Terrific Storytelling from the Master, Applied to Melodrama
The story, of course, is not acceptable now. It's based on a play written by two performers who were major stage figures in their time but are now principally remembered for a few film roles (Novello in Hitchcock's THE LODGER, Collier as the has-been actress teaching acting to young girls in LaCava's STAGE DOOR). The story tells of the long, melodramatic, total downfall and degeneration of a son of wealth with a seemingly bright future, the hero of the rugby field, who is disgraced when he takes the rap for his impoverished roommate at his British school. Modern audiences tend to find this sort of melodrama, no matter how well done, a bit ridiculous. The anguished query of young Novello when he's told that he's expelled, "Does this mean, sir, that I won't be able to play rugby for the Old Boys?" is justly famous for its fatuousness. But the film itself is not fatuous, or ridiculous in the slightest. It shows Hitchcock to be one of the greatest of all the masters of the silent cinema, using an array of sophisticated film techniques to build a narrative complexity that goes far beyond the melodramatic plot. The pictorial quality of the film is lush and dense and the photography is sophisticated.
For one thing, he uses very few titles. Of course, he was not alone in trying to keep silent-film intertitles to a minimum. But directors like Murnau tended to tell simple "timeless" stories with very formal pictography, the story told through a series of strong, simple, iconic images, the characters hardly speaking. Hitchcock has preserved verisimilitude by having his characters talk as much as they want. If what they're saying isn't important, such as the small talk among the rugby spectators at the beginning, why show it in titles? The casual milieu is established more clearly, in fact, if one doesn't know exactly what's being said. Hitchcock's use of this technique is even more evident in THE FARMER'S WIFE (also adapted from a play), where the characters talk and talk, but rarely is there a title. We talk constantly in real life, and one of the things that makes some silents seem stilted is the refusal to have the characters say anything unless what they say is shown in a title.
Even when characters reveal their inner feelings to each other, the words they speak are often not the best communicators. Hitchcock shows relationships through subtle facial expressions, body posture, and observant human movements, through editing, little close-ups or vignettes of action, and placement of camera. All sorts of naturalistic bits of business are used to make the story clear and dramatically interesting. These techniques convey subtle relationships even more strongly when titles are not there to "explain" the content in words to the viewer, undercutting the images.
Amid symbolic images of his "descent," such as traveling down London's endless escalators to the underground trains, and riding down in an elevator, the story of Novello's decline is laid out in melodramatic detail. A few incidents, and Hitchcock's handling of them, are described below.
The film opens on the day of a big rugby game, and the visiting families dine with the students in the school's great dining hall. At one point, the sister of Novello's poor roommate steps into a stairwell and sees two small boys fighting on the stair. Then a door opens, and she glimpses Novello toweling up after a shower. Nothing comes of either of these incidents (she doesn't see Novello again); they are just original, well staged, atmospheric moments. Having attended a British boarding school for a year in the fifties, I can attest that these are particularly telling touches. Long, aimless, vicious fights were a hallmark of that existence, and I also remember incidents of women embarrassed at being out of place in a boys' school.
The roommate gets a note from the attractive waitress to meet him at the sweet shop where she works. At the same time, she flirts with Novello. The two young men visit the girl at the sweet shop, and there's a long scene where each of them dance with her in a back room. She obviously favors Novello, and Hitchcock cuts from shots of Novello dancing with the shop-girl to the gradually disapproving stare of his companion. However, as the other fellow goes out, she points to the sign "Closed Wednesday Afternoons," a typical example of visual storytelling which not only economically indicates (without titles) that she has asked him to return, but also the furtive nature of the invitation. Later, she comes to the school and accuses Novello of making her pregnant (not of theft, as the IMDB synopsis and other sources state). She accuses him, apparently, because she was mad at him for ignoring her, and because he's rich and can presumably pay off. The actress playing the shop girl (Daisy Jackson, per a photo caption in the Citadel Hitchcock book, though she isn't in any credits listing, including in that book and IMDB) is very attractive and an excellent silent film actress.
After Novello is cast out of his father's house, the scene changes, with a title, "Make Believe." We see Novello in a tuxedo, talking. The camera pulls back and we find him a waiter. After some action, the scene is revealed to be part of a musical; he's a stage actor now. "Make believe" for sure; first we think he's in high society, then a waiter, finally an actor!
After falling further, we find him in France, a male taxi-dancer under the thumb of an iron-handed battle-ax. He spends an evening at the table of an older woman (Violet Farebrother) who sympathetically listens to his life story. But at the end of the evening, so late that it's now morning, a man has an attack and the windows are opened to let in fresh air. The glaring sunlight floods into the foul night-spot, and Novello looks around at the dissipated, apathetic revellers, looks at the now-much-faded "interesting" older woman, and realizes the horror of his surroundings. The scene exudes a profound sense of revulsion and loathing, a depth of feeling on a plane rarely found in Hitchcock.
Finally, Novello is fever-stricken and delirious in a dockside dive, cared for by scruffy blacks. As they pile him on to a small steamer, his shaky passage to the ship, on the gang-plank and into the cabin is presented in striking hand-held point-of-view shots.
The sophisticated narrative style, the profusion of telling details, the richness of the visuals, all made the film gripping and dramatic, despite the hoary plot and a slight over-length. Before Hitchcock found his "niche," he used his talents to make quite a few unexpectedly eclectic films that showed a remarkable talent, constantly inventive and original, continually using film in creative ways. His silent films are largely ignored because they, for the most part, do not conform to the Hitchcock subject matter. But he's one of the great silent directors! He understood the medium and used it more subtly and creatively than many more famous practitioners.
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