Film Weekly (1936) - My Screen Memories
- article: My Screen Memories
- author(s): Alfred Hitchcock
- journal: Film Weekly (May/1936)
- keywords: Alma Reville, Anny Ondra, Benita Hume, Blackmail (1929), British International Pictures, Carl Brisson, Carmelita Geraghty, Charles Bennett, Donald Calthrop, Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), Edmund Gwenn, Edna Best, Edward Chapman, Edwin Greenwood, Famous Players-Lasky, Florence Kahn, Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited, Gordon Harker, Herbert Marshall, Ian Hunter, Isabel Jeans, Islington Studios, London, Jameson Thomas, Joan Barry, John Buchan, John Gielgud, John Laurie, John Longden, Juno and the Paycock (1930), Leslie Banks, Lillian Hall-Davis, Madeleine Carroll, Michael Balcon, Michel Saint-Denis, Miles Mander, Murder! (1930), Nova Pilbeam, Peggy Ashcroft, Percy Marmont, Peter Lorre, Phyllis Konstam, Phyllis Monkman, Robert Donat, Robert Young, Sabotage (1936), Sara Allgood, Secret Agent (1936), Seymour Hicks, Sylvia Sidney, The 39 Steps (1935), The Farmer's Wife (1928), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Ring (1927), The Skin Game (1931), Virginia Valli, W. Somerset Maugham, Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
- Sloan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (1995) — page 353, #110
My Screen Memories
I Begin with a Nightmare
Looking back is sometimes amusing — and sometimes humiliating. It is not a thing I care to do as a rule.
I prefer to look forward. I am usually more interested in the immediate future than in the past. But there is, I suppose, a certain advantage in contemplating things that have gone by, for a while, in preference to things to come. It helps one to realize one's mistakes — gives one a sense of proportion.
Having made up my mind to take the plunge, I'll do the job properly by going right back to the very beginning of my association with films.
My first film work was done — after brief experience as a draughtsman in an engineer's office, and as a clerk with an insurance company — when I became a title-writer for the old Famous Players Company at Islington.
I was still at Islington when Michael Balcon, to whom I owe more than I can say, formed the Gainsborough Company and took over the studios. I gained a pretty comprehensive knowledge of filmmaking in all its phases in various jobs there. I was alternately writer, art director, assistant director, production manager, and sometimes all at the same time.
Birth of an Idea
I was already toying with the idea of directing a film myself. And, in this connection, I'll let you into a secret. I directed one picture, in my early days, of which you have almost certainly never heard. It was not made for any company. Some relatives, carried away by my enthusiasm, put up the money for me to make a film on my own. Out of kindness of heart to the players who appeared in it I won't mention their names. I am afraid the picture never reached the screen.
That was a somewhat chastening experience. But my first real directing effort had much worse terrors in store for me. It gave me some of the nastiest shocks in my whole life. Although it was made over ten years ago, the details of the trials and tribulations I went through are still vivid in my mind. I can smile about them today, but at the time they were ghastly.
The film was The Pleasure Garden, and it was made in conjunction with a German company. Michael Balcon, who had conceived the idea of "importing" American stars long before anybody else, had engaged Virginia Valli for the leading role. She was at the height of her career then — glamorous, famous, and very popular. That she was coming to Europe to make a picture at all was something of an event.
But the actual production of the film bristled with difficulties and mishaps from beginning to end, partly because I had to direct it abroad, and in German. Although the company's studios were in Munich most of the scenes were shot around Lake Como.
Trouble with the Customs
I set off from Munich to Genoa while Alma Reville — now my wife; at that time my assistant director — went over to Cherbourg to meet Virginia Valli on the liner. She was to bring her on to Lake Como, where I would meet them. Things went wrong even before my journey had started. We went to Munich station by taxi. I was accompanied by Miles Mander, the leading man, and a couple of cameramen.
We got to the station with five minutes to spare before the train was due out; and just as we were boarding it Miles realized that he had left his makeup box in the taxi. We hurriedly made plans for him to go and get it while the rest of us went on. He would have to catch the next train and meet us at Genoa. Then we had a bit of luck. The train was half an hour late in going out and Miles recovered the makeup box in time to catch it after all.
