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Pamela (The 39 Steps)

Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, with Robert Donat

Pamela is major character in The 39 Steps (1935) and was played by actress Madeleine Carroll.

One of the concerns that Hitchcock and Gaumont-British had about John Buchan's source novel was its lack of female characters and the risk that a film adaptation would be regarded as a "boy's own adventure" with little appeal to the majority female audience. To alleviate that risk, the central character of Pamela was created to provide a romantic interest for Richard Hannay.

The emergence of the screwball comedy genre in 1934 — particularly The Thin Man and Frank Capra's It Happened One Night — provided Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett with the opportunity to bring elements of the new genre into their film: a battle of the sexes with a strong female character who challenges the masculinity of the lead male, fast-pace repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, and a plotline involving courtship and marriage.[1][2]


The character of Pamela was initially a smaller one and the role was offered to Gaumont-British actress Jane Baxter. However, as the screenplay developed, it seems a decision was made to cast a more high profile actress in the role and to build up the character in the film. British actress Madeleine Carroll had stared in her first Hollywood picture during 1934 — The World Moves On, directed by John Ford — and her casting greatly improved the box office potential of the film in America.

Carroll with Hitchcock and his wife Alma

According to Hitchcock, Carroll was cast shortly before filming began and she worked with both the director and with Bennett to build up her role during filming.[3] In an article published the following year, Hitchcock stated that the role of Pamela "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."[4]

Speaking to Charlotte Chandler about Carroll, Hitchcock said:

She would have played the smaller role if I'd asked her, but she understood what a good part it was for her, and I wanted to get more of her real personality on the screen. She was extremely likable. Before The 39 Steps, she'd played rather cold, humorless types, but she was a good comedy actress. She was a wonderful sport about Robert Donat dragging her over the Scottish moors during a rainstorm.[5]

Carroll had become increasingly typecast in her recent costume drama film roles and it appears likely she saw the role of Pamela as a perfect opportunity to take her acting career in a new direction. Although some commentators have claimed that she was treated roughly during filming — particularly the scenes were she is dragged handcuffed to Donat — those who worked on the film have indicated that it was Carroll who set the tone for those scenes and, on at least one occasion, a take was ruined when the handcuffed pair broke up with laughter whist trying to climb over a small fence.[6] As Ivor Montagu later recalled, "Madeleine was a trouper and turned the tables on us by appreciating this treatment and asking for more [...] This quality in her was what enabled her to play perfectly both the spiteful resentment and, credibly, the build-up to final reconciliation with the hero."[7]

original publicity poster

The Gaumont-British publicity material for the film, including an extensive pressbook of pre-prepared articles, was carefully managed to emphasise that cinema-goers would be witnessing a radical departure from Carroll's previous costume drama roles.

The pressbook also appears to be the source of many of the stories that Carroll was mistreated during filming. As scholar Mark Glancy notes in his book about the film, "When taken out of context, this may seem an extremely odd manner of promoting a film [...] Until, that is, one realizes that the pressbook's stories represent an alternative version of events which occur in the film [...] Thus the publicity offers a taste of the film's tone and highlights its screwball elements."[8]

The romance and screwball comedy elements of the film were also highlighted in the various taglines suggested by Gaumont-British:

  • She hated to be mastered... but she learned to like it from the man who put the MAN in roMANce
  • Fated to be Mated with the One Man She Hated
  • The Most Charming Brute Who Ever Scorned a Lady!
  • Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him
  • A girl's eye view of a caveman lover

Quoted in a British newspaper shortly after filming started, Carroll said:[9]

I really decided to do it because of one delightful scene which I could not miss playing.

The part is much lighter than I usually play. In fact you might say that it is a little bit like the one Claudette Colbert played in "It Happened One Night" — though I hate making comparisons.

In her book Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, Sue Harper argues that Carroll, along with fellow actresses Nova Pilbeam and Margaret Lockwood, marked a new phase of British actresses, "equipped with brisk verbal delivery, their gaze direct and unambiguous. Their textual effect is bracing, and they are clearly intended to evoke confidence in a new social order."[10][11]

Other Portrayals

Ida Lupino played the role of Pamela in the 1937 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film.

The other main film and television adaptations of Buchan's novel have all introduced a female character who either provides romantic interest for Hannay or who aids him:

Film Frames

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

Notes & References

  1. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, page 27
  2. Wikipedia: Screwball comedy film
  3. Production on the film began on 11th January 1935, according to The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, page 36. The Daily Mail announced Carroll would star in the film on 26th January.
  4. Film Weekly (1936) - My Screen Memories
  5. It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock - A Personal Biography (2005) by Charlotte Chandler
  6. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, page 38
  7. Sight and Sound (1980) - Working with Hitchcock
  8. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, pages 83-84
  9. Lincolnshire Echo (06/Feb/1935)
  10. "Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know" - by Sue Harper, page 24
  11. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (2003) by Mark Glancy, page 97