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Film Comment (1999) - Alfred Hitchcock: Before the flickers




McGilligan profiles writer Alfred Hitchcock. Several of Hitchcock's first writings that were published in "The Henley Telegraph" are presented, including "Gas" and "The History of Pea Eating."


Alfred Hitchcock: Before the flickers

The History of Pea Eating and Other Divertissements

Between 1914 and 1921 - that is, between the end of his early education at St. Ignatius College and his first job on a motion picture production - Alfred Hitchcock worked for a company called Henley's, in London. These are shadow years, little documented, little understood. Research for a new biography of the film director indicates that this was a busy, productive period, during which time the budding Hitchcock first flowered.

Every step Hitchcock took after leaving St. Ignatius College hinted at uncommon ambition. Everything he did opened the door wider to the beckoning world.

He was only 15 when, beginning with the fall term of 1914, he enrolled in an evening course of study offered by the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation on High Street in Poplar. The courses offered by the new junior institute emphasized marine and mechanical engineering. Hitchcock attended lectures and workshops in physics and chemistry, and was taught lathework, woodworking, soldering, wiring. Students sketched instruments and tools, calculated nautical and electrical measurements. They were expected to learn the principles of magnetism, Ohm's law, logarithms, vector diagrams, the laws of force and motion.

At this institute Hitchcock began the thorough technical training that would prove the solid foundation of his career. He must have been thinking ahead, because only two months later, in November 1914, he applied for an entry position and was hired by W.T. Henley's Telegraph Works, a reputable company whose offices were located in an office block on Blomfield Street on the east side of London, near a stop on the Central Line from Leytonstone. His job, paying fifteen shillings weekly, would be to calculate sizes and voltages of cables.

Founded by electroplating pioneer William Thomas Henley in 1837, Henley's was an early manufacturer of electrical apparatus and insulated conductors, and had grown into a leader in the field of telegraph and electrical cables. The company was particularly known for its sub-marine achievements, which included the manufacturing of both shore ends of the Atlantic Cable and the laying of a Persian Gulf Cable. At one point, Sir Henry M. Stanley (the explorer who found Dr. Livingstone in Africa) served on the board of directors. Henley's had shifted its emphasis from telegraph cables to cables for light and power, and to production of all types of electrical distribution equipment for a global market. Hitchcock started out in the SalesIM Section, where he would spend three years honing his draftsmanship and mechanical know-how - as well as the practice of patient and rigorous planning on paper that would become a professional hallmark.

Henley's was a huge operation with several hundred employees at the Blomfield Street office alone. Not only did Hitchcock's responsibilities augment his growing technical expertise. but the company was- like a film studio - a small world unto itself. There was a crowded social calendar. with company-sponsored recreational and sporting events. club occasions, weekend river trips, picnic parties. and other outings. Hitchcock liked to say he was a shy, solitary young man, but there he is in company snapshots. grinning among friends at social occasions. He also liked to say he was a fat young man, but his weight fluctuated quite a bit: in some photographs he looks sleek and almost dashing. He was well-known and popular at Henley's; there, for the first time, he adopted the persona of "Hitch." as he liked to say wickedly, "without the cock."

England had been plunged into war, entering hostilities in the summer of 1914. even before Hitchcock had started (classes at the School of Engineering and Navigation. Judging from photographs, it probably wasn't weight that excused him from eventual military service, with a C3 classification, but another medical condition - that and the death of his father from chronic emphysema and kidney disease, shortly after Hitchcock was hired at Henleys. Yet, as he was to do later in the context of another war, Hitchcock proved himself patriotic by signing up for a volunteer regiment of the Royal Engineers. With an acquaintance from Henley's he augmented a corps of men receiving theoretical training in the evening while en...

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