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Spellbound by Beauty

Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

Spellbound by Beauty by Donald Spoto
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“The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

It is remarkable how infrequently, over a period of more than fifty years, Alfred Hitchcock spoke about the beautiful, legendary and talented actresses he directed. And when he did, his remarks were mostly indifferent and often hostile. But his leading ladies greatly enriched his films, even as many of them achieved international stardom precisely because of their work for Hitchcock—among the dozens of women were Madeleine Carroll, Joan Fontaine, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. Yet he maintained a stony, insistent silence about the quality of their performances and their contributions to his art.

Spellbound by Beauty—the final volume in master biographer Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock trilogy that began with The Art of Alfred Hitchcock and continued with The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock—is the fascinating, complex and finally tragic story of the great moviemaker and his female stars, the unusual ideas of sex and romance that inform his films and the Hollywood dreams that often became nightmares.

Rich with fresh revelations based on previously undisclosed tapes, new interviews, private correspondence and personal papers made available only to the author, this thoughtful, compassionate yet explosive portrait details Hitchcock’s outbursts of cruelty, the shocking humor and the odd amalgam of adoration and contempt that time and again characterized Hitchcock’s obsessive relationships with women—and that also, paradoxically, fed his genius.

He insisted, for example, that Madeleine Carroll submit herself to painful physical demands during the making of The 39 Steps. He harbored a poignantly unrequited love for Ingrid Bergman. He meticulously and deliberately constructed Grace Kelly’s image. Finally, he stalked, harassed and abused Tippi Hedren. His treatment of his daughter, Pat, was certainly unusual, while his strange marriage to his sometime collaborator Alma Reville was a union that (according to Hitchcock himself) was forever chaste after one incident.

Spellbound by Beauty offers important insights into the life of a brilliant, powerful, eccentric and tortured artist, and it corrects a major gap in movie history by paying tribute at last to those extraordinarily talented actresses who gave so much to his films.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: Spellbound by Beauty
Author: Donald Spoto
Chapter One  
Love in Handcuffs (1920-1926)  

For five years beginning in 1920, when he was twenty-one, Alfred Hitchcock worked in London for Famous Players-Lasky, the British production branch of Hollywood's Paramount Pictures. Most of the senior technical staff were Americans, imported to work on the two small stages, once a power station in the borough of Islington.  

Hitchcock's first job, illustrating the title cards of silent movies, gave him access to various jobs on an ad hoc basis: designer for this picture, or art director, co-writer or production manager for that one. Unlike the job specialization in the American movie industry, laborers hired by English studios were encouraged to perform multiple tasks, working wher-ever their talents could be exploited-hence the multitalented young Hitchcock became a jack-of-all-work on at least eighteen British silent movies. "All my early training was by Americans," he said years later, "and it was far superior to the British."  

In 1923, he was still putting in long hours and learning new, up-to-date production methods. That year, producer Michael Balcon took over the studio when Paramount withdrew; Balcon's goal was to sponsor entertainment for an international (especially an American) audience. Accordingly, Balcon had brought over Hollywood's Betty Compson to star in a picture called Woman to Woman, on which Hitchcock worked, as he said, as "general factotum. I wrote the script. I designed the sets, and I managed the production. It was the first film that I had really got my hands onto."

It was also the first of five films on which he worked for the studio's leading director, Graham Cutts, with whom he had an increasingly hostile relationship. The trouble was caused by Cutts's indiscreet extramarital liaisons, which Hitchcock considered unprofessional, as they invariably necessitated rearrangement of the production schedule. Additionally, Hitchcock may have envied Cutts his easy way with the ladies; in any case, he certainly wanted to supplant Cutts and to secure additional credits, the better to impress Balcon. "I was quite dogmatic," he said. "I would build a set and say to the director, 'Here's where it's shot from!' "  

Cutts resented Hitchcock's assertive style and said so, but Balcon was impressed with the younger man's talent and drive-especially after Cutts returned to London in early 1925, after filming The Blackguard in Berlin. While in Germany, Hitchcock had expeditiously resolved many logistical problems caused by Cutts's ineffective balancing act of work, wife and women on the side. Soon after, Balcon asked Hitchcock to direct a motion picture.  

"I had no intention of becoming a film director," Hitchcock always said of this time in his career. "I was very happy doing the scripts and the art direction. I hadn't thought of myself as a director"-which was evidently not the case. Working on productions six days weekly for almost five years, he was clearly keen for promotion: he was writing scripts, designing sets, working with editors, and was, to his chagrin, paid miserably in comparison with established directors. Eager to perform any task on a picture by dispatching quickly and effectively every challenging aspect of production, Hitchcock indeed, according to Balcon, "wanted to be a director, but it was not easy to get a young man launched in so important a job," because financiers and distributors were wary of promoting an assistant.  

