Hitchcock-a-thon: Juno and the Paycock (1929)

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Of all the films under Hitchcock’s belt up by 1929, Juno and the Paycock might be his most impenetrable for modern audiences. Yes, even more so than his two hour silent rural comedy.

A lot of this comes from immediate technical problems. The film used ridiculously cheap sound equipment so there’s muffled speech and droning background static throughout. Combine that with some questionable “Irish” accents and you’ve got audio as rough as a badger’s arse.

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No one does glares like the Irish

But the most off-putting element in Paycock is the pacing. Hitchcock was a huge fan of Seán O’Casey’s original play and wanted to adapt it as faithful as possible, often running directorial decisions past O’Casey to make sure he was happy. Hitch’s loyalty is commendable, but his attachment to the source material ultimately holds the film back. It unfolds like a filmed stage play, rather than a movie. The thrilling visual language we’ve seen in Hitch’s silent films (and Blackmail) is abandoned and we’re left with an inert and “wordy” one-room drama.

But once your ears have stopped bleeding and you ease in to the slow pace you’ll uncover an engaging story. In the slums of Dublin at the height of the Irish Civil War we follow the struggles of the Boyle family: Juno (Sara Allgood), her two children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) and her husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) who’s nicknamed the peacock – or “paycock” – on account of his vanity and uselessness.

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He even has to concentrate to drink tea

When the family starts to tear apart the film reaches a shockingly bleak – almost nihilistic – conclusion. Allgood nails her final heart-wrenching monologue and it makes for an impactful send-off. It’s a fitting ending to a highly ideological film dealing with issues of national loyalty, the scars of guilt and the terrifying judgement of a devout Catholic society.

Despite these meaty topics, Paycock fails to utilize the inbuilt differences between film and theatre. It’s best to approach it as a venture into new territory since Hitchcock would later discover how to “translate” plays into films with Dial M For Murder and Rope.

An interesting early attempt, but as the great director later admitted in his famous interview with François Truffau, Juno and the Paycock has “nothing to do with cinema.”

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Well I don’t know what y’all so happy about

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Champagne (1928)

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“So…what happened in this movie again?”

I found myself asking this less than half an hour after watching Champagne. Hitchcock later wrote off the film as one of the worst in his whole career. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s actively awful, but it’s a total snoozefest.

The ever feisty Betty Balfour plays a spoiled rich young woman who, in the opening scene, crashes her father’s plane in the Atlantic Ocean just to get to a boat party. Tony Stark would be proud. This time she’s pushed paternal dependence to the limit and her millionaire Dad (played by Gordon Harker in his third and final collaboration with Hitch) pretends he’s gone bankrupt in order to teach her a lesson about responsibility.

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Peek-a-boo

And….uh…other stuff happens, I guess. I dunno, it’s hard to remember.

Hmm…

There’s the first ever freeze-frame in cinema. That’s pretty cool.

Um. What else…?

I will say that Balfour makes for an exceptionally fun protagonist, exhibiting her chirpy sense of humour with plenty of cheeky side glances. Even in the early stages where she’s careless and inconsiderate she still seems like she’d be a blast to have at a party. And when she learns her of her family’s “bankruptcy” her immediate reaction is to go out to sell all her jewellery and try to get a job. No moping or whining or complaining – just enthusiasm.

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While other folk try to look down her top

In a way, this works to the film’s disadvantage. I didn’t care whether or not she “learned her lesson” by the end because, to be honest, I always enjoyed Balfour’s company right from the start. Hell, at least she knows how to have a good time.

The same can’t be said of her disapproving boyfriend played Jean Bradin. Like all other characters in the film, he’s not given a name but I’ve taken the liberty of calling Blandy McKilljoy.

As for the rest of the cast, Gordon Harker is passably funny now he’s, thank God, toned things down since The Farmer’s Wife. And there’s a pompous club manager who looks like a cross between the Go Compare guy and a convicted sex criminal.

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Go Compare my balls

And there’s also…um…

Which movie was I talking about?

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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The Farmer’s Wife might be the lightest film of Hitchcock’s entire career. It is a simple, amiable romantic comedy that trots along with no urgency, taking it’s time to enjoy the view.

After the death of his wife and the marriage of his only child, Mr. Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) begins to feel lonesome and resolves to find a new bride. “A female or two be floatin’ around in my mind like the smell of a Sunday dinner,” as he puts it.

His supportive housekeeper, Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis), helps him compile a list of eligible singletons ready for courtship. Hall-Davis turns in a more delicate performance than her previous collaboration with Hitchcock in The Ring and gives Minta buckets of likability. Sadly, this proved to be one of her last film roles. Her career didn’t survive the shift to the talkie era and she committed suicide in 1933 after a nervous breakdown.

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A tragic loss

The subjects of Sweetland’s romantic pursuits are unflattering spinster stereotypes, but it plays out with tongue-in-cheek comic absurdity, rather than the bitter cruelty we saw in Downhill. But even if these caricatures aren’t mean-spirited, they’re still not funny. Apart from one inspired scene with a manic jelly.

If there are chuckles to be had they comes from Thomas’s performance as Mr. Sweetland who’s twitching moustache and eyebrow raises make for some amusing mannerisms while not letting them become over-the-top.

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Well….mostly

But I’d be lying if I said any of comedy had me on the floor. Especially Gordon Harker’s wacky, gurning handyman, Churdles, who is far more tiresome than funny. Unless you really, really like gurning.

Where the film does have appeal is in its rustic, melancholic tone that underpins the shenanigans. The scene where Mr. Sweetland gazes wistfully at his late wife’s empty seat, brushing the remnants of confetti from his daughter’s wedding off his jacket, has real poignancy.

It’s a gentle, slow-moving film that stretches the story and characters too thin for its running time, but has an endearing charm. While not in the least bit suspenseful or even particularly funny, I found myself warming to it.

And how can you top that ridiculously cute dog from Pleasure Garden? Two ridiculously cute dogs:

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I CAN’T STAND IT, IT’S TOO ADORABLE