Hitchcock directed his first feature film when he was only 25. Even at this young age, The Pleasure Garden has a lot of what would go on to become Hitchcock tropes: determined women, deception, black comedy, voyeuristic POV shots, mental instability and – of course – MUUUUUURDER.
There are also some classic Hitchcock comic side characters such as a pair of bumbling landlords, a deliciously camp tailor and a grumpy theatre proprietor who couldn’t give less of a fuck.
But what of our main characters? We follow two up-and-coming Charleston dancers at The Pleasure Garden Theatre, Patsy (Virginia Valli) and Jill (Carmelita Geraghty) who look so incredibly alike it makes the first half hour pretty confusing. Eventually I could tell them apart because one wore a hat more than the other. Except when the other one also wore a hat. Or the first one wore no hat. Hmm.
Luckily this becomes less of a problem as the film continues since they spend less time on screen together. Jill quickly becomes big in the theatre world, leaving poor Patsy behind in her dust cloud. Jill began the film engaged to the naively charming Hugh (John Stuart) and promised to remain faithful to him while he spends two years abroad working for his company, but as her fame continues to grow and her patience thins she starts to let herself enjoy the company of her “stage-door tomcats”.
Patsy, meanwhile, has a whirlwind romance with Levett (Miles Mander), Hugh’s lanky business partner, and they marry a month before he too has to leave for abroad. But once there he falls into some deplorable old habits…
The driving force of the film comes from these promises made in the heat of the moment which our heroines later regret. While the dated pacing means most of the action happens very quickly in the last half hour and feels a bit like it comes out of nowhere, the film still makes for a compelling story that explores mistrust and the limits of fidelity.
If you’re the kind of person put off by the pacing or the tone of silent movies, The Pleasure Garden probably isn’t going to convert you. But if you’re open to 1920s cinema, Hitchcock’s debut has a lot to offer. Like this ridiculously cute dog: