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The Cinema (BBC Radio, 24/Jun/1935)

As part of the programme, presenter Alistair Cooke reviewed The 39 Steps (1935).

Broadcast Details


After all the trumpet flourishes, I went to see Mr Hitchcock's new film. The 39 Steps, believing, as I had no legal right to believe, that I was about to see a masterpiece. From time to time Mr Hitchcock's talent seemed to be getting under way, but then I felt he had gone back to his notebooks and decided to include this little trick here, that funny line there. Somewhere I had blamelessly read that Mr Robert Donat was performing in an English idiom the kind of flip, cocksure comedy that Mr Clark Gable does so well in the American idiom. When the movie was over I had sadly to confess that Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat as the English equivalent of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable were handsomer, but as either comedy actors or human beings were seventy marks short of the comparison. If only, one feels, they would break down and forget to be a little lady and a little gentleman, their comedy would have had the chance of fluency.

It would also have had the chance of looking like something they enjoyed doing. Miss Carroll looked cold all the time. I don't mean she has a chill English beauty. I mean that literally she looked as though she were feeling a draught; and Mr Donat looked terrified, not so much by the thought of a murder but by the much more terrifying thought of his next line but one. For short stretches — the train ride north, the scene at the end in the theatre — this is an accomplished film, but the main criticism must be that it is a patched and uneasy joke. Mr Hitchcock seems to have had in his mind many of the moments in the film long before he had the story itself.

And having found the story he then nailed on the jokes, amusing bits of camerawork, elaborated bits of 'business' left over from The Man Who Knew Too Much. I would not willingly persuade anybody to stay away from a film by one of our two English directors who have graduated to a personal style. Though it is in the worst and most serious sense a tricky film, it's a failure that not more than a dozen directors in the world could have made. If you can catch on to the refined accents early enough in the film, you may go far towards enjoying it.[2]


Notes & References

  1. Project Genome: BBC Radio Times Archive
  2. Reproduced in Alistair Cooke at the Movies, edited by Geoff Brown (ISBN 9780141036069).