JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930): “What can God do against stupidity of men?”

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK – 1930 – British International Pictures –  ★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Edward Chapman (“Captain” Boyle), Sara Allgood (Mrs. “Juno” Boyle), John Laurie (Johnny Boyle), Kathleen O’Regan (Mary Boyle), Sidney Morgan (“Joxer” Daly), Maire O’Neill (Maisie Madigan). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the play by Sean O’Casey

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Edited by Emile de Ruelle

“Opening up” a stage play:  In the years and decades after making this film, Alfred Hitchcock would express some regret in not finding ways to make the film more cinematic.  The truth is that he imbued several scenes with his unique style, without at all sacrificing the tone or dialogue of the original stage play.

The entire three-act play was all set inside the apartment of the Boyle family.  Hitchcock convinced playwright Sean O’Casey that the film should begin outside the Boyle flat, then move into the flat after the opening scenes.  O’Casey was ultimately sold on Hitchcock’s idea, and wrote a new original scene for the film’s opening.  The movie opens with a very Hitchcockian shot.  The camera begins on an orator (played by Barry Fitzgerald) surrounded by a crowd.  The camera then pulls back and up, to reveal the alleyway where the men are gathered.

The dialogue and the visual combine to set the scene.  We are in Dublin, during “the troubles.”  The Civil War of the early 1920’s, when many in Ireland were clamoring for independence.   From here we cut to the interior of a bar.  We meet the patriarch of the Boyle family here, with his drinking companion Joxer.

Soon the two men head to Boyle’s tenement flat, where most of the movie will be set.  Here we meet the family.   Boyle does not work, and hasn’t for some time.  He is capable of working, but feigns a leg injury, spending his days drinking and pontificating.  His son (played hauntingly by John Laurie) lost an arm in the war, and is now a shell of himself, frightened of the very shadows.   Boyle’s wife Juno is the clear leader of the family, doing her best to hold them all together, although they are one step from being homeless.   The Boyle’s bicker back and forth, with an easy banter that leads one to believe they have gone on like this for years.

The Boyle’s daughter Mary comes home with a solicitor named Bentham.  Mary is clearly enamored of this man, and he brings good news from the family.  A distant relative of Mr. Boyle’s has died, leaving him an inheritance of 2,000 pounds.  When we next cut to the Boyle flat, things have changed mightily.  Although they have not yet received the bequeathed money, they have borrowed heavily against its eventual arrival, with new furniture, new clothes and extravagances like a phonograph.

The challenges of sound:   Although things are looking up for the Boyle family, we are soon reminded that the sorrows of war continue, and we receive a foreshadowing of events to come.  The son of an older lady who lives upstairs is murdered, and she goes off to the funeral.

Hitchcock wanted to do something very original and inventive with sound here.  One has to keep in mind that this is only Hitchcock’s second sound film.  He pushes in on son Johnny in a close up, while a multitude of sounds occur.  Hitchcock explained the structure of the scene to Peter Bogdanovich:

It was interesting the trouble one went to for sound at that time.  You see, you couldn’t add it later–it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.  I remember one shot in this very tiny studio–a close-up of the son huddled beside the fire–and I wanted to dolly in.  The camera was encased in what looked like a telephone booth in those days, for reasons of soundproofing.  So I had this booth on a dolly.  The offstage sounds were the family talking in the room–they’d bought a phonograph and they were playing a tune called “If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlor.”  Suddenly they stopped because the funeral was going by and then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.  All those sounds had to be recorded at the same time, so the studio was packed.  There was a small orchestra, and i had the prop man sing the song holding his nose so that you got a tinny effect as on an old phonography record.  There were the actors with their lines.  Then, on the other side, I had a choir of about twenty people for the funeral, and another man with the machine-gun effect.  We could barely move in that little studio for all those off-scene sound effects on just one close-up.

One would never know from watching this scene the incredible planning that went into pulling it off, but is demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to innovate, to use the new sound medium to the fullest.  Johnny becomes very distraught, and is concerned that the light in front of his Virgin Mary icon does not go out.

A Hitchcock tragedy:  This movie may have the most purely tragic ending of all of Hitchcock’s films.  The final act involves three blows that strike the Boyle family render the family ties forever.  The first is the discovery that the inheritance is not to be.  The will was not filled out properly, and all of the things the family had borrowed on credit are repossessed.  We then learn that Mary is pregnant by Bentham, who has fled the scene and left her alone.  Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that he did not add cinematic touches to this film, there are several in the final act.  Mary meets her old beau Jerry, who is willing to forgive her dalliance and take her back.  Until he learns that she is pregnant;  at that point he sheepishly beats a retreat.  Hitchcock chose to shoot this scene in an uninterrupted close-up two shot, which heightens the emotion of the very touching scene.

