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The Shaping of Alfred Hitchcock

The early experience of a gifted young filmmaker - before stardom beckoned

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Even the greatest of filmmakers have to start somewhere. For Alfred Hitchcock, that somewhere was Poole Street, Islington, North London, where the American film producer Famous Players-Lasky had established its British studios. Hitchcock arrived there in the spring of 1920, as a green but ambitious 20 year-old, hired to design title cards for the studio's silent film releases. After just five years, with the Poole Street studios now in the hands of Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures, having worked his way around almost every production department, he had made enough of an impact to be given a chance to direct a solo feature film. It's at this point, with the release of The Pleasure Garden (1926), that the Hitchcock story usually begins.

But what happened in those five years of Hitchcock's film apprenticeship would be vital in shaping the callow young man into the internationally recognised and respected film director he would come to be. At Islington he would gain the skills and understanding of cinema that would equip him for his fifty-year directing career. He would benefit from the support of his early mentor, the influential impresario Michael Balcon. And he would meet his lifelong companion and most important collaborator: his wife, Alma Reville.

Hitchcock brought his draughtsman's skills and his gift for marketing - developed in the advertising department at Henley's, his previous employer - to his title cards, embellishing them with poignant or playful illustrations as the stories required. Sadly only Hitchcock's own sketchy recollections of "birds flying, hearts breaking, candles guttering" survive to give us any indication of his skills at this period of his career, on such tantalising titles as The Princess of New York (d. Donald Crisp, 1921), The Mystery Road or Dangerous Lies (both d. Paul Powell, 1921), the last two of which sound a little like Hitchcock subjects (though in reality they were probably anything but Hitchcockian).

Also missing are his early credits as an art director on the likes of Three Live Ghosts (d. George Fitzmaurice, 1921), and The Spanish Jade (d. John S. Robertson, 1921). But we do know - or at least Hitchcock himself said in later interviews - that he interpreted his brief broadly, not only designing sets but making suggestions to the directors about camera positions. During this period he also forged partnerships that he would maintain after he graduated to direction: with Charles McDougall, the cinematographer who would shoot Downhill and Easy Virtue (both 1927), and with Charles Wilfred Arnold, who would be his preferred art director from the 1926's The Lodger until the early 1930s.

In the summer of 1922, Famous Players-Lasky wound up its British operation. Islington became a studio for hire, but could retain only a tiny staff. Hitchcock was one of the lucky ones, and took full advantage of his good fortune. When director Hugh Croise, filming marital comedy Always Tell Your Wife (1922) at Islington, fell ill, Hitchcock leapt at the chance to fill his shoes. One reel of the two-reel film survives, and though it's unclear which sections were overseen by Hitch - or even if the film was ever publicly screened - and it's certainly no masterpiece, Always Tell Your Wife does offer a flash or two of what might be the prototype Hitchcockian style.

Most tragic of all of the lost pieces of the puzzle of Hitchcock's early years is Number Thirteen, another film with a claim to be Hitchcock's true directorial debut. This was a personal project, a full-length feature started sometime between 1922 and 1923, to be directed and produced by Hitch and written by a mystery Islington colleague. It was substantially funded by Hitchcock's uncle John and by its star, Clare Greet (by way of a thank you, Hitchcock would find parts for Greet in no fewer than seven of his later films), but it was never completed and its fate is entirely unknown.

By 1923, Hitchcock had proved himself an indispensable part of the Islington operation, and when the studios became home to a new production outfit, he soon made an impression. The company was headed up by producers Michael Balcon and Victor Saville (in partnership with Jack Freedman), who had ambitious plans and had secured financial backers in the US as well as Britain. Balcon had an eye for talent, and that eye fell quickly on Hitchcock, "obviously a live wire". The producer took a risk and gave the young tyro the opportunity to adapt the stage play Woman to Woman for what would be the company's first production, directed by its marquee director, Graham Cutts. Not only that, but Hitchcock would be Cutts' assistant director and handle the art direction.

It was on Woman to Woman that Hitchcock first worked with Alma Reville, already well established at Poole Street as a continuity writer, production manager and cutter (editor). The two had met at Islington as early as summer 1921, when Hitchcock had asked Alma directions to the production office. But the shy young man, all too conscious of his junior status, felt unable to engage her in conversation until he had climbed further up the ladder. It was Hitchcock, emboldened by his promotion, who invited Alma to join the production of Woman to Woman as editor.

An exotic story of amnesia and infidelity, partly set in Paris and including a recreation of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, Woman to Woman was a great success in the UK and in Germany. It even did well in the US, where it was distributed by Lewis Selznick. Some 15 years later, it would be Lewis's son, David O. Selznick, who invited the now world-famous Hitchcock to Hollywood. But once again, posterity has been cruel - all celluloid trace of Woman to Woman has disappeared.

The remaining four Cutts/Hitchcock films have fared better. In 2011, three reels of The White Shadow (1924) almost miraculously reappeared in the collections of the New Zealand Film Archive. The same year's The Passionate Adventure survives intact in a German release print, as does 1925's , while one reel is preserved of The Prude's Fall, the final film of Hitchcock's apprentice period. By this time, the Balcon-Saville-Freedman company had collapsed, but from its ashes Balcon was able to build a new and much more lasting company, Gainsborough Pictures, which would become one of Britain's most successful studios.

A partnership deal between Gainsborough and the German giant UFA took Hitchcock to UFA's massive, state-of-the-art Babelsberg Studios for and The Prude's Fall, and the experience left a lasting impression. Here he could admire at close hand the work of masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and learn from some of the industry's most skilled and well-resourced technicians.

Hitchcock's name has so eclipsed that of Graham Cutts that it's all too easy to attribute everything interesting in the pair's five films they made together to the young protégé, while blaming all their weaknesses on the staid teacher. But Cutts was a director of real gifts, with strong ideas of his own about cinema and its effects. There's no doubt that Hitchcock learnt a great deal from working with him.

All the same, Hitchcock's relationship with Graham Cutts would be a trying one. The experienced director resented his young apprentice, while Hitchcock in turn found himself increasingly called on to cover for his mentor, who had a complicated private life. By the end of shooting for The Prude's Fall it was clear that it was time for the two to part. Balcon, with what might at the time have seemed like rash confidence but now seems like bold foresight, decided that Hitchcock, now aged 25, deserved the opportunity to direct alone. Hitchcock poured everything he'd learnt so far into that first film, The Pleasure Garden - and it showed.

Mark Duguid

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)

Executive, Producer

Thumbnail image of Cutts, Graham (1885-1958)Cutts, Graham (1885-1958)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)

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Thumbnail image of Reville, Alma (1899-1982)Reville, Alma (1899-1982)

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