Alfred Hitchcock was twenty-five years old when he received his first solo director’s credit for The Pleasure Garden in 1925. When you stop to consider the incredible film career of the Master of Suspense, it’s difficult not to draw a parallel between him and another quarter-century wunderkind, Orson Welles, who made his cinematic debut with Citizen Kane (1941). But where Welles was given his opportunity to direct a feature film based on his success in the fields of live theater and radio, Hitchcock came up “through the ranks”; serving an apprenticeship in the movie business first by writing titles for silent films and then graduating to art director and assistant director before reaching the top spot. Hitchcock was aided immeasurably in his various advancements through the patronage of Michael Balcon, who was on record as saying Hitch was a “plump, young technician whom I promoted from department to department.” Balcon, who would achieve his greatest success as the head of England’s Ealing Studios from 1937 to 1959, played an incalculably valuable role in Hitchcock’s career; Hitch left the company Balcon founded, Gainsborough, in 1928 for more money at another studio but when his career stalled it was Balcon who provided the resources for his “comeback” by hiring him at Gaumont-British (where Hitch began work on the films that got him noticed in Hollywood, starting with 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much).
Hitchcock’s directorial beginnings can be traced as far back as 1922 with a film called Number 13 (which was never completed due to a shortage of funds) and Always Tell Your Wife a year later, which he directed but received no credit (he was promoted to the chair after Balcon got into a dispute with and fired the film’s credited helmer, Hugh Croise). Because only one reel of Wife is said to have survived, Pleasure Garden is the first complete film in which it is possible to view the beginnings of what would make Hitchcock one of the most popular and critically acclaimed directors in the history of cinema. Just as Welles’ signature is all over Kane, Garden is unmistakably Hitchcock—there are even some prints of the film that feature the director’s autograph in the credits. The print of Garden that I watched, however, came from the Raymond Rohauer collection…and anyone with a passing familiarity with silent films knows that Rohauer generally promoted himself above all others, as can be observed in the title card below.
The Pleasure Garden tells the tale of two chorus girls, Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) and Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty)—Patsy is the veteran hoofer who helps Jill get a foot in the door when the young woman has her money lifted by a pickpocket lurking outside the stage door of the titular night spot. Jill is a talented amateur who soon finds herself the main attraction in the revue put on by impresario Oscar Hamilton (Georg Schnell), though there is a slight implication that Jill is spending a little time on the casting couch, if you get my meaning…and I think that you do.
Jill has a fiancée named Hugh Fielding (John Stuart) who’s a decent sort but oblivious to the fact that Jill has hopes and dreams that most assuredly do not include him…and because his job is going to require him to be away for two years working on a plantation in the tropics Patsy promises him she’ll keep an eye on her coquettish friend. Fielding also has a colleague, an unsavory sort named Levett (Miles Mander) whom the audience knows is a rotter right off the bat because Patsy’s dog doesn’t like him—and in movies, if you can’t manage to win the dog’s affections you’re pretty much boned. Hugh goes off to his job and Jill ends up keeping company with a faux bit of royalty named Prince Ivan (please…no jokes) with whom she eventually becomes betrothed over Patsy’s pleadings and strenuous objections. In the meantime, Levett wants to spend more time with Patsy, having fallen in love with her—but Patsy insists on taking things to the next level and won’t settle for anything but marriage. Levett reluctantly agrees.
Back at the plantation, we learn why Levett was so reluctant to tie the knot with Pats—he’s shacked up with a native woman, who’s doing much more than his laundry. Levett sends Mrs. Levett a letter asking her to stay away (he’s come down with a case of jungle sickness) but she insists on rushing to his aid; she experiences a temporary setback when she tries to get money for her fare from the now fair-weather Jill but fortunately her landlords are able to pony up the needed money and she arrives in time to find her hubby in cozy comfort with “Tondelayo.” Patsy spurns Levett, who drowns the native girl and later goes after his wife, crazed with fever; a deux ex machina ending allows Levett to be gunned down by a passerby and Patsy ends up with the jilted Hugh as the end credits roll.
