Week 46: Juno and the Paycock (1930), Tone, and the Importance of Dance Parties

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

Well I’m in the home stretch now. It’s a random collection of films left, some big iconic movies that I’ve stayed away from, and a few hangers-on that I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment yet; I’m still trying to put my head down and finish.

But Juno and the Paycock beckoned and I finally answered to see what this little-seen, little-discussed movie had to offer. I asked a question on Twitter to try and gauge the Irish reaction to this film, and someone replied that everyone knew the play, yet he was a Hitchcock fan with multiple Hitchcock boxsets, and he’d still never heard of it. It’s one of the few cases where the source material overshadows the Hitchcock adaptation.

With Juno and the Paycock, the play is just too powerful. It’s the second work in playwright Seán O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy,” following The Shadow of a Gunman and before The Plough and the Stars. These plays were enormously successful and performed everywhere; my friend on Twitter described them as the kind of play you still get dragged to see in school. And if the shtick in them seems wearisome to modern eyes (as it did to me), it’s important to recognize that in 1924 O’Casey was creating what are now shopworn stereotypes: The informer in the Irish Civil War, the bragging father whose legs hurt anytime a job comes along (the “Paycock” of the title, Irish slang for “Peacock” because of his fanciful tales), the layabout drinking buddy who double-crosses him for a pint of stout, the eternally martyred mother figure, etc. All of these are common figures who pop up in film, TV, books, and plays in part because they reflect common elements of the Irish experience, but also because O’Casey helped create and solidify them.

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Sean O’Casey: He looks like a lot of fun

The playwright’s clout meant that while Hitchcock was a fan of the play, he was contractually unable to change or alter the scope of the play. Like many in the early 20th century, O’Casey looked down on the movies as a lower form of art. Yet he was won over by Hitchcock, an enormous fan who payed the writer his proper due. O’Casey even wrote a new prologue to star Barry Fitzgerald as a street orator (Fitzgerald would later be the penultimate Irish layabout in Hollywood, notably in films like The Quiet Man with John Ford).

And speaking of Ford, it’s hard to stay away from him here. As I’ve discussed previously, Ford and Hitchcock have little in common. Ford was the supreme mythmaker of Western cinema and Hitchcock the exactingly visual master of suspense. But Ford was an American of Irish descent and Hitchcock half-Irish; both shared an affection for these stories and had similarly beloved, long-suffering Irish mothers. Yet Ford’s genius was better suited to chamber-room Irish dramas; in films like The Informer (1935), The Plough and the Stars (1936), The Quiet Man (1952) and many others, Ford would paint a mythical version of Ireland as a land of family and betrayal bound together by love and passion. His is a warm view that sees all the flaws of humanity in that familial microcosm and presents it to us as high drama.

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Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s vastly superior “The Informer”

Conversely, Hitchcock is too taken with the suspense and the technical thrill to ever give himself fully to this kind of slice-of-life filmmaking. There are long stretches in Ford films where nothing much happens, yet you can’t look away. That kind of deliberate pace is anathema to Hitchcock, who craves a challenge. The more I read and think about Hitchcock, the more it becomes clear that despite his skill at manipulating audiences and creating new and better thrills, ultimately he was making movies to amuse himself. He wanted to create something that he’d have fun shooting.

Given his restless temperament, it’s hard to imagine him enjoying the filming of Juno and the Paycock. After a brief opening in the streets and a bar, the action shifts inside to the family’s two-room apartment, where it stays for the entire film. Shooting a sound film in 1929 meant a lack of complicated camera moves as well; the clunky microphone and camera setup restricted Hitchcock as he was bound to capture all the lines of dialogue. And to top it all off, the film was a low-budget quickie, made to showcase the sound of actors delivering an adaptation of one of the UK’s most popular plays.

The results are predictable. Long shots of actors sitting at a table and talking to each other, or an interminable scene where they sing to each other. Hitchcock’s technical mastery is mainly hidden from view; a scene where the family listen to a phonograph meant that, because 1929 soundtracks couldn’t be edited, Hitch had to have a small orchestra and singer offscreen to perform the song live, so it would appear to be coming from the victrola.

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A singer and full orchestra are just offscreen in this shot.

It’s hard to gauge the acting for a variety of reasons. First, copies of this film are hard to find and I ended up with a terrible DVD dub of a dub of a dub that was impossible to understand. Second, the tone of the play veers wildly between slapstick comedy and horror/tragedy. Literally right after a scene of the father bumbling about with sausages is the sound of gunfire in the streets, as the play is set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. I’m no dramaturg, and maybe it works better on stage, but Hitchcock never finds a tone that works for the film. Third, most of the actors were from the Irish Players or had performed the play somewhere else. It’s clear that they’re all talented, experienced actors. Yet Hitchcock makes no attempt to reign them in for the camera.