The next spot of trouble came when we reached the Brenner Pass and had to get through the Customs into Italy. We airily said: "Nothing to declare," without realizing that we had. A keen-eyed official came across the film negative and confiscated the lot. It represented the whole of our stock. Without it we were as helpless as a cinema without a screen.
We had to negotiate for the return of the stock — on the payment of a suitable fine — and went on to Genoa, praying that it would be returned all right. But time went by and still it was not delivered. Eventually, we had to send into Milan for a fresh, and expensive, supply. Our man got back with it just as the confiscated stock turned up.
The next day we went down to the harbour to shoot scenes. It was while I was down there that I received the worst blow to date. I discovered that the whole of the money to cover our expenses on location, 10,000 lire, had been stolen. Apart from the little I had of my own I was penniless. I frantically borrowed money all around, but it was just sufficient to meet current expenses and to take us, after a delay, to Alassio.
Here I had to film crowd scenes with the local people. There were 5,000 of them, and every one of them treated it as a huge joke. They were supposed to be watching Miles Mander dragging a dead body from the sea, but, from the way they carried on one would have imagined they were watching a pierrot show. The best "take" of all was utterly ruined at the critical moment by an Italian woman walking right in front of the camera. I would have liked to tell her what I thought of her — but I couldn't speak Italian. We got those scenes finished at last.
I wired to London for £50 of my own money. Then we went back to the most luxurious and expensive hotel on Lake Como with hardly enough in our pockets to buy a drink.
Meanwhile, Miss Reville was meeting Virginia Valli on the ship at Cherbourg. Tom Mix had paid a visit to Europe just previously and there had been an enormous turnout to greet him. Virginia Valli, not unnaturally, expected a similar welcome. Instead, there was only my wife. And I might mention that she is only 4 feet 11 inches in height, and slim with it.
If Virginia Valli was surprised, so was Miss Reville. She had expected Miss Valli alone; but she had with her Carmelita Geraghty, one of Hollywood's current "baby" stars. The two were travelling together and intended to stick together.
By the time my wife had bought all the necessary film frocks for Miss Valli and had paid expenses for the two actresses she had spent all her money. When they arrived at Lake Como she had no more than I had.
It rained the first day. Then, when we started shooting Virginia Valli's scenes, I was in a cold sweat. I wanted to disguise the fact that this was my first directorial effort. I dreaded to think what she, an established Hollywood star, would say if she discovered that she had been brought all the way over to Europe to be directed by a beginner.
I was terrified at giving her instructions. I've no idea how many times I asked my future wife if I was doing the right thing. She, sweet soul, gave me courage by swearing I was doing marvellously. And Virginia Valli played her scenes sublimely unconscious of the emotional drama that was being enacted on the other side of the camera.
My £50 arrived from London all right, but it was only a drop in the ocean compared with the amount I needed. I wired to Munich for some more — but the only money they would send was sufficient merely to help me along with our current expenses.
The time drew near for the hotel bill to be paid, and most of my money had gone on production. The film went smoothly enough and we got everything we wanted "in the can." But, overshadowing it all, in my mind, was the thought of that impending hotel bill.
The critical day arrived. In desperation I hit upon the idea of using Carmelita Geraghty as a means to extort some money from Virginia Valli. The ethics of a director playing such a trick on a star didn't trouble me. But, like a man, I left Miss Reville to do all the dirty work. She went to Valli and explained that, owing to the unexpected presence of her friend, we had insufficient expenses money to meet our obligations. Could she possibly advance us some cash? I was not present at the interview. Women can do these things more discreetly than men. At any rate, Miss Reville came back to me in triumph bearing a couple of hundred dollars of Virginia Valli's money.
By the time I had paid the bill I had got the equivalent of ten English pounds left. I reckoned it all out carefully. There was just enough to pay for Valli to have a cabin on the train back to Munich — the rest of us would have to sleep in the ordinary carriages.
My luck was still out. The next blow came when I found that Virginia Valli's luggage consisted of a large number of very big trunks which cost me an extra £6 baggage fare. I still had enough to pay for food for the stars; the rest of us would have to live on a few sandwiches. This time, however, fortune smiled on us. When I sent along a message to Valli's compartment to ask what she wanted to eat, I received the reply: "Miss Valli doesn't like food on foreign trains. She has brought sandwiches from the hotel with her."
