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The Master of...Class Consciousness? Close-Up on 3 from Hitchcock

Early films by Alfred Hitchcock focus on socioeconomic disparities, steadily dissolving the ostensible allure of the upper class.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. The retrospective Early Hitchcock is showing August 11 - September 12, 2017 in the United States.
Champagne
Around the time of his dazzling expressionistic breakthrough The Lodger (1927), and Blackmail (1929), his innovative foray into sound—and England’s first talkie—Alfred Hitchcock was testing the narrative waters of his potential filmic output. It was a terrifically productive period for the promising London-born auteur, with nearly 20 features in ten years, and looking back at these early works, the tendency is often to pinpoint instances of his trademark aesthetic to come (easy to do with something like The Lodger; less so with something like The Ring, also 1927). However, when sampling these titles, and keeping in mind the most popular Hitchcockian characteristics had yet to be regularly implemented, new and uncommon propensities emerge. Such is the case with a trilogy of films to be shown as part of a Hitchcock series on MUBI. Aside from revealing key, if infrequent examples of his evolving visual slant, these pictures—Champagne (1928), The Skin Game (1931), and Rich and Strange (1931)—provide a rare glimpse at particular themes, which, by design or sheer coincidence, frequently infused the early segment of Hitchcock’s filmography. Focusing on socioeconomic disparities, this diverse trio forms a broadly outlined sketch of class distinction, and in so doing, Hitchcock, the son of a modest greengrocer, takes an embryonic attitude concerning the manners and mores of the upper class, steadily dissolving the ostensible allure.
Champagne
Oh, the rich do play, and sometimes they can get quite carried away. This is the burden weighing heavily on the “Champagne King,” in the film that bears his bubbly title. Played by Gordon Harker, already a veteran of two Hitchcock features, this entrepreneur is in a cigar-puffing, facial-tic tizzy when first introduced. The cause for his consternation, as disclosed in a newspaper headline, is his “Headstrong Heiress Daughter” Betty (Betty Balfour). She is indeed a handful, recently thinking nothing of hopping a flight to abscond with her boyfriend and crashing down in the Atlantic, only to be retrieved by boat, taken aboard the ocean liner with her beau (Jean Bradin), and making a suitably grand entrance. From there, the spirited socialite becomes a jolly guide through the wealthy elite. It’s admittedly hard to fault her youthful abandon (then again, we’re not her father). Her jubilance is infectious, as when she gleefully declares in her Parisian revelry, “I met some lively people–invented a new cocktail–and bought a lot of swanky dresses.” Though Hitchcock apparently didn’t care for Balfour—known as “England’s Mary Pickford,” he referred to her as a “piece of suburban obscenity”—Betty bustles as an effervescent ball of barely contained energy. Donning an over-the-top gown, she is mocked for the excess, even by those of her showy strata, so she facetiously returns to the party dressed like a peasant girl. She is both the best and worst of what the cultural select can be. She is proud, self-aware, and confident, but she is vain, self-absorbed, and frivolous.
Champagne
And her father has had enough. Hoping to curtail her wild ways, he deceptively informs Betty that a stock market crash has left them impoverished. It’s a shrewd ruse, designed to teach her a lesson in gratitude and responsibility. No fan of her boyfriend, father also arranges a false suitor to keep tabs on his girl; sporting a slick, pointed mustache, the plant is an obvious, cliched foil for her good-natured boyfriend. How this all transpires only serves to prove Betty’s resilience and her independence (spiritual if not financial). Forced to fend for herself and her father as they share a one-room apartment—all part of his deception—she admirably takes action, getting a job in a cabaret where she is tasked with handing out flowers to “gentlemen in evening dress” (she’s a little dotty, though, and mistakenly gives a few to the band). She is devoted to her father, jumping right in to her domestic duties. At one point, we see her covered in flour as she toils in the kitchen, then Hitchcock cuts away to dad, still eating high on the hog in an expensive restaurant.
The Skin Game
Champagne is occupied by a jovial lot. There are essentially good intentions all around and, in the end, a congenial lesson is learned, as fleeting and inconsequential as it may be. Suddenly on the outside looking in, Betty sees the superficiality of the well-to-do (though she never loses a tinge of envy along the way). There is a moral message with The Skin Game, too, only here, the instruction is humorless and caustic. Centering on a prosperous cluster of Englanders, Hitchcock divides the attention between two well-off families: the old-world Hillcrists and the nouveau riche Hornblowers. Their rustic rivalry revolves around the development of the countryside they both call home. Each household is socially and economically comfortable, but while the Hillcrists are happily settled in their ways, the Hornblowers desire a move in the more modern direction. The embattled families had clean hands to start, but they are thoroughly sullied by film’s end, submitting to scandal and scheming. The trifles and trickery of the rich were all fun and games with Champagne, but the selfish snobbery of The Skin Game shows a degree of emergent distain on Hitchcock’s part. While the parents throw around their wealth and resultant authority with heedless license, there is some hope that the youth will transgress such malice (to establish their familial appointment early in the film, the Hillcrist daughter is symbolically on a horse while the Hornblower son is in his extravagant car). Inevitability, though, the children are taken in by this ruthless, divisive game, victims themselves to gossip, slander, and deception.
