Saturday, 3 August 2013

The first born… The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Hitchcock’s maiden solo flight appropriately enough kicked off the BFI’s second season of the restored “Hitchcock Nine”, a year after the new prints made their debut. This was the first time I had seen The Pleasure Garden and the restoration was superb as was the  spritely musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne, straight from the SF Silent Film Festival – the hardest-working man in silent-show business?

Based on the book by Oliver Sandys, and a screenplay from Eliot Stannard, The Pleasure Garden displays its director’s enduring fascination with theatrical sleaze and the troubling relationship between the watcher and the watched… Filmed in 1925 and first screened in Germany, The Pleasure Garden didn’t get a UK release until 1926 after the success of The Lodger. Even Hitch had to pay his dues.

The film opens with a chorus line dashing down a spiral staircase in a blur of energised costumery... They pile onto stage where they are ogled by a front row full of men in formal evening dress. The camera moves along the row revelling in their gaze, their faces contorted in lustful appreciation, and coming to an abrupt halt with a young woman bored to sleep… This may be a comment on the weak-minded lasciviousness of male cinema goers, but Hitch still shows us the legs…and we still watch.
Virginia Valli disapproves...
The focus returns to linger on one excited individual who stares intently on the legs of one girl in particular… Noticing, she darts him an eyes-wide angry glance – but he’s too carried away to take heed.

It’s a great opening and, as critic Dave Kehr has noted, something like a "clip reel of Hitchcock motifs to come"…. there would be many more stages, old-age oglers and blonde dancing girls.

The limbs in question belong to chorus girl Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) a girl with a heart of gold who soon comes to the aid of Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) a middle class girl who wants a short-cut to the front of stage. Jill’s purse is robbed and she loses her money and letter of introduction but Patsy takes her in and the two start to share her Brixton bedsit.

Here we find two of Hitch’s soon-to-be-stock working class characters, Mr and Mrs Sidey played by Ferdinand Martini and Florence Helminger… neither of whom sound like they frequent the Ritzy! Both perform wonderful cameos, especially Martini with his malfunctioning crystal set and headphones.

Naturally they have a dog, Cuddles, who is a tremendously good judge of character. Jill’s fiancé, Hugh (John Stuart), arrives and is greeted like an old friend whilst his partner in colonial business, Leyet (the marvellously malevolent Miles Mander) is growled at.

Carmelita Geraghty and Karl Falkenberg
The two head off to the Orient (it’s never made clear where) and Hugh leaves Patsy promising to look after the pushy but scatty Jill who has started to impress at the theatre (the Pleasure Garden of the title).

But things start to fall apart, including the plot which meanders for too long as Jill plays around with bearded Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg) and Patsy somehow allows herself to get married to Leyet. The two honeymoon by Lake Como and there are some sumptuous shots from cameraman Gaetano di Ventimiglia but their relationship never convinces and it’s not clear why Levet wants the marriage… some twisted idea of love perhaps or is just there to supply the bad?

Leyet heads off to the east leaving Patsy increasingly unable to curtail Jill who hoards money whilst refusing to lend a hand when Patsy wants to visit her supposedly ill new husband (his excuse for not writing backfires…).

The unknown swimmer...
The narrative now gathers more cohesion as the characters head for dramatic – if predictable - collision. Patsy borrows money from her lahverly landlords and arrives just in time to see Leyet in the arms of a native girl (actress unknown but definitely not Nita Naldi!)… In a daze, Patsy finds Hugh and starts to nurse him but it seems that the crazed Levet is not finished with her.

In what one can only describe as an ‘orribly Hitchcock-ian moment, Leyet swims out to sea to great his girlfriend and then as you think they are to embrace, plunges her head underwater... It is a genuinely shocking moment, well-rendered and a reminder of his later, more unpleasant, work.

Will Leyet get away with it or will Patsy find true love with Hugh and, will we ever find out what happens to the needy-greedy Jill?

The restoration of the film is another superb job from the BFI, and resulted from intensive interweaving of four separate prints from what was identified as the same negative. The film is someway longer than the most commonly seen versions yet whilst this is a significant British silent film, this reveals some pacing issues as well as weaknesses in story logic. That said, there are also a number of bravura moments and Miles Mander is such an absolute cad!

Miles Mander: a bounder
With the originally run of the “Nine”, the BFI had fun by using a range of musical accompaniments, from orchestral to modern jazz, IDM/techno and even beatbox. Tonight’s performance gave Mr Horne the chance to show what a specialist could do and his playing was as quicksilver and emotionally sure-footed as we’ve come to expect.

He played piano – keys and strings – flute and accordion and, disconcertingly, sometimes at least two at once.  This is all the more remarkable when you consider that his music is improvised, making the lyrical connection with narrative tone all the more noteworthy: it’s one thing to walk the tightrope whilst juggling and quite another to do it playing so well!

The Hitchcock silent series runs throughout August at the BFI and The Farmers Wife is next up for me.

So far only the restored Lodger has seen release on Blu-ray/DVD but it appears that a Pleasure Garden DVD with Daniel Patrick Cohen's soundtrack may be in the works? It would be good to have Stephen Horne's music on there too.

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