The finally tragedy is the greatest to befall the family, as Johnny is taken by force from the flat by a couple of old associates, who believe he left a comrade to die.  Johnny himself is soon killed, and Hitchcock shows the moment in a very cinematic (and very Catholic) way;  as the votive candle in front of Johnny’s statue is extinguished, we know he is dead.

Finally Juno tells Mary that they will depart together;  she is finished with “Captain” Boyle and will leave him for good.  Whereas the play ends with a short scene of Boyle and Joxer, Hitchcock chose quite rightly to end on Juno.

Juno, left alone at the end, leaves the audience with a final, moving soliloquy.  First she goes to the statue of Mary on the hearth, asking “Where were you when my son was riddled with bullets?”  Finally she offers a prayer that hearts of stone may become hearts of flesh, and the movie ends with this elegy on her son’s passing, and the futility of conflict in general.

Performance:  Most of the actors in this film were from the Irish Players theatre company, and many had appeared in the play on stage.  So clearly they were familiar with the material.  However, this was made at the beginning of the sound era, so speaking on camera was a novelty for all involved.  The performances are all solid throughout.  It really has the feel of a “filmed play” with the exception of a couple of sequences, and is acted accordingly.  Special mention goes to Sara Allgood as Mrs. Boyle; she is the heart and soul of the picture, and she is unforgettable in her role.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s movie is based on the 1924 play by Sean O’Casey.  The play is almost identical to the movie.  Hitchcock changed almost nothing, probably because O’Casey got to approve any changes or alterations to his original dialogue.  Hitchcock did excise a very small exchange between Boyle and Joxer which ends the original play.  After Mrs. Boyle and Mary have left the home  for good, a very drunk Boyle and Joxer enter.  Boyle has the last word, lamenting the terrible state of affairs in the world.  Hitchcock chose to end on Mrs. Boyle’s final monologue, which I find more fitting.

Recurring players:  Edward Chapman would later appear in Murder! (as Ted Markham) and The Skin Game (as Dawker).   Sara Allgood had earlier appeared in Blackmail (Mrs. White.  John Laurie would later play the part of the crofter in The 39 Steps.  John Longden (Charles Bentham) had several other small supporting roles in Blackmail, The Skin Game, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Fred Schwartz (Mr. Kelly) would later play an uncredited role of a tailor in Sabotage.  And Donald Calthrop (Needle Nugent) also played several other small roles in Blackmail, Murder! and Number Seventeen. 

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in this film.   The Lodger is the only Hitchcock silent film with a known cameo.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was a bit more talkative about this film in later years than many of his other early “talkies” for British International Pictures.  He mentioned it in a 1968 article on Rear Window in Take One:  “I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.  Years ago I made a film of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.  It has a tragic ending, a very grim ending, but there was no other way around it.”

When Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock why he made this film, he replied

Because I liked the play very much.  I think the picture’s all right, though personally it wasn’t my meat.  But it was one of my favorite plays, so I thought I had to do it.  It was just a photograph of a stage play.  I wish I could have done something with it, but I truly believe that a theater piece is a theater piece–it’s designed and written with the proscenium arch in mind, and I think that opening it up becomes another thing.

And to Truffaut, Hitchcock said

The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.  The critics praised the picture, and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.

Definitive edition:  I am hesitant to call any home version of this movie “definitive.”  It has been in the public domain for a long time, and there are several different DVD versions available.  The DVD I own was released by FilmRise in 2014.  It is bare bones, no extra features whatsoever, with a (barely) watchable print.  There is one section of the film where the print framing is a mess;  the tops of the actors’ heads are cut off.  The soundtrack is difficult to understand at times.  My fingers are crossed that this movie will get a nice release some day.


THE 39 STEPS (1935): “Don’t bother about me, I’m nobody.”

THE 39 STEPS (1935) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★

B&W – 86 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret Crofter), John Laurie (John Crofter), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).

Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Derek N. Twist

Music by Jack Beaver and Louis Levy

The picaresque steps:  As Alfred Hitchcock himself described The 39 Steps it is a “film of episodes.”  He and Charles Bennett constructed a picaresque narrative, with a reluctant hero moving from one scene and one locale to the next, getting into (and out of) scrape after scrape, until the climax.  The influence of this film on Hitchcock’s later works cannot be overstated.  Without this film, there is no Foreign Correspondent, no Saboteur, and certainly no North by Northwest.  So let’s look at this film in the same manner in which it was constructed:  one episode at a time.