The Skin Game
The cross-clan clash originates in a battle over land and the industrialization of the region. But it’s a dispute that only involves those with the money to make the decisions. The Hillcrists and Hornblowers represent the perils of tradition and advancement, respectively, but the true victim in the debacle is the hapless Jackman family, cast to the sidelines. The Hornblowers are pushing this farming couple off the land where their cottage has sat and their crop has flourished for decades. Throughout The Skin Game, there is considerable stress placed on decorum, but these signs of respectability are usurped by the dark side of propriety. And yet, despite their opposing approaches, the two families are the privileged powers either way, and the Jackman family, for whom the bickering and plotting is no game, remain but a pawn in this upper-class quarrel. “I’d forgotten their existence,” says the tragically earnest elder Hillcrist (C. V. France), reinforcing Hitchcock’s subtle stance.
The Skin Game
There is nothing so subtle about Rich and Strange, which first teases and then condones the perfect banality of a stable middle-class livelihood. Hitchcock opens this film with a comic montage of routine 9-to-5ers at the end of their workday; they are confounded and frustrated by the hustle and bustle; they are tormented by ads that promote one way of life and a reality that is something quite different. It’s humdrum day-to-day, and it gets Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) down. He dreams of the finer things, a life of leisure. His wife Emily (Joan Barry), meanwhile, stays generally optimistic. Suddenly, and rather absurdly, the couple comes into an inheritance, affording them the ability to travel the world, to embark on just the type of grand adventure Fred fantasizes about. On their whirlwind tour from Paris to the Far East, with numerous stops and sights in between, the two are dazzled by the bright lights of big city night life, they are shocked by the Folies Bergère, and they are overwhelmed and literally intoxicated by the booze-fueled high life. Quite fond of travel, Hitchcock was particularly happy to journey from location to location, and in the film’s sprightly first third, he has some affectionate fun with this touristy fish-out-of-water scenario. Fred and Emily may not know what they’re doing, but they’re sure having fun doing it.
Rich and Strange
Then the one-percenters enter the picture, and that’s when Rich and Strange reaches its unsavory topical concentration. While Fred’s seasickness puts him out of commission, Emily is wooed by the dashing Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont). With him, she muses about love and her relationship with Fred, giving some insight into the state of their relationship, but the extramarital temptation is strong. Feeling better, Fred comes back on the scene and quickly secures his own paramour, falling for an apparent German princess (Betty Amann). The Hill marriage is torn at the seams, as much a result of underlying tension as the allure of how the other half lives. The two are fully aware and rather accepting of their respective destructive choices, yet the corruptive indecency of affluent novelty proves a force beyond their control. What was a passing fancy, now has severe repercussions.
Rich and Strange
The title of Rich and Strange (released as East of Shanghai in the United States) is derived from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” implying the couple will “suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange.” And they do, but in Hitchcock’s class-conscious cautionary tale, Fred and Emily eventually realize this type of life is not for them. A high seas tragedy forgives the error of their ways and permanent damage is averted. The marriage is saved and their lives now have the proper perspective. Rich and Strange occasionally feels like three different movies in its brief 90-minute runtime, but Hitchcock liked the film a good deal and felt it should have been a bigger success. At the very least, Barry’s presence and performance should have heralded her impending stardom; instead, she retired from the business three years later.
Rich and Strange
Hitchcock’s evaluation of Champagne, on the other hand, was significantly less positive, calling the film “dreadful.” Walter C. Mycroft, who wrote the story, initially intended a serious-minded movie, but when the comic Balfour was cast, the film took a more lighthearted tone. However much this may have reduced the severity of the film’s latent commentary (which remains intact, just not as forceful), the approach did yield a stylistic grace largely absent in the latter two titles, where the thematic thesis is by turns far more overt. Working with Jack Cox, his go-to cinematographer at the time (The Manxman, Murder!, Number 17, The Lady Vanishes, and others), Hitchcock’s wry humor comes through especially in his clever sense of composition. As the father of Champagne beckons his team of secretaries, they enter his office like a parade emerging from a clown car, in a static medium shot held by Hitchcock to evoke their never-ending procession; or see the way the father’s squatting exercises spring his body in and out of frame. Evident in the suggestive uncorking of a champagne bottle and the subsequent point of view through the glass, the flamboyance of Champagne befits the picture’s mood, which noticeably dissipates into the stodgier style of The Skin Game and most of Rich and Strange (the latter also utilizing oddly unwarranted intertitles). With these two films, the corresponding seriousness keeps Hitchcock’s euphoric flourish mostly restrained, save for some subjective superimpositions to denote woozy, wobbly sea sickness or the back-and-forth whip pans between bidders at an auction.
If Hitchcock thought Champagne was a lackluster production, his opinion of The Skin Game wasn’t much better. Regarding that film, which was based on a 1920 play by John Galsworthy, an author Hitchcock adored, he stated, “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” With its emphasis on the cruelty of quarreling aristocrats, The Skin Game is a bit too dependent on the moralistically economical rather than the engagingly emotional. It was a mistake Hitchcock rarely made again. Through these three films, he reveals himself, or at least his brand of cinema, to be gradually more disapproving of the elite and more sympathetic to the average Joe, an endearing hallmark of his finer features to come. While his later movies undeniably contained characters securely well-off, those protagonists were seldom this sullen and acerbic. The refined milieu would often endure, but such a stolid setting did not necessarily impede or even impact personality. In its place, Hitchcock developed a sophisticated method of fusing the familiar with the exotic, the monotonous with the exceptional, forming an alluring fantasy world where characters remained practical and appealing. It was formula intermittently applied over the course of Champagne, The Skin Game, and Rich and Strange, and though perhaps not yet perfected, these test cases are nevertheless fascinating for their progress. Besides, sometimes it’s great just to see a master in his workshop, no matter the end product.

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