Sunday, August 13, 2017

Born Today August 13: Alfred Hitchcock


One of the world's best known directors of suspense and even horror, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, was born on this day in Leytonstone, Essex, England (now part of London).  He was the son of shop merchant (greengrocer and poultry seller).  He was raised Roman Catholic and schooled in catholic institutions in the London area.  He had trouble with his weight from the start and often described this as an alienating factor in his childhood, despite that he was the sheltered youngest child of three.  It occasioned that despite this favor, his father could be quite cruel.  Hitchcock claimed that his father once sent him to the local police station with a note he had written asking that young Alfred by locked up for five minutes; this Hitchcock claimed instilled in him a life long fear and general negative view of police officers.  He was only five years old.  After graduating from engineering school he became a draftsman and an advertising designer--a skill that would serve him well later in life in his famous story-boarding of films.  When World War I broke out, he was called up to service with the army.  His weight, however, ultimately kept him from serving actively; he did, however, serve at garrisons at home.  In this capacity, he joined the regiment of Royal Engineers as a cadet.  It was when he was working at an electrical cable company as an advertising designer that he began to tinker with creative writing.  The company, Henley's, began an in-house publication called The Henley Telegraph in 1919.  Hitchcock began submitting short articles, his first piece "Gas" was featured in the first edition.  He had already developed a fascination with the motion picture industry.  That same year he was determined to enter the business, and he found work as a title card designer for the Famous Players-Lasky, which by then was a part of Paramount--Hitchcock worked for them at Islington Studios.  When Famous Players left the UK in 1922, Hitchcock remained on the studio's pay-roll as part of the staff.  It appears that the first film that Hitchcock actually worked on was The Great Day (1920) as a title designer while still a Paramount employee.  This is a fascinating part of Hitchcock's time in the film industry that gets little attention; at first blush, "title card designer" does not sound terribly exciting, but when one looks at the films he worked on during this time, one can find influences on his later work.  By 1922, he working on more than just title cards and had begun giving active input on art direction.  The first title that he is absolutely known to have worked on in this capacity is Three Live Ghosts, though there may well have been titles before this.  Also in 1922 came his first directing job on the unfinished project Number 13 made under what would become Gainsborough Pictures (the title is thought to be Hitchcock's personal working title for the film).  The budget for the production--two reels of which were shot--ran out and was thus shut down (Hitchcock was said to have raised some funds for the film from his own family); apparently the nitrate was then melted to extract the silver for re-use.  However, some production stills, in the form of photographs, do still exist--as does a photograph of Hitchcock directing it.  The film has become a legend of it's own in the last few decades, what with wholly unsubstantiated rumors of copies in mysterious private collections, right down to it's inspiring it's own film by the same name starring Dan Folger as Hitchcock--ironically, like it's original namesake, the film was never finished for many of the same reasons (hey...what if there is a "Number 13 curse"....doubt it).

Still from Number 13

First known photograph of Hitchcock directing.

Unknown to a lot of Hitchcock fans, he also has a fair number of original writing credits to his name dating from the early twenties quite apart from pictures that he would direct.  One of the earliest is the now lost Woman To Woman (1923), directed by Graham Cutts for Balcon, Freedman & Saville (who would rename themselves Gainsborough).  Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his own films; this practice actually started in his most famous silent film The Lodger (original title The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog).  In all Hitchcock would make/direct 12 films in the silent era (techinally 13 if you add in a filmed sound check), including one of the most important early sound films in Britain Blackmail (incidentally this is the film for which the 1 minute sound test was filmed; also there is a fully silent version that has been restored). [List of his silent films from the 1920's can be found below.]

Hitchcock's first film cameo

Hitchcock would, of course, go on to be one the most formative and well know film makers of twentieth century.  It is beyond the scope of this silent blog to tackle that, however, a few milestones in his life as a film maker and director can be easily pointed out without becoming too tedious. 

Scene from Blackmail (1929)

The first film that Hitchcock made in the 1930's was Murder! (1930) starring Herbert Marshall.  He experimented with extensive special effects in Number 17 (1932) (one of my favorites).  His The Man Who Wasn't There (1934) featuring Peter Lorre, would be a film he would remake in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.  His first U.S. production was Rebecca in 1940 for Selznick International Pictures.  His first actual horror film (a genre that he is well associated with today) was actually Psycho in 1960; despite that his Alfred Hitchcock Presents, of which he was the host, premiered on broadcast television in 1955--the show certainly touched on horror elements.  The Birds was a main influence on the late George A. Romero's 1968 The Night of the Living Dead, along with The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price. His next to last film, Frenzy (1972), saw him return to his native Britain for production.  His last film, Family Plot (1976), was a comedy thriller romp starring Karen Black and Bruce Dern.  It was made for Universal and saw his return to Hollywood.  During this period of time, he was intending on making another spy thriller entitled The Short Night, but due to his declining health, and that of his wife Alma, the project was never filmed.  Hitchcock eventually succumbed to full renal failure in his Bel Air home on the 30th of April, 1980.  After his funeral mass, his remains were cremated and scattered over the Pacific ocean.

Directing his lost film The Mountain Eagle.

Number 13 1922 (unfinished, lost)

Always Tell Your Wife 1923 (short)

The Mountain Eagle 1926 (famously lost)

The Lodger (1927)

The Ring (1927)

Easy Virtue (1928)

Champagne (1928)

The Manxman (1929)

Still from his last silent film The Manxman

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