December 22, 2016
The Pleasure Garden – UK, 1925
There is nothing about The Pleasure Garden that would suggest it was the first feature films of legendary master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. There’s no murder, no conspiracy (unless you count the schemes of some horny adults), and no great reveal at the end. In fact, if you were to read a synopsis of the film, you could be forgiven for assuming it was the work of D.W. Griffith, William Wyler, or even Kenji Mizoguchi. These are directors much more renowned for their films on women struggling to survive in a world that sees them as less than equal to their male counterparts. Hitchcock is more known for producing gasps, shrieks, and rapidly-beating hearts, yet here he is with The Pleasure Garden tugging at heartstrings and showcasing the plight of young dancers trying to eke out a living on stage.
The film offers viewers a look at two women whom fate destines to meet. The first is Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli), a chorus girl in a local revue. In early scenes, we witness Patsy’s street smarts and self-protective nature. She has gotten used to the lecherous looks of many of the older men who frequent her performances, and she seems perfectly aware of the intentions of her boss, Oscar Hamilton (Georg H. Schnell, when he introduces her to them. She also knows just how to offend them enough that they leave her alone for good without becoming uncontrollably incensed. The second woman is Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), a fellow dancer who arrives from out of town. Sensing that Jill is in need of kindness, Patsy offers to let her stay at her place. Almost immediately we can tell that Jill has an abundance of confidence and a spirit that already seems a little corrupted. To illustrate this, we witness Patsy pray before going to bed, while Jill looks on slightly embarrassed at the spectacle. If that wasn’t enough, Jill then takes both pillows. Oh, the horrors.
Jill eventually auditions for Mr. Hamilton. She not only gets a job but also negotiates a salary of $20 a week, a surprising turn of events considering that when she dances she resembles a chicken hopping on hot coals while simultaneously experiencing a fit of leg spasms. I’m not sure what constituted good dancing in the past, but I’m almost certain this wasn’t it. In fact, watching her, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Hamilton hires her because he has designs of her, and while there may be some truth to this, the film would have you believe that she becomes a star because of her talent.
We eventually meet Jill’s fiancé, Hugh Fielding (John Stewart), and an associate of his named Levet (Miles Mander). Hugh is blind to Jill’s growing materialistic tendencies, while Mr. Levet sets his sights on Patsy. I’m not sure whether it was intended or not, but I never thought this character had good intentions toward Patsy; therefore, it was more than a little surprising to watch her fall for his well-rehearsed lines and emotional pleas, especially after her encounter with the patron towards the beginning of the film. The final character worth mentioning is Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg), who becomes enchanted with Jill and essentially becomes her benefactor. Patsy later refers to her as a kept woman, and it’s easy to see why.
With a running time of just over an hour, I have a feeling that parts of the film have been lost. There are too few intertitles, and events transpire too quickly for many of them to fully resonate with audiences. For example, the Prince remains an enigma, and an interesting storyline involving Jill and Mr. Hamilton is introduced only to never be concluded or properly explained. One character even undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation which is never entirely explained. After all, a man can be a cad without resembling a character from one of those 1950’s educational videos on the dangers of drugs. Later, this same character makes a point of swimming out to sea toward a woman intent on committing suicide just so he can drown her himself. Is this an act of madness or just plain poor writing? I’m inclined to believe the latter.
There’s a neat camera trick involving a waving scarf that suggests an intriguing career to follow, yet for the most part it seems clear that Hitchcock was still finding his way when he made The Paradise Garden. While the film has much to enjoy – in particular the story of two women who in different times and a more normal line of work would have likely been life-long friends – and a few images that would be replicated in later films, such as the use of opera glasses to view a woman up close, it still left me somewhat cold. In fact, the final fifteen minutes include so many ludicrous leaps in logic, as well as a string of unconvincing coincidences, that it becomes a trifle infuriating. What transpires is more convenient than realistic, and the film once again promotes the myth that a year’s worth of misery can be made up for in a matter of minutes.
Still, I found The Pleasure Garden pleasant enough to recommend. It includes a somewhat interesting contrast in characters and gives viewers a look at the kind of world that would have made Mary Wollstonecraft shake her head in dismay. None of this is anything contemporary audience haven’t seen before, and the film’s pre-code aspects no longer shock the way they used to; however, I felt invested in Patsy’s story, and I rooted for her to come out ahead. Is the way she does it too simplistic? Sure, but that doesn’t make the journey less involving. (on DVD)