Assets Fifty Shillings
Then the good luck disappeared. The train was late. It got into Zurich station half an hour after the Munich connection had left. There was no other train until the morning. It meant stopping at a hotel for the night. We unloaded the various trunks and equipment. I gave a helping hand. It was an expensive one. I succeeded in catching one of the windows of the train with the corner of a trunk. The plate glass smashed into several hundred pieces. That little accident cost me thirty shillings.
I had about £2.10s. left. I knew very well that it wasn't anything like enough to pay for a hotel of the type a film star would expect to stop at. Once again I had to use bluff. I asserted that it was necessary to stop at a hotel right next to the station. Thus a humble little commercial hotel in Zurich had the unexpected and unsuspected honour of putting up a famous Hollywood film star for one night.
Luckily for me Virginia Valli had nothing but rolls and coffee for breakfast next morning. I paid the bill and looked at the change. There was just enough to buy Valli and her companion a meal on the train.
We boarded the train for Munich. When I sent along a message about a meal I received a similar reply to the one I had had on the previous day: Miss Valli still didn't like the idea of eating on a foreign train. So the rest of us ate! I arrived in Munich with exactly one pfennig left — the smallest German coin minted, worth considerably less than a farthing.
Thus ended my first directing venture — and adventure. It sounds now more like a far-fetched film scenario, but I can assure you that every incident actually happened. As far as I am aware, Virginia Valli doesn't know to this day of the comedy-drama that was played behind the production of Pleasure Garden.
Fortunately, the picture turned out quite well. My directing career, though it began in such stormy waters, sailed into smoother seas on the success of that launching.
In the years that followed I was associated with a number of interesting films, and with many famous and once-famous stars. I have been credited with "discovering" several well-known people for films.
I have certainly been fairly lucky in my choice of newcomers, but I have never gone out talent hunting with the idea of finding new film faces. All I have done has been to search for suitable players for my own pictures.
For instance, I had a scene in Easy Virtue in which I wanted a young man to propose to a girl (Isabel Jeans) and be told her answer over the telephone. My idea was to let the telephone operator play the entire scene with her face, so that the audience could tell from watching her that she was overhearing the young man pleading; the girl rejecting him; the young man pleading again; and the girl finally accepting him.
It wasn't an easy scene. I tried one girl and she was no good. So I thought of Benita Hume, whom I had noticed in a Seymour Hicks play on the stage, and asked her to take a test for the part. She played the scene perfectly. Although she was on the screen for only a minute or two she won a round of applause at the trade show, and she received a good many Press comments. I haven't directed her since, and often wonder if she remembers that picture.
Finding Gordon Harker
Most of my other "discoveries" resulted in much the same way, from my seeing the players on the stage and realizing how suitable they would be for my current picture. When I was making Downhill I started Ian Hunter on his film career simply because I saw him in a Basil Dean play at the St. Martin's theatre when I was casting this film, and he happened to suit one of the roles.
I found Gordon Harker on the stage, too. I was looking for a Cockney "second" for Carl Brisson in The Ring, and I happened one night to drop into Wyndham's Theatre to see Edgar Wallace's The Ringer. Harker was playing a Cockney part, and I saw in him the very man I needed.
Incidentally, it has always seemed to me to be rather a waste of Harker's talents that he should almost invariably be cast as a Cockney. He is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you'll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand in The Farmer's Wife. He made a very good job of it. This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it.
The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas. He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England's most popular players. He is in Hollywood today, playing supporting roles. He left England to take his wife to California. She was very ill. The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure. So Jimmy Thomas packed up everything in this country and moved to Hollywood — in vain. His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.
Thomas's leading lady in The Farmer's Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis. She was an amazing girl. On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness. She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn't sure she could do it well enough. Actually, she could have played it with ease.
Yet, in private life she was an altogether different person. She possessed a terrific personality, and amazing vivacity. It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.
The Story Behind Blackmail
Few people know that Blackmail, the first all-talking feature film to be made in this country, was originally produced as a silent picture.
Cinemas that were not equipped for talkies booked the silent version, which is still being shown on 16mm films for amateurs.
The picture went into production at that critical time when no one knew quite what was happening. Studios and cinemas alike were chary of risking fortunes on the installation of equipment for something which might be nothing more than a ten days' wonder.