Step one, The Music Hall:  Hitchcock opens with a close up pan of a neon sign that says “MUSIC HALL.”   (Neon signs feature in several early Hitchcock movies.)  We are introduced to our hero through a series of shots that show him only from the back.  His light brown coat serves as a marker as he purchases a ticket, enters and finds a seat.   The house band begins to play, and on stage comes Mr. Memory, a man who memorizes 50 facts a day, and never forgets one.  Various patrons begin to ask questions.  The overall tone of this opening is light and humorous.  Finally, our hero asks a question.  Look at the framing of this shot:

Whose pov is this?  We are standing behind Mr. Memory, looking over his shoulder as it were.  But look at the perfect framing of Robert Donat (in the role of Richard Hannay).  He sits up a bit taller than those around him, the light reflects on his face;  Hitchcock made sure our eye would automatically be drawn to him.  Hannay’s question (How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?) establishes that he is from Canada.   Shortly the humorous tone takes a turn as shots are fired, and the packed music hall empties into the street.  Hannay is pressed together with a woman with a vaguely Germanic accent, who asks if she can come home with Hannay.   Certainly we are meant to suspect that she is a prostitute?  Rather bold, for a mid 1930’s film.

Step Two, Hannay’s Apartment:  Once inside Hannay’s flat, we discover that this foreign woman’s motives are very different than those we at first suspected.   She tells Hannay that her name is Annabella Smith, clearly a false name.  Annabella (played by Lucie Mannheim) asks Hannay if he’s ever heard of the 39 Steps, then tells Hannay a fantastic story:  she fired the shots in the theater, she is an agent trying to protect a British military secret from falling into the hands of spies, two of those spies were in the music hall, and are outside Hannay’s apartment right this minute.  The leader of these spies is a man missing the first joint of his little finger.  At first Hannay is incredulous, but upon seeing two men standing under a streetlight, he begins to wonder.  He agrees to let Annabella spend the night, giving her his bed while he takes the couch.   We then get this fantastic shot:

This shot is unlike any other in the film.  It shows the German expressionist influence on Hitchcock.  The play of light and shadow is wonderful, as well as the way the statue appears to be pointing at the open window and billowing curtains,  announcing to the audience that someone else has entered the apartment, there is trouble brewing.  Annabella wakes up Hannay, warning him to get out, then falls over him with a knife plunged in her back.  Clutched in her hand is a map of Scotland with the village of Alt-Na-Shellac circled.  So the spies broke into the house, stabbed her in the back, and yet left Hannay alive?  We don’t have time to question this in the moment, the narrative moves far too swiftly.

Step three, the milkman:  Hannay is unable to leave his building, because the two spies are waiting outside.  When the milkman comes in, he convinces him to switch clothing, and leaves in the milkman’s coat and hat.  Interestingly, Hannay tries to tell the milkman the truth, but he doesn’t buy this story of spies and a murdered woman.  Only when Hannay tells a lie, about seeing a married woman, does the milkman take him at his word.  This will not be the last time that Hannay has to lie to be believed.

Step four, the train:  The next sequence has one of the most clever (and most copied) editorial cuts in Hitchcock’s career.  We see Hannay’s cleaning lady opening his flat, seeing the murdered woman, and turning to scream.  She opens her mouth, and out comes the screech of a train whistle.  Then we cut to the visual of the train.  Hannay is on board the train, heading up to Scotland to the village that Annabella had circled on the map.  He is a wanted man, believed to be guilty of killing the woman found in his flat.  There is a humorous section here involving the men that he shares a carriage with, who are reading a newspaper that details the murder of Annabella, and the hunt for Hannay.  The police eventually find him on the train, and he flees, into the carriage of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).  He tells her his story and begs for help.

When Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet on a train in North by Northwest 25 years later, under similar circumstances, it was a meet cute.  There is nothing cute about the way Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll meet.  She believes him guilty, and immediately turns him over to the police.  Once again he makes an escape, hiding on the Forth Bridge as seen in this shot.