And so Balcon turned to his foreign partners: "I had to arrange to have [Hitchcock direct his first two pictures] in Germany because of the resistance to his becoming a director" in London. With the screenwriter Eliot Stannard, the assistant director Alma Reville, and the cinematographer Gaetano di Ventimiglia, Hitchcock headed for exterior location shooting in northern Italy and then for studio work in Munich, where they were joined by a crew of international technicians and co-producers. Hitchcock absorbed enough rudimentary German to communicate his wishes.  

His assignment was The Pleasure Garden, based on an unexceptional but once popular novel about two London showgirls, their shifting fidelities to the difficult men in their lives, and their dangerous sojourn in the tropics-all of it wrapped up in a dénouement of madness and murder. The principal characters were portrayed by American stars acting in Germany and Italy as if the settings were London and the Far East. Hitchcock had the task of making all this appear realistic and emotionally credible, and for the most part, he succeeded admirably.  

Balcon imported a pair of Hollywood's top glamour girls, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty. Virginia had already appeared in forty-seven pictures under the direction of John Ford, King Vidor and others. She wanted to hear what Hitchcock planned and how she would look in the finished film. Carmelita had equivalent concerns.  

"I was in a cold sweat," Hitchcock admitted later. "I wanted to disguise the fact that this was my first directorial effort. I dreaded to think what [Virginia Valli], 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 [Alma Reville] if I was doing the right thing. She, sweet soul, gave me courage by swearing I was doing marvelously."  

So began a historic collaboration. Alma Reville had a keen eye, she knew how stories should be structured and rendered visually, she had worked as an editor and she was not hesitant to tell Hitchcock just what she thought. Tiny and titian-haired, she gave a first impression of shy gentility, but the real Alma Reville was an acutely intelligent, self-assured woman of steely resolve, quite different from the insecure Hitchcock, who was ever self-conscious about his appearance, his tastes and his modest Cockney background. Whenever a tough decision had to be made in business or private life, Alma acted fearlessly.  

Hitchcock admitted his fears, which were linked to a childhood sense of insecurity. "Fear? It has influenced my life and my career, and I've known it since my childhood. I remember when I was five or six. It was a Sunday evening, the only time my parents did not have to work. They put me to bed and went to Hyde Park for a stroll"-then a ninety-minute tram and train ride from the Hitchcock home. "They were sure I would be asleep until their return. But I woke up, called out, and no one answered. Nothing but night all around me. Shaking, I got up, wandered around the empty, dark house and, finally arriving in the kitchen, found a piece of cold meat which I ate while drying my tears."

Hitchcock was uncomfortable around his two American stars, but he knew how much he needed them. He also resented their enormous salaries, and his budget forestalled their expectations of the kind of Hollywood-style luxury they had there. "Valli was big stuff and knew it," according to Hitchcock. "She expected a brass band. She expected the red carpet. But she didn't get them. Valli was peeved, but she turned out to be sweet enough."  

Filming began in June 1925 in northern Italy, before moving to the studio interiors in Munich, which were suffocatingly hot that summer, for the ceilings were glass and air-conditioning was unknown. Everything seemed to go wrong: there were numerous delays from uncooperative extra players, and then a trained dog simply wandered off and his replacement insistently licked off the makeup applied to him to replicate his predecessor. After that, a woman hired to play a native girl arrived on the day of her swimming scene and promptly announced that her monthly period would prevent her going into the water.  

This bit of news, Hitchcock claimed, was an educational experience for him. He insisted that he had never heard of the menstrual cycle because it had not been included in his schoolboy education-nor, one might add, had production design or scriptwriting. But like his assertion that he had no thought of becoming a director, this statement of ignorance simply cannot be taken at face value. He was twenty-six, had an older sister and brother, certainly must have noticed discreet advertisements for feminine hygiene products and had worked at a movie studio during the freewheeling 1920s-not generally a place and time of polite discourse. Sexually inexperienced though he claims to have been, he was not a backward, preadolescent country boy from an earlier century. Ordinary curiosity surely must have supplemented his formal education.  

But word circulated that Hitchcock was an unsophisticated innocent, which (as he may have intended) evoked the benignly maternal, protective reactions of Valli and Geraghty and much improved both the tone of the production and their pliancy in his hands. Thus, he won them over not by exhibiting his sophistication, but by feigning ignorance. He employed, in other words, whatever it took to achieve the desired effect-including his demand that Virginia Valli wear a blond wig for her role.  