In the end it was decided that Blackmail should be made as a silent picture. This may seem strange to you in view of the fact that when the film was released as a talkie it was described as being a long way in advance, technically, of any other talking picture.
It was a lucky film for me. It established my reputation as a talkie-maker right at the beginning of the new era. And the explanation of its technical construction is really quite simple.
I was bitterly disappointed when I was told it was to be a silent picture. I was convinced that talkies were no mere flash in the pan, and that the day of silent films had passed. I felt certain in my own mind that, when the picture was finished, I should be asked to add dialogue to it, or to remake it entirely as a full-length talkie.
"Talkie" without Sound
Therefore, when producing the film in silent form, I was imagining all the time that it was a talkie. I was using talkie technique, but without sound.
As I had anticipated, when the film was finished it was decided to add dialogue to it. Originally the idea was to "dub" only a few reels.
I fought against the part-talkie idea. In the end I had my own way. I was allowed to remake practically the whole of the picture in talkie form. There were certain difficulties. I had the same cast, except for Phyllis Konstam, who had gone off to fulfil a stage engagement. Phyllis Monkman replaced her.
But Anny Ondra, who was still the feminine star, presented a pretty problem. She could scarcely speak English. I got over the difficulty by calling in Joan Barry to speak the lines for her. Joan stood at the side of the set and read the dialogue while Miss Ondra mouthed the words.
Making a talkie of a film I had only just completed as a "silent" with talkie technique gave me a tremendous advantage over most other directors. For one thing, I was able to improve on my original ideas; and for another, I was not handicapped by having a stagy subject to handle.
Apart from the technical aspect of the picture I found it particularly interesting to make because of the players in it. It introduced two or three new people.
Donald Calthrop, for instance, had his first big part, after appearing in several small roles.
He was superb on the set. He has more to give as a motion picture actor than most people I have ever handled. He has such a wide range of expression — he could be compared with a Wurlitzer organ, which can give you everything from tremendous volume to the softest notes.
Blackmail also marked Sara Allgood's talkie début, and I remember a terrible moment in connection with her.
As it was her first film we got to discussing the technique of the screen, and I was pointing out how stage actors rarely used their expressions and only their voices — they never had to project their expressions. Filmmaking was exactly the opposite; everything depended on pantomime.
"How does one acquire the technique of pantomime?" Sara asked me.
I told her that it was mainly instinct, though there were artificial ways of teaching it. In the early days of films they would make a star look agonized by telling her bad news or releasing some rats at her feet.
"How would you look, for example," I asked, "if I suddenly told you your mother was dead?"
To my surprise, Sara's face suddenly went into tragic contortions, and she turned her head away. Then she explained. I had hit upon the unhappiest example I could possibly have chosen. Her mother had only just died.
After Blackmail came another picture that turned out well for me — Murder! This was Herbert Marshall's first talkie, and the part he played was ideal for him. He immediately proved himself a natural talkie actor. Most people remember the picture by one particular scene — the one in which Marshall spoke his own thoughts without opening his mouth (the same idea was used more extensively some time later in Strange Interlude).
It was considered a somewhat startling talkie innovation. Actually, the idea was one of the oldest in the acting world, adapted to the talkie medium.
When an actor wanted to express certain thoughts he used to speak them himself. The soliloquy was one of the prominent methods of stage technique handed down from Shakespeare. Then it went out of fashion. Nowadays, a second character is brought on so that the actor can speak the lines to him.
I have always hated the idea of bringing in an unnecessary person, and this was why I set out to find some way of avoiding it when I had to direct that scene in Murder! I merely went back to the oldest form of all and introduced the soliloquy, brought up to date by making it unnecessary for Marshall to open his mouth.
My Strangest Year
Following Murder!, I brought the Irish players to the screen in Juno and the Paycock.
In don't think many people realized how daring were two of the casting selections. Among a whole company of genuine Irish people I had a Scotsman and an Englishman appearing in Irish roles — and they got away with it.
The Scotsman was John Laurie — whose performance as the crofter in The 39 Steps will probably be quite fresh in your mind (incidentally, his grandfather was a crofter).
The Englishman in Juno and the Paycock was Edward Chapman, who had been brought along to me and suggested for the part by John Longden. I was unable to get Arthur Sinclair, the original Irish star of the play, for the picture, as he was on tour. The film turned out to be a triumph for Chapman.