To be fair, it was a time of great upheaval for the industry, as silent film actors struggled to keep pace and theater actors found themselves in demand. Yet most of those theater actors never thought to modulate their performance. Trained to reach the back of a theater with their facial expressions and projections, actors with a movie camera a few feet away could come across as wildly melodramatic and excited, as is the case here. It’s a peculiar situation, as many of the stage’s best actors often failed to register on film (like Laurence Olivier).

My assumption is that Hitchcock was still learning, and in a play full of rending of garments and broad slapstick, he simply didn’t grasp that the performance had to be toned down for the screen.

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A scene that, charitably, could be toned down a bit.

Overall I get what he’s going for; he’s trying to provide a view of a family coping with a world gone mad, as machine gun fire echoes through their apartment and squabbles over a pint of stout. Yet the film is more of a curio than anything else, an interesting, hard-to-understand relic.

Juno is not without its charm either; a single moment where Sara Allgood (playing the matriarch Juno), nervously cleans the table and sets out the good tablecloth for  company is wonderfully charming and evocative. And Hitchcock finds a moment of subtlelty when their son Johnny is killed by revolutionary forces; we hear the sound of gunfire but instead see their Virgin Mary statue in the apartment as the candle blows out. It’s one of the few moments where he successfully merges the mundane with the horrific.

That’s something we’ve all been struggling with a lot lately, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the elements of this film struck me harder than they might normally. Certainly a view of people carrying on despite the horrors of a civil war is unsettling. O’Casey was writing from a place of experience, where after civil war and death and poverty, what else can one do but carry on?

I was thinking about this last Friday night. Since early 2015, I’ve co-presented a monthly dance party here in Pittsburgh called “In Bed by Ten,” with my partner Kelly. The idea is simple: we know lots of people (ourselves included) who can’t stay out late at dance parties that don’t get started until 11pm or midnight. As much as there is something to be said for the late night bacchanal aspect of a sweaty party, there’s also something to be said for hitting the dance floor early and getting home to deal with kids, dogs, work, etc. Our events run from 6-9pm and they’ve gotten pretty successful here in Pittsburgh; anywhere from 100-250 people usually show up.

Early on we made a decision that each party would benefit a different charity; I felt guilty taking money or charging a cover, and I liked the idea of making it into a way to give back to the community. We’ve supported animal rescues, Girls Rock, housing initiatives, kids education programs, all local charities in Pittsburgh and we’ve raised over $6,000 to date.

Our November event fell on Friday, November 11, three days after the election. We discussed it and figured we’d be throwing something like a victory party, and we went more political than we usually do, by picking Planned Parenthood of Western PA as our charity recipient. People seemed excited and we were looking forward to it.

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Then the election happened. Most of my friends were in a combination of rage and despair. Uncertainly and sadness were palpable.

Yet we never discussed canceling the party. I think I expressed some uncertainty to my girlfriend, but outwardly I was confident. Determined. This was something we needed, and an organization that would surely need our help. I posted this message on our Facebook page: “We’re going forward to raise money for Planned Parenthood of Western PA, now more than ever. We’re going to sing and dance and be together, and we want you to be there too. No one can take our joy, our choice, or our music from us. See you Friday.”

We didn’t know what to expect. I put together a comprehensive playlist of songs by women to pull from, and I went to work.

And man, people needed it. We didn’t have the biggest crowd we’ve ever had, but it was definitely the most dedicated. Motivated. Ready to dance, no, needing to dance. The floor was packed early and stayed that way. We normally ask for a suggested $5 donation to our monthly charity, but people were shoving $10 and $20 bills into the jar. We more than doubled our highest donation amount ever, making $1,611 to donate to Planned Parenthood (the club throws in 10% of their sales too).

It was tremendous. At one point I played a song I’d never tried out before, RuPaul’s “Born Naked (And the Rest is Drag).” It’s a clubby dance song that’s not quite what I normally play, but my girlfriend and I both love it so I figured why the hell not. And it went over big; the crowd stayed on the floor and kept dancing. Dozens of people smashed together in the disco ball darkness with others nearby talking, laughing, getting drinks, and being together. All while a song by a gay black man dressed as the world’s most fabulous woman thundered on the sound system.

I pushed the music as loud as I could without distorting the speakers. I didn’t want that moment to end, not just because it temporarily made me forget about the terror of the next four years. But because  we hadn’t lost our joy and our unity. I could look out on a sea of faces, yes mostly white faces, sure, but also black, asian and latino, gay and straight, young and old, and see what would let us survive.

Trump and the Republicans may have the government for now, but we’ll always have better dance parties.

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Juno and the Paycock is barely streaming on Youtube and can’t even be rented from Amazon or iTunes. It’s strangely unavailable; I bought an old DVD copy online.

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