When Balcon arrived in Munich to have a look at Hitchcock's first cut of the picture, he agreed with the director that rearrangements were called for, but for marketing purposes, he also said he liked the American look of the picture. The Pleasure Garden revealed, too, Hitchcock's skillful use of hallucinatory cinematic techniques (dissolves and double printing, for example)-and, for commercial appeal, the emphasis on fast-paced action alternating with scenes of violence and boudoir sex.  

The final form of The Pleasure Garden contains several elements that would intrigue Hitchcock throughout his career: the theatrical setting (which recurs in The Ring, Murder!, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Stage Fright, North by Northwest and Torn Curtain); the motif of voyeurism (especially in Rear Window and Psycho); the experience of emotional breakdown (in, for example, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie); and the psychological torture and physical pain inflicted on women by violent men (which runs from Blackmail through Family Plot). The last element is not peculiar to Hitchcock's entertainments, of course: the damsel in distress is virtually an ancient archetype, long a staple of literature, poetry, theater, opera and movies. But Hitchcock showed the world, in stark closeup, that misogyny was part of a pandemic social pathology. He was neither moralist nor preacher, but his work consistently reveals that the fine arts of human exploitation and cruelty are symptoms of a deep fissure in the human spirit.  

The Pleasure Garden opens with a close shot of women's legs, hastening down a spiral staircase toward the stage of the eponymous theater, where the women dance with wild abandon typical of the Jazz Age; the movement is so animated that this silent film suddenly becomes a kind of vivid flipbook. Hitchcock then shows the men in the audience, formally dressed and leering as they gaze at the dancers through their opera glasses. These will become mainstream themes and images for Hitchcock-characters in the world of make-believe drawn into bizarre real-life dramas; voyeurism; the camera observing an observer; the rapid transitions from the watcher to the watched; the dizzying staircase-and mischievous humor. "What every chorus girl knows," announces a title card-and the movie then shows a woman washing her stockings in a basin. Hitchcock's bedroom scenes occur later in the movie, and there is nothing coy, bashful or boyish about them.  

Life within and outside this pleasure garden, from London's Piccadilly to the tropics, is a perilous paradise-thus the ominous snake entwined around a tree on the title card designs Hitchcock devised, adding another layer of meaning to the film's title. The chase and nick-of-time rescue at the finale reveal his familiarity with filmmakers such as D. W. Griffith, and Hitchcock was certainly inspired by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton as much as by Germans such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whom he had met in Berlin. One stylistic conceit particularly marked the Hitchcock style from 1925 forward: characters often gaze directly at the camera, thus making the audience a corresponding player, a participant in the drama.  

Hitchcock boldly added his initials (and sometimes his full signature) to the intertitle designs. In this regard, he was again taking a page from Chaplin and Griffith, who were among the first to understand that the marketing of their own names was as critical as the selling of the properties or presenting an attractive leading lady. "Actors come and go," Hitchcock told his colleagues at London's Film Society that year, "but the name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of the audiences." That attitude led to his cameo appearances in his films: he became the artist signing his canvas, reminding viewers that this was an Alfred J. Hitchcock production.  

When Balcon screened The Pleasure Garden in London for the press, journalists were enthusiastic-"a powerful and interesting story [that] promises well for Hitchcock's future efforts," proclaimed the trade journal Bioscope on March 25, 1926. But the financiers working with Balcon would not distribute the picture, claiming that its content and style would alienate British audiences accustomed to more straightforward and less visually inventive movies. Hence Balcon decided to shelve The Pleasure Garden for a while-but he had not lost faith in Hitchcock, to whom he gave another crack at directing. (Later, American journalists were scathing, calling the picture "sappy" and "a Wiener schnitzel," and banishing it straightaway.)  

As for Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, they apparently never spoke on the record about Hitchcock, even after his international fame was secure. That was perhaps due to the dramatic changes in their lives, which led them to reject all later requests for interviews about their days as movie stars. Carmelita worked in an additional fifty-three pictures during the next decade, but then, at thirty-four, she retired and became a successful professional artist whose paintings were sold at galleries across America; she died in 1966.  

Virginia turned her back on Hollywood after appearing in eighteen more movies. Real-life romance replaced the imaginary sort when she met the dashing actor Charles Farrell, whom she married in 1931, when she was thirty-three. For the next thirty-seven years, until her death in 1968, she lived more happily than any heroine she portrayed. For her as for Carmelita, glamour-girl vanity was no longer important.  

On his side, Hitchcock referred to his first leading ladies only to cite the costs of their excess personal baggage and their refusal to eat the food served on European trains.  

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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