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Film Pictorial (1935) - The Man Who Made "The 39 Steps"



The Man Who Made The 39 Steps

Pen Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock

Few British films have created such outstanding interest during the past twelve months as The 39 Steps. It brought together two stars for the first time in a British film — Robert Donat, riding on the crest of popularity after his big American success The Count of Monte Cristo, and Madeleine Carroll. It gave Madeleine a "different" role, with a distinct comedy angle to it, instead of the "serene highness" to which we had grown accustomed. More than all this, it has proved itself a record-breaking film in London and New York.

Applaud Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as you will — but save full measure of praise for the man who directed the film — Alfred Hitchcock. It is of "Hitch," as he is called, that I am going to write this week.

In more ways than one he is an outstanding figure in British films. A big man, his height is dwarfed by his huge girth; and a glance at his big head tells you that here is a man with "personality" as well as genius.

Directors vary very much in their methods of dealing with artistes. Some are very concise and obvious in their explanations; other men are more subtle and, though they get what they want, the actor never discovers how they do it.

Alfred Hitchcock belongs to the latter category, and I tried recently to unravel the mystery of his almost magnetic power over his cast.

I lunched with him and we talked naturally about his new picture Secret Agent.

"Of course," he told me, "Scrubby Carroll is in it again."

I looked puzzled and he smiled, as though at some private joke.

"Madeleine Carroll," he explained.

I felt horrified that this statuesque, dignified beauty should be referred to so disrespectfully. Then I remembered how, in The 39 Steps, "Hitch" had put her through her paces, casting her dignity to the four winds and giving her a new, vivid vitality. We spoke for a moment about The 39 Steps.

"It is strange," "Hitch" told me, "how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly," he went on, with a twinkle in his eye, "the real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman's holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator!"

He soon changed his opinion, for after their first meeting he decided she was perfectly natural and had a great sense of humour.

"Why is it," he said, "that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action."

"Hitch" paused for a moment and I recognized that special look of concentration he wears when he is determined to put himself over.

"After meeting her," he went on a moment later, "I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks."

In a little while, our conversation switched from work to pleasure. "Hitch" told me something of his travels this summer. He soaks himself so entirely in his film work that a real holiday is a rare occurrence in his life. "We did manage a few weekends at our summer cottage," said "Hitch," "and we went some time ago to Rome. We had a grand time, my wife and I and our daughter, Pat, too. She was so keen to go all over the place and see everything, that I had quite a difficulty to tear myself away from her long enough to have an audience with the Pope."

There must have been a surprised look in my eyes, for he went on.

"Oh yes, I had an audience with His Holiness."

Then, I broke in: "I suppose you noticed every little detail to use in a film one day soon."

"Who knows?" said "Hitch," a faraway look in his eyes, and I realized that it might really be true.

Apart from his delightful home in Surrey, and his wife and daughter, he has few other interests. His wife is Alma Reville, the scenario writer.

He is fortunate enough to have a wife who, far from resenting the intrusion of business into every hour of his life, encourages and sympathizes with his enthusiasm. With true feminine intuition she can pick out the sheep from the goats in the crowd which inevitably surrounds him, thus saving his precious energy. It is all done so unobtrusively that one is never conscious of this "selective scrutiny."

It is a subtle characteristic she shares with her husband and reminded me of the occasion when I first met him just before the production of Murder!, with Herbert Marshall. I referred to this and I asked him if he always picked out his stars with as little ado as he did me.

"Do you really think of it like that," "Hitch" began. "Shows how little you know about it. You see, there you were. You had the type of face and the personality I had in mind, but you were all tied up with nerves and so tense that at first I hadn't a ghost of an idea whether you would be any use to me at all. I didn't know if you would photograph or record well enough. There was only one thing to do — give you a chance and see.

"It was nothing new to me to see an actress jittering with nerves. When a girl is in that state there's only one thing to do — to make her relax. And the easiest way is to play the fool for her benefit. You see the idea? You felt I was no end of an ass when I stood there spouting nonsense at you, didn't you?"

"Well," I admitted, "frankly I was a bit scared at first. I thought you were crazy. Then I thought you were pulling my leg. And at last I began to see the point of the silly jokes you were making, and to enjoy them. That's what put me right for my camera test. I remember that at the last moment I did have an uneasy feeling that you were having a good laugh to yourself at my expense."

"So I was," said "Hitch," "but only because you had swallowed my prescription and it was working out according to plan."

"Have you the same sort of theories about getting people to act?" I asked innocently.

"What do you think?" he countered.

"I think perhaps you have," I acknowledged after a moment's pause.

"Hitch," however, no longer has the power to embarrass me, as he used to when he made gentle fun of me in the studio. It is the power to keep things off the "intense level," so difficult to avoid in film circles, that is "Hitch's" gift. Having this power, he is able to get exactly what he wants from his players in the most uncanny fashion. Even when I resented with all my youthful conceit the fact that he seemed to be poking fun at me, I had to do as he wanted me to in a picture simply because he did not allow me to get so strung-up that I could not express the emotions the part required. As I have said, he has a magnetic power.

At the time I was working with "Hitch," he had a passion for acting in his own pictures. He did not star himself, nor look out [for] plums for his own glorification. Far from it! He liked to be an extra. Whenever there was a crowd scene, he made for it.

"Why don't you go to the cinema and watch other people's work?" I asked.

"For several reasons," "Hitch" replied. "First, because I have my own methods; but I am human, and every time I see someone else's films I may be tempted to try their methods instead of my own. Theirs seem so logical. I do it, and I fail. Their methods may be good, but not for me. The second reason is that I may unconsciously crib their stuff. An idea, a lighting effect, a way of doing something that is characteristic of some other director may attract me, and I might unconsciously employ it in my next picture. There it would look ridiculous because it is not characteristic of me. Therefore I consider it best to leave other people's films alone."