What! No cameos?
These two films are from director Alfred Hitchcock’s British period prior to his signing to work with producer David Selznick in the United States beginning in early 1939. Rich and Strange (released as East of Shanghai in the U.S.) was made in 1932, before Hitchcock was widely recognized for his suspense films. Jamaica Inn was made in late 1938 (released in 1939) between Hitchcock’s initial contacts with Selznick and his final departure for the U.S. Both films are in the public domain and so have been available from a number of different sources at varying levels of quality.
Whirlwind Media, Inc. (previously identified as Rykodisc, and still so referenced in some catalogues) has now released these two titles together as part of its Europa Theatre Series of DVDs. The series pairs films by the same director and features other material relative to the era of the films, such as newsreels and cartoons.
Jamaica Inn — Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience operate Jamaica Inn, an establishment on the Cornish coast of England in the early 1800s. The inn is actually a front for illegal operations involving the luring of ships onto the coastal rocks where the crews are murdered and the ships’ cargoes can be plundered. Joss and his gang actually report to the mastermind of the operation — Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local squire who is also Justice of the Peace. Patience’s niece Mary arrives from Ireland unannounced to stay at the inn, precipitating a chain of events that include the discovery of an undercover police agent in Joss’ gang, the disruption of the gang’s next operation, and the revelation of Pengallan’s role.
Rich and Strange — A young suburban English couple, Fred and Emily Hill, are bored with the routine of their existence. Money from a rich uncle allows them to leave it all behind and travel on a long cruise. The Hills make their way eastward to Paris, the Suez, and Colombo. Fred who suffers from sea sickness gradually develops a shipboard relationship with a princess while Emily falls into the company of a handsome colonial Englishman. Both increasingly go their separate ways. In Singapore, however, Emily realizes that she can’t go away with her Englishman and Fred learns that his princess was merely a fortune-hunter. Poorer and sadder, the couple reunite and have to make their way home on a tramp steamer. But the return voyage brings its own surprises.
Written by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, Rich and Strange‘s plot was widely recognized as being almost autobiographical in its nature, much of it being drawn from the Hitchcock’s own recent trip around the world. Even the main characters’ names, Fred and Emily Hill, are somewhat suggestive of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. A lot happens to Fred and Emily during the course of the film, yet it’s amazing how little it changes them in the end. Was this somewhat akin to the impact of the Hitchcocks’ own trip?
Interestingly, five years after the first sound film. Rich and Strange departed from the norm of many films of the day with its lack of dialogue. Only about a fifth of the film had speech and much of the location work was silent. The film was later known to be a favourite of Hitchcock’s and it was disappointing to him that it was unsuccessful at the box-office, both in Britain and the U.S., even though it received reasonable reviews. One consequence of its financial failure was a further deterioration in Hitchcock’s relationship with British International Pictures which subsequently gave him a very meager budget for his next effort Number Seventeen. That proved to be the last film he would direct for the company.
Among the cast, Henry Kendall and Joan Barry gave entertaining if not inspired performances as Fred and Emily Hill respectively. More interesting, however, is the character of the female gadfly on the cruise who is a constant nuisance to all the other passengers. Elsie Randolph, who was one of the London stage’s most popular musical and comedy stars, plays the role most convincingly- making the character annoying yet somehow endearing at the same time. Hitchcock, who was always one for practical jokes (sometimes cruelly so), arranged one on Elsie Randolph during the film’s shooting. She showed a good humour and resilience about it which led Hitchcock to remember her 40 years later when he cast her in a small part in Frenzy (1972, Universal).
Rich and Strange is an intriguing film. The story is entertaining and fully lives up to its title — for its first half, the key word is “rich’, for the second half “strange.” The blend of extended silent passages with bursts of dialogue seems to fit the changing moods of the tale and its protagonists aptly. Hitchcock employs his developing fluid camera movement and interesting camera placements judiciously as a counterpoint to the tedium of everyday living and the monotony of shipboard activities. If you haven’t seen this film before, it’s well worth a look.
