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Richard Hannay

Donat as Richard Hannay

Richard Hannay is the lead character in The 39 Steps (1935) and was played by actor Robert Donat.

The character was originally created by author John Buchan and appeared in five novels published between 1915 and 1936. Unlike Donat's character in the film, Buchan's Hannay is an imperialist adventurer, upholding the traditions of the British Empire, and was partly based on Edmund Ironside, a famous spy during the Second Boer War.[1][2]

Buchan's Hannay appears as a main character in five novels — The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936) — and as a minor character in a further two — The Courts of the Morning (1929) and Sick Heart River (1940).


Compared to his co-star Madeleine Carroll, Donat was relative new to film acting but had enjoyed a rapid rise to fame whilst working for Alexander Korda's London Film Productions. Within 2 years of his début in Men of Tomorrow (1932) he had starred in the Hollywood production The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and, by the end of that year, Variety announced that he had been contracted to Warner Bros.[3]

By casting Donat as Richard Hannay, Hitchcock and producer Michael Balcon ensured that the final film would stand a fair chance of breaking into the American market. The subsequent signing of Carroll, who had also recently starred in her first Hollywood film, only served to strengthen that possibility.

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Speaking in the year after the film was released, Hitchcock said of Donat:

I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success — in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality — is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious, but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.[4]

Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett were keen to distance themselves from the imperialistic Hannay of Buchan's novels and instead create an "everyman" that audiences would be easily able to identify with. It is perhaps for this reason that very little of the background of their Hannay is revealed in the film — all we learn is that he is a Canadian, possibly from Winnipeg, visiting London "for a few months" and living in a rented flat.

However, like Buchan's creation, Donat's Hannay seems able to extract himself from any situation he finds himself in — from leaping from a moving train and outrunning the police across the rugged Scottish terrain, to hurling himself through windows and surviving being shot in the chest from close range — and he is also able to quickly slip into a variety of disguises — from a milkman to a politician, and from criminal to a newly-wed husband.[5]

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By all accounts, Donat and Carroll worked well together and there were even rumours they'd started an off-set "torrid romance".[6] In an article published in June 1938, Donat said of his first meeting with his co-star:

On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, "Hitch" lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When "Hitch" saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the "missing" key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, "Now that you two know each other we can go ahead." Had it not been for Hitchcock's little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to "get together" — to the detriment of our work in the interim.[7]

Speaking to Charlotte Chandler of this incident, Hitchcock said:

I am often accused of perpetrating inconsiderate practical jokes, but I never purposely left Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together for a whole day, as rumor had it. The key being misplaced was accidental, and certainly not for long. We did, after all, have other scenes to shoot with them. I would never risk time or money, placing my film in jeopardy.[8]
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However, Hitchcock did admit to a least one practical joke he played on Donat:

It is true, however, that I played a bit of a joke on Robert Donat. When he complained that his suit had been ruined in the waterfall scene, I went out and bought him another one from a nearby thrift shop — a child's sailor suit. Then, I told him I'd had a fine tailor make it especially for him.[8]

In 1939, Donat wrote about how the collaboration with Hitchcock altered his approach to acting:

When I started work in The 39 Steps, I considered my role unreal and uninteresting. Then one day I was called upon to make a scene in which I had to pass by a window with a bread-knife in my hand and glance casually out to see whether the house was being watched. I rehearsed the sequence several times, in a manner which I considered quite adequate. Hitch was dissatisfied. "It's no good", he said, "for pity's sake Bob don't you realise your life depends on this glance? You must feel it in your heart." After I had rehearsed the scene several more times without success, Hitch dispersed all the people standing round and himself demonstrated the sequence for me. Despite his immense weight Hitchcock is a very balanced and well-coordinated person. He walked steadily across the set, glancing out the window with such genuine apprehension that the whole situation assumed an entirely new significance. "You see", he said, "you must play it with your heart." For the first time in my life I tried to feel the situation. That one incident altered my whole outlook. An actor [...] must act accordingly not with his brains alone, but with his emotions. Sympathetic sensibility is the actor's most important qualification.[9]

Other Portrayals


Film and television:

Film Frames

Selection of film frames: Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935) (click image to view larger version or refresh thumbnails)...


Notes & References

  1. Wikipedia: Richard Hannay
  2. Wikipedia: Edmund Ironside
  3. Variety (18/Dec/1934)
  4. Film Weekly (1936) - My Screen Memories
  5. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, page 3
  6. Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) by John Russell Taylor, chapter 7
  7. The Courier-Mail (23/Jun/1938)
  8. 8.0 8.1 It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock - A Personal Biography (2005) by Charlotte Chandler
  9. exact source unknown