Step five, the Crofter’s cottage:  The next sequence is so well structured and acted, it is almost like a mini-movie right in the middle of the longer movie.   Richard Hannay comes to a crofter’s cottage, and learns that there is a new Englishman, “a kind of professor” living in Alt-Na-Shellac.  It’s too late in the day to walk the 14 miles, so the crofter agrees to put him up for the night, for a fee.  Hannay meets the crofter’s wife, at first mistaking her for a daughter.   The young wife is taken with Hannay.  He is attractive, charming, and he’s been to London, which might as well be another planet to this girl.   As she prepares the supper, he glances at the paper, and sees yet another article about the manhunt for himself, the supposed killer of Annabella.  Seeing him glance at it, the young woman realizes who this dashing man really is.  This leads to some very urgent glances between the two at supper, which do not go unnoticed by her husband.  He, of course, thinks these glances mean something else entirely.  Later, when the wife sneaks out of bed to help Hannay escape, the husband confronts them, believing it is the beginning of an amorous tryst.  As Hannay declares his innocence, Hitchcock has this interesting shot composition.

The characters are seen through a chair, much like the bars of a prison.  As the police arrive at the front door, the wife helps Hannay escape out the back door, giving him Crofter’s dark coat to wear.  So rich this little tale, so honest the characters, Hitchcock could have made an entire movie out of this episode.

Step six, the “Professor’s” house:  Hannay next goes to the house of the “Professor”, the man he believes Annabelle was going to visit in Scotland.  The Professor lives on a lovely estate, and is hosting a small gathering.  Hannay is welcomed into the group.  A very nice, and subtle touch here, is to watch how many hands featured in the scene.  Keeping in mind that the leader of the evil spies is missing half a finger.  Hands enter and exit the frame rapidly, shaking Hannay’s hand, handing him a cigarette, a drink, offering a light.  A subtle way prepare us for the significance of hands.  Finally the Professor and Hannay are alone, and Hannay discovers that the Professor is not an ally, but the enemy.  Annabella wasn’t coming here to get the Professor’s help, she was coming to thwart him.

The Professor explains that he can’t let Hannay live, and proceeds to shoot him.  He falls down, dead.  Or is he?

Step seven, the lecture hall:  This section is comprised of two short sequences leading into a longer one.  Hannay is in a policeman’s office, showing how the crofter’s book of prayer in the coat pocket stopped the bullet aimed for his heart.  Unfortunately for Hannay, the policeman is another ally of the Professor, leading to another escape, by jumping through a window.  He falls in step with a Salvation Army parade passing by, then slips into an alley and an inviting doorway.  This doorway turns out to be the back of a lecture hall, and Hannay is rushed to the stage.  He quickly realizes that he has been mistaken for the guest speaker!  He begins to speak off the cuff, when who should walk in but Pamela, the woman from the train.  The police also gather in the wings.  His speech becomes more impassioned, and he inspires the crowd to leap to their feet in an excited state, but is pushed into the hands of the waiting police.  Hitchcock would re-use this sequence, the idea of being trapped in a crowded room, in both Saboteur and North by Northwest.

Step eight, the car and the countryside:  The police arrest Hannay for the murder of Annabella, and ask Pamela to come along too, as she saw him on the train.  Only it turns out these policemen are actually more of the Professor’s men.  Hannay and Pamela, handcuffed together, escape with the help of a flock of sheep blocking a bridge.  He forces her to hide under a waterfall, and later they make their escape.  Pamela still believes Hannay is guilty of murder.  This is yet another person that won’t believe Hannay when he tells the truth, but will accept what he says when he lies.

Step nine, the hotel:  Hannay and Pamela end up in a hotel room, and this is where their relationship takes a turn.  We have a humorous (and risque for the 30’s) scene in which Pamela, still handcuffed, removes her stockings, and then they discuss the sleeping arrangements on the bed.

Hannay falls asleep,  and Pamela is able to work her hand out of the cuffs.  She is going to sneak away, but when she opens the door, she sees the two men who had taken them earlier, and realizes through their overheard conversation that Hannay has been speaking the truth.  She goes back to the room, staying with him, sleeping at the foot of the bed. When he wakes up, we see Pamela look at him in a very important close-up shot, which shows us that not only does she believe in him, she also loves him.  Many years later, Hitch will use a similar close-up of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, when he is admiring Grace Kelly for her pluck.  Pamela overheard the two men mentioning the London Palladium, and so off our new couple goes.

Step ten, the Music Hall again:  And so Hitchcock ends where he began, this time in the London Palladium.   Hannay has been whistling a tune for much of the latter half of the movie.  He can’t remember where he heard it, until the band strikes up the same tune at the Palladium.  Of course!  It is the theme of Mr. Memory!  And now it all comes together.  The secret that the spies are after is not on a piece of paper or microfilm.  It is in the mind of Mr. Memory.  The police (real ones, this time) recognize Hannay and try to arrest him, when he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps?” to Mr. Memory on stage.  Being Mr. Memory, he begins to answer and ends up shot.  Hannay convinces Mr. Memory to recite the secret plans that he had remembered, which vindicates Hannay in the eyes of the authorities.