Jamaica Inn was a period piece adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel. Du Maurier, reportedly, was not particularly pleased with the adaptation. There is little to suggest it’s a Hitchcock picture and Hitchcock became bored with the whole affair well before shooting actually ended (maybe even before he started, as he had by then signed with Selznick and was anxious to get on with the new relationship). If there’s one reason to see Jamaica Inn, it’s the Jekyll and Hyde mentality of Pengallan, a theme that recurs in many of Hitchcock’s later films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Universal), Strangers on a Train (1951, WB), and Psycho (1960, Universal). Also, if you like a good dose of ham in your films, Jamaica Inn may be to your liking, for the star of the film is Charles Laughton, playing Pengallan, and Laughton was at his hamming worst. His Pengallan soon becomes a tiresome cliché of the corpulent, self-satisfied, born-to-the-manor country gentleman. Laughton’s look and mannerisms even seemed a little odd in the role, as he chose to add a putty nose and indulge in various facial and bodily gestures because he felt they would add to the effect of his character.
Fortunately, the film did benefit from quite a good supporting cast with Leslie Banks and Robert Newton as Joss and the uncover man respectively, and Basil Radford and Mervyn Johns in smaller roles. Horace Hodges, whom I’m not familiar with, is quite delightful as Pengallan’s long-suffering butler, Chadwick. The film is probably best known for being 18-year-old Maureen O’Hara’s first film part of any substance. She does quite well as the visiting niece and would use the role as a stepping stone to a successful film career in America, beginning with 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (RKO), again with Charles Laughton.
Despite its shortcomings and a general drubbing from the critics, Jamaica Inn fared quite well at the box office, benefiting from Hitchcock’s reputation and that of the original novel.
Whirlwind Media’s Europa Theatre Series DVD of the two films is quite a nice package. In addition to the two features, there’s a 10-minute 1939 Fox Movietone newsreel, the 1931 Bosko cartoon “Yodeling Yokels,” and what’s called an interactive package which includes a Hitchcock filmography, a 4-title bibliography and a listing of Hitchcock’s cameos on his films. You have the option to watch all the items without any pause between each, or to select items one at a time. The newsreel content seems almost too good to be true, which made me wonder if several newsreels hadn’t been edited together. It includes a lengthy (by newsreel standards) profile of the invasion of Poland by Germany in the first weeks of World War 2; the opening night festivities in Atlanta for the premiere of Gone with the Wind (1939, MGM); and the Lou Gehrig celebration at Yankee Stadium held after his terminal illness had become known. The newsreel looks and sounds quite good. In contrast, the Bosko cartoon is pretty ragged looking with numerous scratches and speckling. It doesn’t look as good as it does on the Image collection of Bosko cartoons (Uncensored Bosko). The interactive package is quite thorough with both filmography and cameo list appearing complete upon a cursory inspection. Combined with an 8-page insert booklet that focuses on the cast and crew of the two films, Whirlwind has provided a nice supplement of background information on the films and their director that other companies would do well to emulate. And all at a SRP of $19.99!
Right, but how do the films look? After all, I’m always saying that the film’s the thing. Well, as efforts by the public domain companies go, the transfers aren’t too bad. They’re certainly not up to the standard of the major releasers, but since Whirlwind didn’t have access to any original negatives or the like (at least, I’m assuming they didn’t or else they’d have said so), they get a passing grade. The start of Rich and Strange actually looks quite nice — clear, good contrasts — and I found the occasional scratch and speckle to be no great distraction. The quality does deteriorate a little in the second half with more scratches and splices in evidence. It certainly looks better than any other home video version I’ve seen of it, and the sound is workable throughout.
Jamaica Inn looks less pleasing. It lacks sharpness throughout and the many nighttime scenes lose all shadow detail. The sound is rather uneven in volume and clarity. Image’s release of this title (on behalf of Kino International) is a better choice in terms of image and sound if you’re only interested in this film alone. There is another release of the title on DVD by Delta, but I have not viewed it.
And, oh yes, Whirlwind. Get rid of the Scanavo keep case, please. I hate having to wonder each time if the DVD’s going to come out in one piece.
Rich and Strange and Jamaica Inn are two very different films from Hitchcock’s British period. The first is well worth seeing while the second is for Hitchcock and Laughton completists only. Whirlwind’s DVD package of the two is an attractive effort delivering somewhat variable but workable transfers of the films along with a very nice package of supplementary material. At a price of $19.99, which means you can get it for about $14.00 if you shop around, this DVD is good value for the money.