Hitchcock Stuns Pacific Film Archive With Silence

by Steed Dropout
Aug 20, 2013

Berkeley, Ca


Opening night of a Hitchcock nine-silent films series brought laughter and amazement to U.C. Berkeley’s PFA, Friday.

Never mind that the laughter was inappropriate — in response to the facial contortions and eye-popping of British silent film idol Ivor Novello.

The amazement was appropriate enough. Tinting and formerly unassembled film elements from nine film archives produced a startling version of the 1926, “The Lodger.”

Hitchcock’s first British hit — drawing on German film expressionism — played like fifties technicolor, if you allow for 1920’s stage-conventions — which evoked laughter.

Challenged to tell a story in faces, one silent-era director urged his actors to “move your face.” Ivor Novello (hamming it up) reflected that approach admirably, topping even Bella Lugosi.

The great Ivor Novello as the Lodger at PFA
Poison: You know you're at PFA when….. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Pacific Film Archive is riding a wave of silent film enthusiasm, which PFA has championed for twenty-five years, contributing to the stellar Bay Area career of Mill’s College pianist-composer-music professor, Judith Rosenberg a long-time PFA silent film accompanist.

Rosenberg discussed her technique with admirers, who lingered after Sunday’s screening. “I have a few themes in mind, but keep my eye-glued to the screen so I can improvise,” she said. She has access to studio DVD’s of the films, she told me Friday night.

You can see the Lodger on DVD, but not like this and not until its next major city tour, which has not been announced because the present tour is still underway (underway at PFA after opening recently at the SF Silent Film Festival, at the Castro).

There was still plenty of facial contortions to laugh at, Saturday, in the 1927, “the Ring,” an early boxing film, but by Sunday, the laughs were genuine, for “the Farmer’s Wife,” 1928, I was not the only one laughing until I cried; the audience cheered, hooted, and hollered to express its pleasure as the film’s credits ran.

PFA audiences got a taste of british comic characters in “the Ring,” but were not prepared for the comic genius which had us laughing ourselves into asphyxiation over the Farmer’s Wife. This was beyond face-gyrations.

Some of us remained behind to discuss Hitchcock’s over-looked comedy skills (we knew about his penchant for inserted jokes in the American films). Some film commentators, who did not have access to this film — it has not been seen before this — thought that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” 1942, was his first comedy.

Another mistaken meme: Hitchcock’s British humor doesn’t play well with U.S. audiences.

This silent Hitchcock series is rewriting film history.

Hitchcock was behind the camera on Farmer’s Wife. His biographer notes that the film’s cinematographer was ill for most of the shoot.

He is soley-credited for screenplay (a rarity) in “the Ring,” and “the Lodger” but Alma Reveille, his wife and film partner would have been involved, uncredited. She is credited as assistant director.

Although “the Ring,” and “the Lodger,” drag with saturated melodrama, “the Farmer’s Wife,” — a first-release — will survive as a masterpiece British comedy. Unfortunately, the British Film Institute, which restored the films at great expense, has said it can’t afford to produce these restored gems to DVD.

You still have a chance to see the remaining six films, but must act now. The Lodger was sold out, and Farmer’s Wife almost so.

If the first three of the nine-pic series, is a series predictor, you will see Hitchcock shot-experimentation and favorite themes. You may also see his homo and hetero-erotic pre-occupations as they blare in Lodger (“He’s not a proper boy” referring to Novello, in real life an “unashamedly” homo-sexual, whose character gets the girl nevertheless).

You will get a chance to see his heart-throb good looks and elastic face in the upcoming, “Downhill,”1927.

Anyone who doubts Hitchcock’s blondes infatuation will see it emblazoned in inter-titles in Lodger.

The Ring, on DVD, an early boxing film, although not on any great boxing films list, is perhaps the most elemental of this genre, reducing the fight-game to competition for the love of a woman.

The views here do not reflect those of any publications in which my work appears.

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