Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Everyone has to start somewhere.
In today’s movie climate, first films are perhaps the single most important work a director will ever make, as that initial reaction at Sundance and film festivals and studio screenings can determine your entire future.
But for Alfred Hitchcock, who started in the movie business designing titles for silent films before working his way up as a writer, set designer, and assistant director, there was no film school. Hitchcock learned by working for other filmmakers, both in Britain and Germany. And when the time came to direct his first feature film, it was anything but awe-inspirinHitchcock had previously started directing a film, Number Thirteen, which fell apart when the American financing company closed their doors. So in 1925, with his then-girlfriend Alma Reville by his side, that Hitchcock directed his first feature film. Reville was more experienced by far, having worked as a scenarist, writer, and editor for years. Yet she was a woman, and it was unthinkable for her to be a director (in Britain and in most other countries). And Hitchcock wasn’t without his merits; he’d risen steadily up the ladder of film production, and upon the release of his first film, he’d be touted by the British press as the “young man with the master mind.”
But by all accounts, The Pleasure Garden (1925) was a mess from start to finish. Hitchcock delighted in telling long, rambling stories of his inexperience and problems making the film (they’re recounted in great detail in Hitchcock/Truffaut). Setting out by train to Lake Como in Italy to film a honeymoon scene and (unconvincingly) an African colony, Hitchcock had two or three crew members with him while Alma went to to Paris to meet the American actresses and buy their wardrobes.
The romantic, barnstorming days of silent film! It’s ridiculous and charming. Less than ten people altogether, no lighting or sound equipment, just traipsing through Europe with a budget-conscious Hitchcock spending more time keeping track of finances than paying attention to the shots. One account even has him turning to Alma after each shot and asking “was that all right?” (I’ll talk more about the importance of Alma Reville to Hitchcock in later weeks).
Despite being the work of a “master mind,” the main impression I get from The Pleasure Garden is how ordinary it is. The film follows Patsy, a good-hearted chorus girl (excellently played by American actress Virginia Valli) as she befriends newcomer Jill, only to see Jill succeed through her loose morals. Patsy finds herself attracted to Jill’s clueless boyfriend, yet accepts a Mr. Levett’s offer of marriage, only to see him descend into a cesspool sex and drugs in Africa. While Jill carouses with a wealthy prince, Patsy travels to Africa to help her awful husband, who kills his “native” lover and then tries to kill Patsy. She’s rescued in the nick of time, Jill is basically forgotten, and Patsy ends up with the right man. It’s pretty standard melodramatic trifle.
I know it can be hard for modern audiences to watch a black and white film, let alone a silent movie. Bad transfers of overexposed prints have left legions of curious film lovers with images of pasty-white faces cavorting about at improperly projected speeds, often with fantastically inappropriate musical accompaniment.
Yet there can be incredible beauty, grace, and excitement in silent film. In 1924, Fritz Lang in Germany (where Hitchcock shot the studio scenes for Pleasure Garden) created the mammoth Die Nibelungen pair of films, the standard-bearer for fantasy epics for decades. The same year, F.W. Murnau made the supremely touching The Last Laugh. In America, Buster Keaton made Sherlock Jr in 1924 and Charlie Chaplin made The Gold Rush in 1925. My beloved John Ford created the modern Western with The Iron Horse in 1924. And in Russia, Sergei Eisenstein reinvented movie editing and montage with Battleship Potemkin in 1925. Moving, breathtaking, funny, and profound silent cinema was something achievable in 1925…just not yet for Hitchcock.
Which totally makes sense. Imagine someone taking your first scribble on a piece of paper and holding it up to close examination when you became a famous artist. When I was in film school, fellow students would spend countless hours and thousands of dollars on their student films, convinced that they could be perfect. You’re learning the technique, learning the craft, and making mistakes. Hitchcock’s first film isn’t a failure and it isn’t a revelation: it’s a smart young man learning his craft and doing remarkably well against the odds.
Some of the scenes in The Pleasure Garden do have an elegance to them. In the establishing sequence of the eponymous dance hall, there’s the obligatory shot of the dancing girls, but Hitchcock cuts to a group of much older men in the front row, leering at the women. It’s played for laughs (one of the old men can’t see and breaks out his opera glasses) but there’s a definite commentary on the lecherous tone of the place. Later, one of the older bigwigs makes a play for Patsy, and she laughs him off, saying “You must have a better line than THAT.” It’s a sly commentary on the mores of the time, and it also sets up the difference between Patsy & Jill (as Patsy laughs off the come-ons, while Jill falls for them).