I remained with British International on contract for some time after this. The Skin Game was one of the most successful of the pictures I made during this time. It gave both Edmund Gwenn and Phyllis Konstam very good parts. I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstam's woebegone expression when I told her that we should have to have a tenth "take" on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.
Over to Korda
From B.I.P. I went over to Alexander Korda on contract, and thus began the strangest year in my filmmaking career. I was with Korda for twelve months, and during that time I didn't make a single picture. It was not my fault; nor could Korda exactly be blamed. It was just one of those things.
There were plenty of plans, but somehow they simply didn't materialize.
You may recollect that it was announced that I was going to make a picture called Wings Over the Jungle. Numerous people have asked me what became of it, without realizing that it actually reached the screen in an entirely different form, though I had nothing to do with it.
What happened was that Korda had a German film of which he intended to make an English version. The story as it stood was not going to be used; only the general idea.
I spent quite a time hunting for a new story, and eventually got to work on the rough script of one I came across.
That was as far as I went. The story I was adapting was dropped and some more stories were purchased. By this time my contract had expired.
When the film was finally made it was Sanders of the River. I want to make it clear, however, that I was not associated in any way with the actual picture, but only some of the preparatory work that led to the making of it.
That gives you a pretty good idea of the queer ways in which filmland sometimes works.
Talking of preparing stories, this seems to be an opportune time for me to reply to a question that is often put to me: "Why," people want to know, "do you take books and then rewrite them almost completely — as you did with The 39 Steps, for example?"
Here we come to a subject about which I feel very deeply. I believe that I owe much of the success I have been lucky enough to achieve to my "ruthlessness" in adapting stories for the screen.
A book may have the germ of a screen idea in it. This germ may be in the plot; it may be in the characters; it may be in the background; or it may be in certain of the situations. But that does not mean that the book itself would make a good film.
I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it just because one angle of it is really worth screening. There can be no doubt that The 39 Steps is a rattling good book, but I couldn't see it as good film material.
I found that by taking certain of the characters, part of the plot, and the excellent locales, I had the background for a very good screen story. Therefore I ignored the book as it stood, and developed the story with the screen in mind.
This I always do, and always have done. I never soak myself in a book before starting to adapt it. In fact, before now, I have written a scenario without even completely reading the original book, knowing only the bare plot, the characters, and rough outline. It has been interesting to discover afterwards just where the author and I have hit upon the same developments.
A good original screen plot is very, very hard to find. But if you can see an idea in a published book, why shouldn't it be developed? It is far fairer to acknowledge the source and pay the original author for his idea than to develop a new story from his plot without giving him any credit (though I have known this to happen in filmland).
Anyway, after my unproductive year with Alexander Korda, I signed a contract with Gaumont-British, thus renewing my association with Michael Balcon.
Before I actually took up this contract in earnest I made a picture which was produced for G.B. release, and with G.B. collaboration, by Tom Arnold. This was a talkie version of the popular stage musical Waltzes from Vienna, and I made no attempt to get away from the successful stage play as it stood. After all, a musical is not like an ordinary film story.
Back to form
Then I managed to get back into my stride again with a story after my own heart, and with a free hand. The picture was The Man Who Knew Too Much. I had been wanting to make this for some time — ever since I was with B.I.P., in fact. Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood, and I had worked up the story together, but for a couple of years nothing had been done about it. Michael Balcon saw the possibilities in it and decided to let me make it.
What can I say of Leslie Banks? Here you have a very great personality; a very accomplished actor. Quiet, cultured, and charming, he plays his scenes with ease and without worry to the director.
Nova Pilbeam impressed me for different reasons. Her first film, Little Friend, had made her something of a sensation; but this hadn't gone to her head. Her part in The Man Who Knew Too Much was comparatively small, but she didn't mind.
What struck me most about her was her common sense. There was no question of directing a child. Even at that time she had the intelligence of a fully grown woman. She had plenty of confidence and ideas of her own.
Making The 39 Steps
Peter Lorre's first English film was The Man Who Knew Too Much, and I have recently had the pleasure of directing him again in Secret Agent. He is a remarkable personality.
The Peter Lorre of the screen and the Peter Lorre of private life are two entirely different people. In real life he is a genial little man with a great sense of humour and enjoyment of fun; fond of leg-pulling; and conspicuous in his long overcoat which reaches his feet and has won for him the nickname of "The Walking Overcoat."
