by men outside the theatre) and trying to wangle her way into the show. Valli takes pity on her and gives her a place to stay. The two girls get on well... and then Valli is introduced to Geraghty's new husband, Stuart, and his friend Mander. The rest of the plot I won't spoil.
What's interesting here is the character work, although it's almost certainly what hurt the film commercially. This kind of moral ambivalence doesn't put bums on seats. It makes the film feel unclear, at times even unsettling. We have:
(a) a queen bitch to her man, who sleeps around to become famous and is a blatant gold-digger. However at the same time, we've seen her facing hard times. She got robbed. She fought to get that audition and it's rather wonderful to see her turning that scene on its head. At first she's being laughed at, but then thirty seconds later she's won their grudging admiration and immediately afterwards is haggling like a fishwife over the job she should be snapping off the impresario's hand for. She says her prayers. (The other, nicer, girl doesn't.) Furthermore, just as importantly, she's being played by the best actress in the movie and is projecting a level of personality that makes her one of the best silent-era actresses I've seen.
(b) the nice girl is a loser. Look at the scene where she accepts her husband-to-be's proposal. What really happened there? What he'd actually been saying was "share our loneliness together" (eh?) and it's her who chose to interpret that as marriage interest. Her taste in men is questionable, to say the least, and even the less flawed of her choices is even more naive than she is. What evidence do we have that he's as nice as all that, eh? Am I wrong, or did he not even blink late in the film on walking in on a scene of blatant infidelity? The dog likes him, I suppose, but the first thing those two do is destroy a stocking together.
(c) a walk-on role who looks like a borderline racist plot function until she attempts suicide.
(d) a male role as complicated, flawed, scary and human as anyone in Hitchcock's more respected films. He ends up treating his women appallingly, but he's also comparatively sympathetic and capable of worrying about his friend's naivety when it comes to relations with the opposite sex. He does at least one shocking thing and ends up turning into a monster, but I don't know if I'd even call him a villain. He didn't set out to be evil. He's just a cock. More specifically he has a shallow, self-interested worldview when it comes to women and he clearly lacks the emotional maturity for any kind of relationship, but that said I don't think that's what he had been looking for and on the contrary, the film's developments seem to have taken him by surprise. He can be jealous. He's clearly not immune to guilt (in a big way).
His best moment though is his final one. Look at his reaction. That's no villain. He still deserves to reap what he's sowed, obviously, but I think he's a fascinating character and key to the movie's psychological richness.
This is a deceptively international film, despite looking mostly all-British. It was a German co-production with an English studio, set in London, Italy and the Middle East. It was also shot in Germany and Italy with American movie stars. To quote Hitchcock... "Michael Balcon, who had conceived the idea of 'importing' American stars long before anybody else, had engaged Virginia Valli for the leading role. She was at the height of her career then - glamorous, famous, and very popular. That she was coming to Europe to make a picture at all was something of an event."
Valli and Geraghty were silent-era Hollywood stars who dropped out of sight when the talkies came in. Valli is good and Geraghty is remarkably good, coming close to transcending the silent medium. It's a shame her career didn't last. Their leading men though are British and would last much longer in the business, both working again for Hitchcock, incidentally, while the supporting cast contains Germans. Georg H. Schnell had played Harding in Nosferatu.
None of all that is primarily down to Hitchcock, though. It's stuff I admire in the movie, but the director was a young man at this point and at the mercy of his studio. What does feel recognisably him though, even right at the beginning of his career, is the jaundiced point of view and cynical humour. The film opens by leering at ugly men leering. We're voyeurs, watching voyeurs. Hitchcock has fun with a "Smoking Prohibited" sign, then later takes every opportunity to undercut the obvious reading of a scene. The most important character when two characters get married, for instance, is the dog who'll suffer when they go away on honeymoon. The film's full of scenes in which two characters should theoretically be in love, but the hearts-and-flowers cliches are being stabbed through the heart by Hitchcock and left for dead. "Thieving little brats." The rose! Ouch.
Incidentally Hitchcock proposed to his assistant director, Alma Reville, during shooting and their marriage lasted from 1926 until Hitch's death in 1980. Well, I suppose by his standards this film is sort of romantic.
Look out also for the semi-striptease. Hitchcock has his two leading ladies stripping off to go to bed together. The scene's completely innocent and we see nothing at all, but Hitchcock is still obviously enjoying the chance to tease his audience. The sexual content in this film is quite high, actually.
I can see why this film isn't Hitchcock's most popular. It's clearly less gripping than something like The Lodger, which was his breakthrough silent movie two years later. It's harder to get into the story when the characters are so ambiguous, if not downright murky. No one is without moments that will make you blink. Hitchcock makes all his men look unwholesome, with even the nice one looking kind of disturbing in one shot where he's watching his wife dance on stage. Typically of the film, there's a prince with sinister eyes who looks like a villain... but you don't know if it's him taking the girl for a ride or vice-versa. There's evidence for both positions. The result is a story that's distancing, but much more sophisticated than you'll be expecting, especially given its reputation.
I found it entertaining, though. There's a ghost and a gay costume designer, the fat landlord couple are lovable and I laughed when the dog licked Geraghty's feet. Don't listen to the negative comments. This is a good one.
"How about Hugh's engagement ring? You won't need that now."