Historians and critics have made a lot of a lesbian suggestion when Jill, who is homeless after being robbed at the stage door, accepts Patsy’s offer of a place to stay and sleeps with her in her bed (even that makes it sound much more sexual than it is). Jill is wearing a more traditional negligee while Patsy is wearing pajamas with pants as bottoms. Get it? She’s the man and Jill is the girl. Okay, I guess. It’s a little scandalous, maybe, but the women are positioned as rivals, not lovers. Hitchcock claims to have been a sexual novice at the time, and the film reflects an almost puritanical attitude towards sex: the lesbian man/woman suggestion is there, and that’s about it. Despite the suggestive nature of the title, Hitchcock is remarkably prim about the dancing girls and shies away from many of the film’s more prurient aspects.
The movie’s attitude towards “Africa” is dreadful, but also so fake that it barely merits commentary. The location is never named, with both male suitors commenting that they’re heading to “the colonies.” An actress painted with dark makeup (more blackface in Hitchcock than I thought!) plays the native temptress who dooms Levett, but the whole thing is preposterous and clearly shot in a backyard. It’s typical of 19th and early 20th century British condescension towards Africa and India that it’s both repulsive and barely worth talking about it. The plot of the movie is xenophobic rubbish.
For the rest of the film, there’s little to distinguish it. Many of the actors are excellent (including Miles Mander as the businessman driven insane by Africa), and there’s some nice supporting performances, as there always are in Hitchcock films. Other than an inventive opening shot of dancers descending a spiral staircase and some ingenious shots on the boat in Lake Como, there’s not much to identify this as a “Hitchcock” film. Except one thing.
Patsy has a dog in the film, “Cuddles,” a little troublemaker who immediately warms to Jill’s fiance (the Good Man) and barks and growls at Levett (the Bad man). The dog pops up as comic relief in various scenes (licking Jill’s feet, chewing on a radio cord, etc) until he gets the last laugh of the film. Patsy arrives home, now together with her first true love. The dog jumps up to greet him, clearly preferring him to her other beau, and Patsy comments that “Cuddles knew all the time.”
There’s two things to take away from this. 1. Hitchcock was a lifelong dog lover, who often inserted them into his films, and loved working with them. He also recognized their dramatic and comedic potential and never used them as a crutch for a character’s sympathies. And 2. Dogs rule.
When I was about three years old, my parents had been talking about getting a dog. Then one night my dad got a call from his boss; they’d been out hunting quail in the desert and found a puppy that had clearly been left out there to die. They had the dog in a cage at their house now; did we want to come take a look at it? Sure! But my parents were very clear, we were only going to “look” at the dog.
We all know how that ended. The dog, a corgi mix with floppy ears, came home with us that night. I named her “Waffle” because she was the color of a brown waffle (clever, I know). She slept in my room on a stuffed dog toy that she commandeered and turned into a pillow. Waffle loved goldfish crackers & chasing lizards in the backyard and put up with all my childhood nonsense. She was the best dog a kid could ask for. Waffle died when I was away at college, and while I’m sad I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it up close. My dad telling me over the phone about putting Waffle down is one of the only times I’ve ever heard him cry.
I lived in New York City for fourteen years between college and jobs, and never got a dog. Between constantly working (for six or seven years I’d regularly clock 50-60 hours a week at my non-profit job), and strict no-pet NYC landlords, it never seemed possible. I’d dogsit for friends when I could, and pet all the dogs I saw on the street.
When I moved to Pittsburgh with my (now) ex-wife, we talked about getting a dog. Freed from the confines of Brooklyn we had more space and time for a dog. Our first landlord wasn’t open to it, even after I took a part-time job working at Animal Friends, a local animal shelter. I was spending my days with dogs, cats, puppies, kitties, and bunnies but couldn’t bring them home.
Then we moved to a different apartment where our landlord was open to pets. My ex-wife Rachel wanted a non-shedding dog even though I told her it was rare to find at a shelter. We kept looking.
July 4th is one of the worst days of the year for pets to run away or get lost because of parties & fireworks, and Animal Friends stages a yearly Fourth of July rescue. During the 2010 rescue, they saved two dogs from the city shelter where they would have been put down. The two dogs were one-year-old poodle mixes (maybe some kind of terrier or schnauzer) and probably brothers.
We were looking to adopt one dog. Two had never even entered our mind, and while I had met both dogs, Rachel was interested in the one named “T Rex” by the shelter. T Rex had brown hair and a sweet, goofy demeanor. His brother, “Charlie Brown” was all black and painfully shy & nervous. I couldn’t even get him to approach me. The dogs seemed to take comfort in each other, and so when I brought my ex-wife to meet T Rex, Charlie Brown was there too. T-Rex trotted up to the front of the cage, trying to make friends, while Charlie Brown just huddled there, scared, nervous, & shaking. But he saw us. He saw Rachel, my ex-wife, and he put his paw up on the cage, trying to reach her.