His "gag" of sending a crate of canaries along to my flat remains one of the classic leg-pulls of Britain's filmland.
On the screen, of course, he has been viewed so far as a menacing villain with drooping eyelids. But the character he plays in Secret Agent, though purely fictional in its unpleasant aspects, has in it something of Lorre's humorous personality as his friends know it.
You see him in this picture as a little flashing-eyed Mexican type, still a ruthless killer, but for most of the time more or less a clown.
Peter is a great individualist. There is no question that he represents the successful actor purely on account of his utter devotion to whatever he is doing for the screen. He lives for his work, and this has put him where he is.
He could hardly speak English when he was making The Man Who Knew Too Much. He was taking lessons all the time, and he was coached regularly every night in order that he could speak his lines clearly the next day.
He had a pretty villainous makeup in that picture, as you may remember. He had a terrible scar right across his temple, put there by the makeup department — a process by which fish skin is put over the real skin, which is then drawn up round the edges of the fish skin by means of collodion.
Married in Makeup
Peter got married, during the production, to Cecelie Lvovsky. It's always a dangerous thing to try to fix up a wedding while a picture is still being made, as he learned to his cost.
The wedding was timed for noon one Friday morning at the Caxton Hall Registrar's Office.
Without being deliberately perverse, I found I had to keep him at work nearly all that day. We hurried through some scenes in the morning — and he had to dash off in full-make to his wedding. I believe the scar actually remained on his forehead throughout the ceremony. He was back again on the set within an hour of becoming a husband.
Having completed The Man Who Knew Too Much, I started to prepare The 39 Steps.
I have already told you how I wanted to make The Man Who Knew Too Much more than two years before it actually went into production.
The making of The 39 Steps was an even more long-delayed ambition come true. I had been wanting to turn John Buchan's novel into a film for over fifteen years.
I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career.
I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later.
I hadn't read the book again in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm — the book was full of action — I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.
So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen — as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stonebreakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen.
Dressed up in Buchan's powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn't if you saw it in a picture.
The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.
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.
At Short Notice
There has been a good deal of controversy over my handling of his leading lady in The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll. As a matter of fact, Miss Carroll was not cast for this picture until production had actually started. Jane Baxter was originally to have played the part. But Jane had given a verbal promise to appear in Drake. Production dates clashed, and she kept her promise.
Madeleine Carroll was therefore asked to come into The 39 Steps at short notice — and in a part that was by no means the starring role — particularly at the beginning of the production. It was, however, "built up" on the set, and it turned out to be considerably more important at the end than we had originally intended. For this, much of the credit must go to Madeleine Carroll herself for the way in which she played up to the part.
"Let's Be Natural"
She had the good sense to realize that it doesn't take a long role to make a successful screen appearance. The average actor or actress is inclined to value the quality of a part by its length. This is quite wrong.
Madeleine Carroll's previous films had shown her in cold, unfeeling, humourless roles. So I said to her: "Why not put yourself on the screen and cash in on your own personality? It's a bright and likeable one. At the moment you're suffering, like a lot of English actresses, from self-consciousness in front of the camera. Let's get rid of it and be natural."
On the set she entered into the spirit of the whole thing with terrific zest. I was determined not to "let up" at all. Dignity or self-consciousness is impossible when you're being dragged along the ground, which I made Donat do to her.
It was a challenge. She had to answer it. It completely killed any self-consciousness. Madeleine, with her natural sense of humour, appreciated the position. I remember, though, that she had a friend watching on the set one day, who came up to me and reproached me for my rough handling of her!
It was purely a coincidence that three of my films in succession — The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and Secret Agent — should all have a background of spying, though not such a coincidence that they should all be "comedy-thrillers."
When making a picture, my ambition is to present a story that never stands still.
Therefore, I always look for a subject that has plenty of action. I introduce the comedy myself.
You will find very little humour in the original stories of The 39 Steps and Secret Agent (which is based on Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden" tales).
I am not setting out to be an expert on screen spies. Those three stories all contained the elements of good motion picture action. My next picture, which I am making with Sylvia Sidney (at present called Sabotage, though this title is to be changed), is a straightforward criminal thriller, without a spy in it, in spite of the coincidence that it is adapted from Conrad's novel, The Secret Agent.
Three Stories in One
But to return to the film Secret Agent. This consisted of two of the Ashenden stories by Maugham — "The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican" — and also a play about Ashenden which was written by Campbell Dixon.
The story of "The Traitor" told how Ashenden caused the renegade Englishman Caypor to return to England and thus be arrested as a spy.
"The Hairless Mexican" told how Ashenden was sent out with the Hairless Mexican to get a Greek spy and kill him — and they ultimately got the wrong man.
We switched the two stories round completely; made Caypor the innocent victim; turned the Greek into an American; introduced a train smash for dramatic purposes; and obtained the love interest from the play.
My main difficulty all the time was this fact, that I was handling two separate stories at the same time and weaving them into one.
Introducing the American at the beginning presented something of a problem, and a hint at the eternal triangle was the solution.
Good for Gielgud!
John Gielgud's performance in the picture is remarkable, especially when you consider that, throughout the whole production, he was rushing away every evening to play in Romeo and Juliet — and declaiming Shakespeare on the stage is in direct contrast to playing such a matter-of-fact, natural part as that of Ashenden in Secret Agent. Gielgud switched from the one to the other with complete conviction.
Comparatively strange to the screen, he was rather on the nervous side at first, but he gained confidence every day.
I found a great deal of interest, too, in directing Robert Young. He is typical of the polished Hollywood actor. He is easy to handle because of his long training in films. He is completely at ease on the set, and he always knows his lines to the dot. His is a faultless technique.
But he is adaptable as well. There is a little scene in which he and Madeleine Carroll are sitting in an open carriage bandying words with a coachman. The whole of that scene was made up on the studio floor — and Robert Young proved himself ready with his wit and ability to handle a situation on the spur of the moment.
It was rather a dramatic moment when he met Percy Marmont for the first time. Here were two leading representatives of the old Hollywood school and the new. Bob Young, as a schoolboy, had been a Percy Marmont "fan."
Marmont, of course, plays the relatively small part of Caypor in Secret Agent. I can't understand why the studios don't use him more, although I am aware that he has every right, if he wishes, to rest on his laurels.
Cinematically, he has most players skinned. His personality still stands out the moment he steps into a scene. He has that difficult-to-achieve possession — a real screen presence.
Several people have commented on the appearance of Florence Kahn as Marmont's wife in the film. This is the first screen effort of a very talented actress. Miss Kahn is the wife of Max Beerbohm, and I selected her for this part when I saw her playing in Peer Gynt at the Old Vic.
Not only was this her first picture, but it was her first visit to a studio — and she had never before seen a film in her life! It was all very much of a novelty to her. She put herself entirely in my hands. I sighed a little when I compared her willingness with the stubbornness of some players.
I mentioned just now that scene with Robert Young, Madeleine Carroll, and a coachman.
The coachman was that very distinguished French actor, Michel Saint-Denis. Important though I like even my small-part players to be, I should never have dreamt of engaging him for such a brief part.
What happened was that he was on the set one day, visiting John Gielgud. When I was chatting to him I suddenly had the idea that he could make that coachman scene very amusing. I asked him if he would care to try it, and the idea appealed to him. His handling of the part was quite spontaneous and delightfully done.
I think I can claim, therefore, that in nearly all my pictures there has been as much interest for the discerning filmgoer in the small-part playing as in the star roles.
I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft's appearance as the crofter's wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud's stage Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.
To conclude this series of reminiscences, let me bring them right up to date and say a few words about the film I am just starting to direct.
I must confess that at the time of writing I have not had very much opportunity of speaking to my star, Sylvia Sidney. I had a short conversation with her before she arrived. I telephoned her while she was in mid-Atlantic, and she was so overcome with surprise that she could hardly talk.
A Great "Team"
Meeting her, I found her to be exactly as I had expected and as I had hoped, when I asked for her to be in the picture ... a quiet, extremely natural young person. I think we are going to get on well together. And I believe that Miss Sidney and Robert Donat — whom I am delighted to be directing for the second time — are going to make a "team" as interesting as any of the Hollywood-made star combinations.
To me, as I have said before, my most interesting picture is always my next one. I have enjoyed delving into the past in these reminiscences. But the future is much more fascinating.