And poor Mr. Memory, after unburdening his mind of the plans he had memorized, slumps down dead.  A sad ending for him, indeed, and a touching, almost Shakespearean moment for a minor character in a thriller.   Some movies might cut to a coda at this point, with Hannay and Pamela locked in each other’s arms.  Such a scene was shot, but Hitchcock was against it.  Although he would use just such a scene at the end of North by Northwest.  This film has a much more tentative, and somehow more poignant, ending. Hannay and Pamela reach their hands out, and clasp each other, ever so gently, Hannay’s still attached handcuff dangling between them.  This is symbolic of the way Hitchcock usually portrayed relationships.  The future is uncertain, and things may get in the way.  Yet they will maintain that clasp, as long as they can.

Performance:  One could make the argument that this is the most perfectly cast movie of Hitchcock’s entire British period.  The only films that come close in this regard are The Lady Vanishes, and possibly The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Robert Donat is the quintessential Hitchcock male lead.  He is seemingly insouciant, and yet doggedly determined when pressed, and he absolutely oozes charm.  Without Donat’s exquisite performance in this movie, we would not have the later performances that we do from Michael Redgrave, Joel McCrea, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Forsythe.  Donat created the template for the perfect Hitchcock hero.  Equally good as the leading lady is Madeleine Carroll, who does a wonderful job playing a strong-willed woman who intensely dislikes Donat’s character, then gradually softens as she comes to believe in him.  Godfrey Tearle makes the most of his brief screen time as the antagonist, an early prototype of the kind of sophisticated and debonair bad guy that Hitchcock preferred.  Watch out for a young Peggy Ashcroft in the role of the farmer’s wife.  Ashcroft would go on to have a long and celebrated career on the stage, and would win an Oscar for David Lean’s A Passage to India almost 50 years after she appeared in The 39 Steps.  

Source material:  The original novel, written by John Buchan and published in 1915, is set just before the outset of World War 1.  The movie advances the setting to the time it was made, the mid 30’s.  In the book there is no music hall opening.  Hannay is accosted by a man who says he is a spy, and claims to be following a ring of German spies who are out to steal Britain’s plans for war.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to change this character to a woman.  The episode of Hannay escaping his building in the milkman’s uniform is present in the book, as is his journey to Scotland, and a night spent in a shepherd’s cottage, minus the young lovelorn wife.  Also absent from the book is any love interest for Hannay.  In the book, the 39 steps are actual steps, down which the German spies will go to rendezvous with a ship off the coast.  The overall picaresque structure, and the concept of the double chase are intact in both book and film.  While the book is engaging, the movie actually has a better structured plot.  The book also suffers from its lack of female characters.  Even author John Buchan told Hitchcock that giving Hannay a love interest in the film was an improvement over the novel.

This novel was very popular in Britain, and ultimately around the world, resulting in four more books being penned by Buchan which featured Richard Hannay as protagonist.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in this one, at around the 6:50 mark.  As Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim are preparing to board the bus that is pulling up, Hitch crosses from left to right, in the foreground, casually littering as he passes!

Recurring players:  Starring actress Madeleine Carroll would appear in Secret Agent a year after this film.  John Laurie had earlier appeared in Juno and the Paycock.  Helen Haye (not to be mistaken with Helen Hayes) and Ivor Barnard had been in The Skin Game.   Wylie Watson, the memorable Mr. Memory, would later have a small part in Jamaica Inn.  Gus McNaughton had an earlier uncredited role in Murder!  Jerry Verno and Peggy Simpson would later appear in Young and Innocent.  James Knight had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Miles Malleson would appear 15 years later in Stage Fright.  Frederick Piper, who played the milkman, also had bit parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  And S.J. Warmington had bit parts in Murder! The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage.

What Hitch said:  In his conversations with Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock was clearly proud of his work on this film.  He said “Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps…What I find appealing in Buchan’s work is his understatement of highly dramatic ideas…Understatement is important to meI worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue.  I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes…I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself…What I like in The Thirty-nine Steps are the swift transitions…The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement.  It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.  You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 Criterion Collection blu-ray has the nicest print of the film currently available.   Included along with the film are a commentary track by scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary titled Hitchcock:  The Early Years which covers Hitch’s British period, footage from a 1966 Mike Scott television interview of Alfred Hitchcock, a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theater broadcast version, excerpts from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews, and original production design drawings.