Juno and the Paycock (1930)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
Written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville
Based on the play Juno and the Paycock by Seán O’Casey
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (7, 8, 9, 10)
Edited by Emile de Ruelle
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:34) Alfred Hitchcock: A Legacy of Suspense box set DVD, Mill Creek
“I photographed the play as imaginatively as possible, but from a creative viewpoint it was not a pleasant experience.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 69)
Following Blackmail (1929), one of his finest early thrillers, Hitchcock chose to adapt the popular stage play Juno and the Paycock by Seán O’Casey. This isn’t too surprising since Hitchcock had also adapted plays for Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1927), The Farmer’s Wife (1928) and Blackmail (1929). Yet adapting Juno was no easy task, even when the project was co-written by Alma Reville.
But first, the film itself, which opens with a man (Barry Fitzgerald in his screen debut) addressing a large crowd gathered on a Dublin street packed with tenement housing. The Irish Civil War is the orator’s subject, but before he can go very far in his speech, gunfire scatters the crowd, many of whom find shelter in a local pub.
Soon we’re inside a two-room tenement flat, the home of Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman), his wife Juno (Sara Allgood), and their two adult children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie), who lost an arm while fighting in the Irish War of Independence.
Johnny has informed on a fellow Irish Republican Army member, who is eventually killed by the Irish Free State police. Captain Boyle expresses his disgust at the informer, not knowing that his son is the one who did the informing.
Meanwhile, daughter Mary is employed, but is on strike, protesting the way one of her coworkers was victimized on the job. Mary leaves her boyfriend for a man named Charlie (John Longden), who tells the Captain he’s been promised a large inheritance. Anticipating this, the Captain begins spending the promised inheritance on new furniture, a gramophone, and a lavish party for the family and neighbors. We know how this is going to turn out, but it’s worse than we think.
The title of the play and the film comes from Juno, who calls her husband a “paycock” because all he does is strut around, as useless as a peacock. (I guess the Irish accent turns “peacock” into “paycock.”) As you might imagine, Juno is the only member of the family who actually does any work, while the Captain spends his time loafing at home or whittling down the family savings at the local pub.
If all of this sounds somewhat interesting… it’s not. There’s so little visual interest in this film, you’d swear Hitchcock’s camera must have been nailed to the floor. The cast consists of actors from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre Players who performed in the stage play. They are excellent, but the play simply does not work as a film. After the promising opening, the scenes are dull, plodding, and worst of all, boring.
Even Hitchcock recognized the picture’s problems. Speaking about the film many years later with François Truffaut, Hitchcock remarked, “The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema. The critics praised the picture, and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 69)
Hitchcock’s thoughts about adaptation are worth noting:
“There’s been a lot of talk about the way in which Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces. I’ll have no part of that! What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I read it only once, and very quickly at that. An author takes three or four years to write a fine novel; it’s his whole life. Then other people take it over completely. Craftsmen and technicians fiddle around with it and eventually someone winds up as a candidate for an Oscar, while the author is entirely forgotten. I simply can’t see that.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 71)
But Hitchcock did a masterful job of bringing both Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train to the screen. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that both of those films were adapted from novels, not plays. Yet as I mentioned earlier, some of Hitchcock’s play adaptations met with more success than others. Watching Juno and the Paycock (especially for modern audiences, but perhaps also those viewing the film in 1930), viewers recognize that the movie is visually lifeless.
To be fair, a large part of the problem stems from my watching the picture on a bad transfer with atrocious sound, making the thick Irish accents difficult to navigate. Subtitles certainly would’ve helped. Perhaps a restoration is in order. Is so, I would revisit it.
One element of the film that does work, and one that may escape modern audiences, is the use of background sounds. Hitchcock utilizes a “medley of noises” such as gunfire sounding off down a street, a cheap gramophone sounding in a room, various unintelligible conversations of people, and the sounds of a funeral procession as it goes by. We get a bit more of this on a small scale with the interior scenes.
Tastes and opinions will no doubt vary, but Juno and the Paycock may be the lowest point in Hitchcock’s filmography. It will be interesting to see how Hitchcock comes out of this with his next film, Murder (1930), which I’ll explore next time.