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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock | Juno and the Paycock


what is the stars?
by Douglas Messerli
 
Alma Reville (scenario, based on the play by Sean O’Casey), Alfred Hitchcock (screenplay and director) / 1930

The great Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 attempt to film Sean O’Casey’s classic play, Juno and the Paycock, is generally recognized as a failure. Although critics of the day, such as James Agate declared the work as being “nearly a masterpiece,” Hitchcock himself described the movie as “just a photograph of a stage play,” expressing great doubts about the project even going into to. Yet he and his wife, Alma Reville, worked hard with O’Casey himself, changing some of the play’s language—including the introduction of an opening sequence in which a character performed by Barry Fitzgerald extolls Irish unity—and a shift in some of the characters’ focuses. O’Casey supported all of Hitchcock’s changes and, apparently, was pleased with the final production, hoping to work with the director on another later project that never took place.

      Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing Hitchcock was simply the quality of early sound, which made it extremely difficult to fluidly record the long monologues and dialogues of the original work. In the version I saw, heads often appear chopped off as the camera attempts to move while the characters are forced to stand in place, presumably to keep voices in range of the microphone. One can almost imagine the director whispering, as do the filmmakers of the musical parody about this period, Singin’ in the Rain, shouting “Into the microphone Sarah!”

       Part of the problem is also an acting style, imposed upon the director by the famed Abbey Theatre, which in several of its set pieces locks the work into a kind of Irish theatricality that does not adapt well to the screen. In this story of a poor Dublin family, moreover, characters shift easily between  a kind of lyrical poeticism and kitchen-sink realism, between a loveable roguery—particularly in the parts of the boastful “Paycock” (Edmund Chapman) and his partner in drink, Joxer Daly (Sidney Morgan)—and the stolid realism of Juno, beautifully underplayed by Sara Allgood. And then there is the haunted, half-dead man, her son, who has betrayed the Irish cause by informing on a friend, whose death he caused. Add to that the bawdy, musical hall-like character, Mrs. Madigan (Marie O’Neill) and quiet, almost inverted daughter, Mary, (portrayed much less complexly that in the original) and suddenly you can perceive why the close quarters of a sound stage made for an almost claustrophobic work of cinematography. It is only when these several different figures are each trying to showcase their singing talents at the party celebrating their sudden good luck for being monetarily remembered in a distant relative’s will that the ensemble really works.

      Suddenly faced with new possibilities in a world that seemingly appeared closed for each figure, the Boyle family is caught up in both a larger economic framework and the local political struggles which do them in, as they put themselves into debt, fall into selfish bourgeois behavior, and put themselves on public display which helps, in the end, to utterly destroy them, separating the family, destroying the son, and forcing the women into destitution.

These epic shifts, while metaphorically carried by O’Casey’s lilting language on the stage, seem far too large on a screen wherein the characters must gather round one another to be heard.

      Film’s natural bent for verisimilitude is—as Hitchcock quickly learned, perhaps through this and other films of the period—nearly devastating to the kind of poetical realism of writers such as O’Casey. Allgood almost gets it right, but the others, in their declamations of imponderable questions such “What is the stars, what is the moon?” appear to be near ridiculous when recorded on a machine of light and dark. In order to create a truly “theatrical” work, as Hitchcock did later in almost all his films, the camera must dance, moving with liquid flexibility in and out of the shadows its traces, the microphone traveling along in equal pace.

      What is astonishing in this film, however, is precisely what Hitchcock damned it for. In Juno and the Paycock the director has captured an important document of theater history, in that, we see in it what an actual Abbey Theatre performance of the day might have encompassed, and observe the actors of the day strutting—or at least gesticulating—upon the stage boards. In that sense, I find this film, despite its obvious flaws, to be wonderfully revelatory of theater, a kind of theatrical document, in fact, that perhaps ultimately helped Hitchcock perceive how to better recreate theater in the cinema. If Juno and the Paycock does not represent great film-making, as a theatrical document it is a nearly lost gem, and is worth seeing just for that—for we truly get to know, in the sense of theater history, “who is the stars.”

 

March 5, 2013

      Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing Hitchcock was simply the quality of early sound, which made it extremely difficult to fluidly record the long monologues and dialogues of the original work. In the version I saw, heads often appear chopped off as the camera attempts to move while the characters are forced to stand in place, presumably to keep voices in range of the microphone. One can almost imagine the director whispering, as do the filmmakers of the musical parody about this period, Singin’ in the Rain, shouting “Into the microphone Sarah!”

       Part of the problem is also an acting style, imposed upon the director by the famed Abbey Theatre, which in several of its set pieces locks the work into a kind of Irish theatricality that does not adapt well to the screen. In this story of a poor Dublin family, moreover, characters shift easily between  a kind of lyrical poeticism and kitchen-sink realism, between a loveable roguery—particularly in the parts of the boastful “Paycock” (Edmund Chapman) and his partner in drink, Joxer Daly (Sidney Morgan)—and the stolid realism of Juno, beautifully underplayed by Sara Allgood. And then there is the haunted, half-dead man, her son Johnny (John Laurie), who has betrayed the Irish cause by informing on a friend, whose death he caused. Add to that the bawdy, musical hall-like character, Mrs. Madigan (Marie O’Neill) and quiet, almost inverted daughter, Mary (Kathleen O'Regan), (portrayed much less complexly that in the original) and suddenly you can perceive why the close quarters of a sound stage made for an almost claustrophobic work of cinematography. It is only when these several different figures are each trying to showcase their singing talents at the party celebrating their sudden good luck for being monetarily remembered in a distant relative’s will that the ensemble really works.

      Suddenly faced with new possibilities in a world that seemingly appeared closed for each figure, the Boyle family is caught up in both a larger economic framework and the local political struggles which do them in, as they put themselves into debt, fall into selfish bourgeois behavior, and put themselves on public display which helps, in the end, to utterly destroy them, separating the family, destroying the son, and forcing the women into destitution.

These epic shifts, while metaphorically carried by O’Casey’s lilting language on the stage, seem far too large on a screen wherein the characters must gather round one another to be heard.

      Film’s natural bent for verisimilitude is—as Hitchcock quickly learned, perhaps through this and other films of the period—nearly devastating to the kind of poetical realism of writers such as O’Casey. Allgood almost gets it right, but the others, in their declamations of imponderable questions such “What is the stars, what is the moon?” appear to be near ridiculous when recorded on a machine of light and dark. In order to create a truly “theatrical” work, as Hitchcock did later in almost all his films, the camera must dance, moving with liquid flexibility in and out of the shadows its traces, the microphone traveling along in equal pace.

      What is astonishing in this film, however, is precisely what Hitchcock damned it for. In Juno and the Paycock the director has captured an important document of theater history, in that, we see in it what an actual Abbey Theatre performance of the day might have encompassed, and observe the actors of the day strutting—or at least gesticulating—upon the stage boards. In that sense, I find this film, despite its obvious flaws, to be wonderfully revelatory of theater, a kind of theatrical document, in fact, that perhaps ultimately helped Hitchcock perceive how to better recreate theater in the cinema. If Juno and the Paycock does not represent great film-making, as a theatrical document it is a nearly lost gem, and is worth seeing just for that—for we truly get to know, in the sense of theater history, “who is the stars.”

March 5, 2013

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