So here's how the story goes. Back in the 1920s Graham Cutts was a big time British film director (among his works was "Cocaine", "The White Shadow" and "She Couldn't Say No"). As with every big time film director he had an assistant or two, and one of them (a former title designer) was itching for a chance to direct on his own. In 1925 an opportunity came up with a film called "The Rat", but Cutts didn't want to give his assistant a chance and perhaps outdo him as a director, so he made "The Rat".
Well along comes Michael Balcon, a producer at the studio, who took pity upon the rather promising young assistant and, out of the clear blue sky, gave him a shot at directing an adaptation of Oliver Sandys' novel "The Pleasure Garden". The assistant said "sure".
That assistant was the 26-year-old Alfred Hitchcock, and "The Pleasure Garden" became his first film. To put it mildly: the rest was history.
Fast forward now to June of this year when the British Film Institute received $3 million to restore nine titles from Hitchcock's silent film period, giving modern audiences a chance to see for themselves just what all the hooraw was about.
(Good going, British Film Institute.)
It's always interesting (at least for me) to look at the first effort from a director and try to spot the beginnings of the particular style which would make subsequent works stand out in the minds of movie fans. As an example: could anyone look at the documentary shorts made by Kubrick and Altman from the early 1950s and see the talent which would produce "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Full Metal Jacket" and "Nashville"? Did anyone watch "Battle Beyond the Sun" and remark: "Wow . . . that Francis Ford Coppola oughtta be out there making grandiose epics about American gangsters"?
One is tempted to come away from "The Pleasure Garden" and automatically remark on how the genius which would being us "North by Northwest" or "Rear Window" was already in place. But admittedly it's a call which requires more of a mental microscope than I possess, and I applaud Balcon for going long on Hitch. One wonders how cinema history would've turned out had Cutts been less of a stinker and allowed Hitch to direct "The Rat".
For openers the story isn't really that complex. The most basic description I could give would be two parts "Twilight Zone" and three parts "That Girl" episode with a faint dusting of "All About Eve". The film opens in London with country mouse Jill Cheyne arriving all fresh cheeked and innocent with dreams of becoming a performer in a nightclub called The Pleasure Garden.
(Oh and look: in the opening credits we see Alma Reville . . . all button-eyed and turned-up nose . . . with her folks probably whispering in her ear on how "that shmoe Hitchcock is no good for you"*.)
Jill has arrived in London with a small amount of money and a letter of introduction to the impresario of The Pleasure Garden. Unfortunately, within moments of reaching the club, both the money and the letter are stolen. Tragedy! But along comes Patsy Brand, a performer at the club, who takes pity on Jill and takes her under her wing, allowing Jill to share her apartment and otherwise chum about. Giggle giggle.
The next day Jill gets a chance to show her stuff (as well as dance) to the impresario who is Visibly Impressed (all together now: "I must have . . . That Girl!"). Jill becomes a rising star at the club which pleases her to no end because now she can get enough money together to where she and her fiance, Hugh Fielding, can get married.
(A point here about the soundtrack. It was composed and performed by Lee Erwin in the typical silent movie fashion which makes one think his name on the credits should've included "On the Mighty Wurlitzer!" Nothing too spectacular about it except in the scenes showing Jill dancing. Here Erwin delights us with a rather bouncy number that fits the scene just fine, but one can almost imagine Hitchcock passing a note to Alma which reads: "I wish Bernard Herrmann would hurry up and start work". Unfortunately for all concerned, Herrmann was only 14 years old when "The Pleasure Garden" was being made, and doubtless he was spending his time hanging out at the malt shop and working on hot rod engines . . . if they had malt shops and hot rod engines in New York in 1925.)
