The Pleasure Garden (1925)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon, Erich Pommer
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard
Based on the novel The Pleasure Garden by Oliver Sandys
Cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia
Several days ago, I mentioned in my 2020 Resolutions post that I really only have one project that I plan to finish in 2020: completing Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. But I also wanted to begin two other projects which don’t have a definite timeline.
I began my journey through the Ingmar Bergman Criterion box set last week, starting with Crisis (1946), and today I begin my Alfred Hitchcock project, watching every available Hitchcock feature film, starting with The Pleasure Garden (1925). Again, these two projects have no definite timelines, so you may not see entries on a regular basis. They’ll happen when they happen. But I hope you’ll join me when they do appear.
I wish I could’ve asked Alfred Hitchcock what was going through his mind when he shot the opening scene of The Pleasure Garden, with several chorus girls rapidly descending a spiral staircase to emerge onto a stage. I also wish I could’ve asked him if that same opening scene was on his mind while filming the Mission San Juan Bautista scene in Vertigo. If I had, the master probably would’ve turned to me and said, “Whatever are you going on about?”
Perhaps Hitchcock talked about this and perhaps I’ll run across it in my reading, but I have to imagine that The Pleasure Garden held a special place in the director’s life. Like many “first” projects, the director possibly cringed while watching or thinking about the film later in life, but like all first steps, I’m sure the completed project held a special place for him. The Pleasure Garden is neither a great film nor an embarrassment, but rather an interesting and telling look at what would follow from the first-time director.
The Pleasure Garden takes its title from the Pleasure Garden Theatre in London, where a chorus girl named Patsy (Virginia Valli) offers to help to Jill (Carmelita Geraghty), a girl who has come to audition for the theatre’s proprietor Mr. Hamilton (Georg H. Schnell).
Unfortunately, Jill has had her money stolen, so Patsy takes her in. Jill wins the audition and becomes a stage sensation, which attracts the attention of several wealthy, lecherous men, including Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg). But what about Jill’s fiancé Hugh (John Stuart) and his friend Levet (Miles Mander), who may have eyes for Patsy?
If you think this is formulaic and you know where it’s going, you may be right, and then again, maybe not. The action travels from London to Italy and Africa, and transitions from what we think is going to be a light show-biz romantic tale with bits of comedy thrown in. Instead, we get something much darker.
What comes across in this early effort is Hitchcock’s confidence in his storytelling abilities. He always seems to know exactly where to place the camera and for precisely how long. There are few wasted shots and his visual narrative is easy to follow. I was reminded of several films I’ve seen from the 1930s and early ‘40s in which directors linger too long on a shot or scene, disrupting a visual rhythm or causing sequences to stagnate. Already at this early stage, Hitchcock rarely makes such mistakes.
There’s a nice visual touch in the second half of the film, a transition from a hand waving a handkerchief in a “goodbye” gesture to another hand waving in anticipation. The first wave conveys the beginnings of longing; the second, the allure of desire, both directed at the same person, but from different people. Another interesting visual occurs late in the film involving a sword, which points (no pun intended) to one of Hitchcock’s recurring themes. The sword, of course, implies violence, but also serves as a sexual metaphor, almost to the point of comedy. Hitchcock became a master of turning sexual situations and potential sexual situations into moments of danger and even death. Although brief, the scene serves as an introduction to a motif we’ll see again and again with Hitchcock.
Ultimately The Pleasure Garden is a film that provides an introduction to several Hitchcock themes: theft, betrayal, murder, broken relationships, sexuality, and obsession. I watched the film online, a version that ran for just over an hour. The Network DVD has a running time of 75 minutes, which matches its IMDb entry. If the version I watched was truncated, I wonder if it was the second half of the film that was cut. Further information would be welcome, so please comment below.
Since Hitchcock’s second effort, The Mountain Eagle (1926), is a lost film, I’ll next review The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
Photos: The Hitchcock Zone, Silver in a Haystack, BFI, San Francisco Silent Film Festival