Garden isn’t a particularly good film; it’s melodramatic to the extreme and the main characters aren’t as fully developed as one would hope—but Hitchcock devotees should actively seek the film out for a viewing because it’s such an early showcase of the themes that would return in Sir Alfred’s films time and time again throughout his career. This is evident right from the start in an early scene in which a lecherous old man ogles a line of leggy chorus girls; we see this from his point of view but because his vision is blurred he must resort to a pair of opera glasses to bring their gams into focus. This theme of voyeurism recurs in films like Rear Window and Vertigo, and other topics in Garden that will remerge in the director’s films include male sexual violence on women (Levett’s drowning of the native girl and his near-attempt to murder Patsy) and the power of the dead to influence the living (Levett is haunted by visions of the dead native). Hitchcock also demonstrates an early use of his creation of suspense by crosscutting back and forth between the situations involving Patsy and Jill and their respective paramours.
There are also a number of inventive touches in the film that attracted the attention of critics at the time of Garden’s release (bits that prompted one film critic to deem Hitchcock “a young man with a mastermind”); Hitch’s influence from German cinema is apparent in the opening shot of the chorines descending a spiral staircase (stairs are another recurring motif in his work) and I was particularly impressed by Levett’s murder—actor Mander portrays him at that point as a crazed individual who poses a threat to Patsy’s well-being but upon being shot you can see by the expression on his face that his sanity has completely returned. The Master’s offbeat sense of humor is on display here as well; Patsy’s dog “Cuddles” is used for comic relief, and I found myself charmed by a throwaway scene in which the dog licks the soles of Jill’s feet as she is kneeling by the bed to pray.
To my knowledge, The Pleasure Garden has not been made available commercially available on Region 1 DVD; I was able to see the film on a singular 2008 Region 2 release (which was on sale along with The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage  and Young and Innocent ) that is also part of a Network box set entitled Hitchcock: The British Years (which also contains another Hitch rarity, 1927’s Downhill). Included on the disc are two interesting special features, the first being portions of a television interview program entitled Cinema that was telecast in October 1966—the program no longer exists but the “rushes” remain, which contain the full interview with Hitch including portions that were excised from the final product. The Master of Suspense talks at great length (nearly an hour) about his British period, and it makes for fascinating viewing. Hitchcock was interviewed again in 1969 for the same show (which also no longer exists) but all that remains is the footage of his response to the questions; these segments are also included on the DVD.
As a lifetime fan of Hitchcock it was great to be able to see one of the movies that has eluded me all these years and while The Pleasure Garden is probably not going to make anyone forget Vertigo or Psycho or any other of his classic work anytime soon it is essential viewing for anyone intrigued by the oeuvre of the Master. Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is pleased to have been able to contribute to The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hitchcock Blogathon, and I encourage you to check out these other fine essays from the CMBA’s blogathon participants:
The 39 Steps (1935) at Garbo Laughs
The Lady Vanishes (1938) at MacGuffin Movies
Rebecca (1940) at ClassicBecky’s Film and Literary Review
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) at Carole & Co.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) at Great Entertainers Media Archive
Lifeboat (1944) at Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise
Notorious (1946) at Twenty Four Frames
Rope (1948) at Kevin’s Movie Corner
Rear Window (1954) at Java’s Journey
Dial M for Murder (1954) at True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film
The Trouble with Harry (1955) at Bit Part Actors
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) at Reel Revival
The Wrong Man (1957) at The Movie Projector
Vertigo (1958) at Noir and Chick Flicks
North by Northwest (1959) at Bette’s Classic Movie Blog (Note: Faithful TDOY readers know that this film is my very favorite of all of Hitchcock’s films—and I commemorated its fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago with this piece written at Edward Copeland on Film…and More)
The Birds (1963) at Classic Film & TV Café
Marnie (1964) at My Love of Old Hollywood
Torn Curtain (1966) at Via Margutta 51
Three Classic Hitchcock Killers at The Lady Eve’s Reel Life
And speaking of Mr. Copeland and his newly revamped blog (well, the “…and More” part), he wanted very much to participate in this blogathon but did not get his CMBA paperwork filled out in time. Nevertheless, I thought you might enjoy reading his piece on another favorite Hitch of mine, Foreign Correspondent (1940). In addition, he has put together in the past a write-up on the aforementioned Rear Window…and a delightful little piece that asks the question: “What if George Bailey had Vertigo?”