Anyway, the sudden fame starts to go to Jill's pretty young head and, when Hugh finally shows up (accompanied by a colleague: Levet), it's all Hugh can do to keep Jill's eyes from straying. Especially since Jill has managed to capture the attention of the wealthy Prince Ivan. Hugh has to go off to oversee a foreign plantation for quite some time, leaving Jill free to cat around. She's soon making enough money to where she moves out from Patsy's apartment (leaving a note telling Patsy that, since she's now a star, she can no longer consider staying in cheap lodgings). In less than thirty minutes Jill has changed from the pitiful young girl everyone felt so sorry for to nothing less than an Evil Woman. To misquote the poet: "Henceforth she is a scarlet scamp/A regular red-lipped, black souled Vamp!"
Both Patsy and Levet feel rather sorry for the absent Hugh (and it's clear that Patsy's feelings for Hugh sort of go a little further than tea and sympathy, if you catch my drift). Nonetheless Patsy has also grown fond of Levet and the two agree to marry (just before Levet has to go off to Africa to work alongside Hugh).
Okay, show of hands: how many of you out there could write the rest of the story?
Yeah, thought so. Jill runs off with Prince Ivan, and Patsy learns that her husband has fallen ill from a jungle fever. In desperation she sets out for Africa to be at his side . . . and here's where I stop spilling the beans about the plot. Suffice it to say that there are some Tense Moments for all concerned before all the pieces fall into proper place and we reach The End!
In retrospect "The Pleasure Garden" is something of a pedestrian soap opera (the sort of morality play which was in fashion during those times . . . i.e. "Daddy has taken to Drink", or "We cannot pay The Rent", or "Innocent Young Country Girl becomes corrupted by Fame in the Big City"). If there is anything of a recognizable "Hitchcock Style" in the film it lies in the development of characters (in this case courtesy of the screenplay by Eliot Stannard, who would find work in several other early Hitchcock films). As Jill, Carmalita Geraghty does a rather good job of pulling at the audiences heartstrings early on, and then ends up being the sort of person you'd hope would be found dead in an alleyway chewed on by rats. In her one can see a hint of future characters such as Miriam from "Strangers on a Train".
Even closer, though, is Virginia Valli as Patsy. Worldly wise, and yet not entirely immune to tugs at the heartstrings, she is the spiritual ancestor to the characters Tippi Hedren would portray later on, or even perhaps Grace Kelly in "Dial M for Murder" or "To Catch a Thief". Possessing resourcefulness and generosity but, at the same time, becoming the victim of circumstances which can only be overcome through courage and, above all, love. As with many of the "bodice ripper" romance novels which are continually churned out, the audience can pretty much figure out how things will end. The trick (and the audience's interest) lie in seeing how matters develop.
Serious and dramatic, "The Pleasure Garden" does manage to serve occasional bits of humor. Perhaps accidentally, as with one scene where Valli is wandering the sidewalks and mooning over the fate of the betrayed Hugh. Levet (played with purposeful unspectacularness by Miles Mander) comes up behind her and startles her out of her thoughts with a touch on the arm. Here the audience can be forgiven for smiling and thinking: "You idiot! You don't just sneak up behind someone in a Hitchcock Film".
No opulent set scenes in this early effort. No interesting Greenwich Village apartments or national monuments. But Hitchcock managed to make do with what he had. In one early instance there's a nice brief shot of the club's dancers racing down a spiral staircase (perhaps later on invoking Hitch's eye for using interesting architecture as additional characters), and the scenes taking place at the African plantation provide a broad change from the show business lifestyle of the city, and yet are simple enough so that the audience remains focused on the action (the entire film only runs 75 minutes, so no long tracking shots here folks).
If "The Pleasure Garden" had been Hitchcock's only work as a director then one might've been inclined to let him drift into obscurity. But not entirely. The ins and outs of the story, plus the presentations of the actors, manage to hold interest long enough to where you want to ride out the entire film and see how it ends. In that, more than anything else, is the hint of the long and fascinating ride which the then-nascent Master of Suspense would become famous for.
All in all, I Rather Enjoyed the Movie.
(*Hitchcock and Alma would become engaged during the course of filming "The Pleasure Garden".)