September 24, 2020
Juno and the Paycock – 1930, UK
Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock had two reactions to scripts for episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: If he liked them, you knew it right away, and if he found them subpar, he would be silent a moment and them pronounce them merely “okay.” Now, I have no way of knowing how Hitchcock reacted to Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock or if he ever saw it when it was staged at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Ireland, in 1924. However, I can imagine the first half eliciting one of his nonchalant okays and the second a much more enthusiastic yes. In other words, the film is one of those that you’ll likely walk away from happy you saw, but that will diminish upon reflection, as you find yourself reminiscing on the first half and its many problematic aspects.
The film is set in Dublin during the early days of the Irish Civil War. This is reflected in the film’s opening scene, in which a middle-aged man delivers a powerful speech about the need for Ireland to remain united; it is met with a hail of gunfire and sends many of the spectators tumbling into a pub. And here is where the film makes its first misstep. A bartender sees the crowd and starts getting glasses ready; The camera then focuses our attention on two of the stumbled, “Captain” Jack Boyle (awkwardly played by Edward Chapman) and his loafer friend, Joxer Daly (Sidney Morgan), and instead of reacting to their narrow escape or cursing those who would fire indiscriminately into a crowd of their own countrymen, they quickly break into a comedy routine involving the pleasures of drinking and just who is going to pick up the tab. A waitress named Maisie Madigan (Marie O’Neill) walks over and instead of inquiring about fatalities or injuries from the gunfire, just sighs and agrees the pay for the men’s drinks.
I suspect the blame for the tone deafness of the scene is Hitchcock’s. Neither the play’s entry on Wikipedia nor several online plot summaries mention a gathering coming under fire, leaving me to suspect it was inserted into the film as a means of establishing the peril of the times. The problem is that once we are made to feel the real threat to people’s lives, it is hard to set them aside and laugh at the idiosyncrasies of Jack and Joxer. Yet that is exactly what the film asks us to do. We watch as Jack makes disparaging remarks about his wife, Juno (Sara Allgood, reprising the role she played onstage), annoyingly quibbles about breakfast, complains about an injury that keeps shifting from his right left to the left, and gets mad at his daughter’s suitor for having the gall to tell his about an opportunity for employment.
We soon meet the rest of the family. There’s Jack and Juno’s son Johnny (John Laurie), who’s lost an arm in the struggle and goes though most of the film looking shell-shocked. And for good reason: a childhood friend has recently been gunned down, and there are rumors that his death was the result of an informant. Their daughter, Mary (Kathleen O’Regan), pops up with her new boyfriend, a lawyer named Charles Bentham (John Longden), who is announced as having the “opportunity of a lifetime” for Jack. This indeed turns out to be the case, as Jack is surprised to learn that a relative has died and included him in his will. Logically, the family concludes that their fortunes have changed, a sentiment that would be more believable if the sound of gunfire didn’t precede each fade out.
From the looks of it, Hitchcock was faithful to Juno and the Paycock’s theatrical roots. Like the play, the majority of the action takes place in the Boyle family’s crowded apartment, giving the film a slightly claustrophobic feel and accentuating Johnny’s growing paranoia. As for Hitchcock, he keeps the camera relatively still throughout the film, and this allows him to film rather long scenes, as well capture as some pretty emotional monologues. There are few of those trademark Hitchcock moments that make later films so legendary. In fact, other than the frequent spattering of gunfire, the only Hitchcockian moment I can think of involves the appearance of mysterious men in trench coats. Unfortunately, Hitchcock undercuts his own efforts by showing us similarly dressed men being behind the gunfire in the opening scene.
Admittedly, I was annoyed by the first half of the film, as few of the characters seemed to be acknowledging the tragedy of the times. Characters don’t have to, of course, and in truth, a man like Jack might not. He a man who has no qualms about his wife being the family’s primary breadwinner and who thinks he’s being philosophical when uttering such pointless inquiries as What is the stars? and What is the moon? Remove the first scene, and they might provoke laughter. Fortunately, the film improves in its second half. The drama is tighter, the family’s actions have unintended consequences, and Jack finally embraces his status as a lazy, powerless deadbeat. There’s betrayal and acts of retribution, both big and small, and a powerful speech that signals the end of the marriage and the start of a life of insecurity and loss.
I admit I was moved by this part of the film, and they slightly explained the indifference I felt during the first half. O’Casey meant for us to laugh initially and to get our hopes up. He meant for us to view Jack as a lovable loser so that we could breathe a sigh of relief for his family when their fortunes look positive. Part of his comeuppance is warranted; the other part you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. In other words, the film should work much better than it does.
So, here’s my hope, that some day soon, a company, perhaps Kino in a second volume of Hitchcock’s British films, releases a far superior version of Juno and the Paycock than the one I purchased. That version, release by a company called FilmRise, is truly an insult to viewers; the top part of the film has been cropped off in an effort to modify it to fit TV screens, rendering character’s heads completely off screen while they are engaging in conversations. There are also sound issues. This could have been easily fixed, yet no attempt was made to reduce the distortion, and no subtitles were provided. My envisioned double dip addresses these issues, while also exercising the film’s opening scene. Just start the movie in the pub. Let the audience laugh at the zaniness, and then leave them heartbroken as reality prevents their dreams from coming true. That would be a movie worth watching. In its present form, it stumbles right out the gate and never truly recovers. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars