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Film Weekly (1939) - What I'd Do to the Stars



What I'd Do to the Stars

An Interview with J. Danvers Williams

Any day now our most celebrated director, Alfred Hitchcock, will be off to Hollywood.

All his life, so far, Hitchcock has remained rigidly faithful to the British film industry. Now he is greatly looking forward to a change of environment.

Two pictures are definitely scheduled for him in Hollywood: Titanic and the Daphne du Maurier subject, Rebecca. He tells me that if the opportunities arise he will remain there and make several more pictures.

"Working under new conditions with an entirely fresh crowd of people will be like a tonic," Hitchcock told me. "I am itching to get my hands on some of those American stars."

"Why so?" I inquired.

"Some of them are so efficient," Hitchcock explained, "that it'll be a pleasure to direct them; and there are others I should very much like to debunk. I should like to humanize Luise Rainer and show Dietrich sucking a toffee-apple. I should like to cast Clark Gable in a much more penetrating characterization than he has yet played, and I should like to put Myrna Loy into the type of part that Edna Best had in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

"What a boon William Powell would be, in a fast-moving comedy thriller! He is the only actor I know who can really put across a far-fetched piece of slapstick with absolute conviction.

"Usually when I prepare a script, I tend to hold myself back a bit because I have the constant fear that my actors will not be able to go as far as my own imagination.

"If I were going to direct Powell I should let myself go completely, both in the melodramatic and the comedy sequences, convinced that no matter how fanciful it became he would be able to bring it to life."

"Of course," Hitch continued, "I should like to direct Gary Cooper. He, too, is an actor well suited to the type of film I like to make.

"There are people who say that cooper cannot act at all and that he owes his appeal to a long line of good directors. This is sheer nonsense.

"Cooper has that rare faculty of being able to rivet the attention of an audience while he does nothing. In this respect he is very much like the late Gerald du Maurier, who could walk on a stage, flick a speck of dust off his shoulder, study his fingernails for a whole five minutes, and do it all so dramatically and with such accurate timing that he held an audience spellbound."

Cooper and Colman

"Gary can do exactly the same thing on the screen. I have seen him perform a long sequence without once changing the expression on his face, yet screwing the audience up to a tremendous pitch of expectancy.

"I would, if I had him to direct, cast him in a film as an honest and ingenuous Middle-Wester who achieves fame in Hollywood.

"I would have him mixed up in a big studio swindle in which thugs and professional strikers are brought in by one big producer to sabotage the property of another — or something on those lines. Another actor for whom I have the utmost respect is Ronald Colman. His technique is not unlike Cooper's, but where Cooper is at his best in a fairly light part, Colman has, in my opinion, a real flair for a much more poignant theme.

"Colman can even make a role like François Villon come to life. But I, personally, should never cast him in a part of this sort. I should find him a subject like Arrowsmith, but my picture would have more humour than that and be considerably less static."

Uninhibited Lombard

"There are quite a number of feminine stars I should like to direct," Hitchcock continued. "Carole Lombard, for instance."

This was interesting. In this country Hitch has developed a reputation as a misogynist. Critics have often said that he treats his feminine characters unsympathetically.

"It is true," Hitch admitted, "that in certain of my British films I have concentrated largely on the development of the male characters at the expense of the female ones. But this is because I have always found it extremely difficult to get British actresses to respond naturally to a human situation.

"Plunge an English actress into a bath of cold water and she still comes to the top trying to look aloof and dignified.

"Her whole concern is not how best to express her emotions but how best to bottle them up. I do not imagine that American stars suffer from this inhibition to anything like the same extent. No girl could arrive at the pitch of efficiency achieved by Carole Lombard if her one consideration were how best to appear 'society.'

"I should like to cast Lombard not in the type of superficial comedy which she so often plays but in a much more meaty comedy-drama, giving her plenty of scope for characterization. I believe that, imaginatively treated, Lombard is capable of giving a performance equal to that of any of the best male actors, like Muni and Leslie Howard."

Vulgarizing Claudette

"Claudette Colbert is another actress I should like to have in a picture. I have often visualized her in the role of a beautiful mannequin who, having risen from the gutter, has to keep up a good appearance but who is, in her soul, lazy, good-natured, irresponsible, and slightly sluttish. This part would be rather on the lines of the one played by Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight, though not quite so blatantly vulgar.

"Or I might even give her a blonde wig and cast her as the generous, promiscuous Rosie in Somerset Maugham's 'Cakes and Ale.' Claudette would be grand in such a part.

"Then, of course, there is Garbo. I expect that every director would like to have her in a picture, if only for the experience.

"Garbo, it is said, works by intuition. I am fully prepared to believe this, for at times she is magnificent. But I have also seen her make mistakes that Lombard could never have made.

"Intuitive actors, like Garbo, Laughton, and Jannings, need very special treatment. They frequently have off-days when nothing will go right, but when they are really on form they can achieve things that no mere technician could ever achieve.

"I would not undertake to direct Garbo to any given schedule. I know that to try and force her into a particular mood when she didn't feel like it would be rather like trying to force a woman to fall in love with you.

"For Garbo I shouldn't bother to construct my usual involved plot. I should choose some very simple story about life and love and should 'direct' the picture as little as possible, using my camera merely as a vehicle for her characterization. The greater the artist, the less directorial ingenuity is necessary.

"Muni I should love to have in a film, but on no account should it be a biography.

"It seems a pity to me that when a star develops a great reputation as a character actor the tendency should be to make him portray characters of which he has only a second-hand knowledge.

"I should cast Muni in a modern American subject, more in keeping with Scarface and Hi, Nellie. Probably I should cast him as a Jew in some subject dealing with the problems of his race.

"If I had Hepburn to direct I should put her in a part reminiscent of the one she played in Morning Glory. I do not mean by this that I should try and repeat this film, but I should try and develop in Hepburn the characteristics which she displayed in this picture.

"The strident, harsh-voiced girl of Morning Glory was the real Hepburn. How splendid she would be in a Eugene O'Neill role — as Lavinia, say, in Mourning Becomes Electra; passionate, inhibited, violent."

Getting Out of Grooves

"I do not know whether it would be feasible to put this play on the screen as it stands. All I mean is that I would cast Hepburn in some such roles, though my picture would necessarily be lightened with more movement and humour than one finds in an O'Neill play.

"There is scarcely a star in Hollywood whose appeal I would not try to alter or develop, according to the part they were playing.

"One of Hollywood's greatest failings is the way it allows its stars to get into a groove. When an actor achieves fame in some particular type of part the tendency is to grind out all his future roles in the same pattern.

"When Robert Young came to England to work for me in Secret Agent he had never appeared in a film as anything more than himself. In this picture I gave him a chance to give a genuine characterization, with the result that, in the final sequences of the picture, he developed a power and a conviction that would have done credit to Spencer Tracy.

"That is what I would like to do with all the stars who come under my control in Hollywood."