Our hearts broke. We adopted both dogs. We renamed them: T-Rex became “Fuzz,” and Charlie Brown became “Otis,” partially because of my love for Otis Redding, and partly because the name just fit. We still think they’re brothers, but it’s hard to tell sometimes. Fuzz is a happy-go-lucky dog that loves everyone and is dumber than a bag of hammers. Otis is incredibly smart and energetic, but also very nervous and anxious. We loved both dogs, but it quickly evolved that Fuzz was Rachel’s dog and Otis was mine.
As we were growing to love our dogs, our marriage was deteriorating. There isn’t that much to discuss; we loved each other, but we just weren’t a good fit. I made some bad decisions and so did she. We weren’t good partners, and we didn’t complement each other. It was incredibly painful at the time, but looking back now I don’t regret it. We didn’t have a hard separation & divorce. The biggest concern for both of us were Fuzz and Otis.
Otis was a nervous little guy, and it seemed like he depended on Fuzz. Fuzz felt like his big brother, and as much as the two would occasionally fight, they seemed to need each other. Rachel was moving to Los Angeles, taking Fuzz with her, and I couldn’t decide if Otis should go with them. It tore away at me, even as we were sleeping in separate beds with Otis in my room and Fuzz in hers. Finally I had an image of Rachel driving away with both Fuzz and Otis in the car, and me standing there on the porch by myself. I couldn’t do it. Otis would stay with me. I just hoped that he would be okay.
So we got to the point where Rachel loaded up her car and put Fuzz inside and drove off for California. I looked down at Otis, he looked up at me, and we started our new life together. And goddamn if that little dog didn’t save me. He’s still nervous, and he’s not the best cuddler. He can’t sleep in bed with me because he doesn’t like to get kicked in the night and gets grumpy. But he’s been there for me, every day. Otis came into his own, developing his own quirky, crazy, adorable personality in ways that he never could when Fuzz was around.
I can’t put into words how much Otis means to me. How much of a comfort he was and still is. When my ex-wife left I had a few friends in Pittsburgh but nowhere near the support system I do now. Otis got me out of bed every morning, no matter how depressed I was, no matter how full I was of self-loathing. Otis would get me through the hardest times of my life here in Pittsburgh, by greeting me every day with love and hope in his eyes. By taking delight by the simple joys of playing with a tennis ball or barking at squirrels on my front porch. By simply making me get up and take him for a walk, no matter how bad I felt. And by sitting next to me, every day, through the good times, and the horrible times, and all the times in between.
Sometimes I worry how he’ll feel towards new people, new friends, and new girlfriends. I went out with one or two women whom Otis was…let’s say indifferent towards, and don’t think I didn’t judge them harshly because of it. Fortunately, Otis loves my girlfriend Virginia. He climbs right over me to snuggle with her and poke her in the face in the morning. He gets excited when he hears her car pull up. Dogs, they know all the time.
As much as this whole blog project is inherently narcissistic and ridiculous, sharing Hitchcock’s love of dogs makes me feel closer to him. Just look at this photo below, with the awesome “Beware of Humans” sign:
Hitchcock rarely smiles in photos, usually preferring to stay in character as the dour, dark-witted “Master of Suspense.” But here he can’t help himself. The dog is enjoying his attentions, the pleasures of a day on the grass and Hitchcock is loving it too.
In The Pleasure Garden, Cuddles doesn’t seem like a stage-trained dog, more like the kind of mutt that might live at the studio. He’s got floppy ears, a mixed coat, and seems pretty delightful. Since silent film acting was so stylized and theatrical, it’s always delightful to see an animal in an old film because of how untrained they are. This dog is having fun; flopping around on the ground with Jill’s beau, playing with characters, then closing out the film chewing on a cord for the landlord’s beloved radio. It’s clear that Hitchcock loved working with this dog, just as he did with all the dogs in his films.
Hitchcock doted on his dogs, in his later years mainly Sealyham Terriers which he can be seen walking in the opening of The Birds. In his declining years, when Hitchcock was visited by interviewers, well-wishers, and young writers, he was often found playing with his dogs, asking the guest’s indulgence to watch one of them perform a trick. I know dog people can be just as crazy as cat people and we’re all guilty of that sin that parents all share about their newborns: the certainty that our dog/cat/baby is the best, most interesting, cutest thing you’ll ever see.
But seriously, dogs really are the best.
Watch It: The Pleasure Garden is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and is also available on DVD. The quality is not great.
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