Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden (1925) was the first film produced by Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures in association with the Munich-based production company Emelka, a Bavarian company formed in 1918 as a commercial alternative to the more artistic productions of Berlin-based UFA. Photography was by Baron Gaetano di Ventimiglia, who had worked in Hollywood, Berlin, Nice, and Islington and would go on to lens both The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger for Hitchcock. Editor and assistant director duties were undertaken by Hitchcock’s wife and most frequent collaborator, Alma Reville. The scenario by Eliot Stannard was based on a 1923 romantic novel by Oliver Sandys (the pen name of popular novelist Marquerite Florence Barclay, whose books had been successfully adapted for both stage and screen).
Cast as leads were Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, American actresses who had both enjoyed success in the U.S. but whose careers did not survive the advent of sound, and British actors Miles Mander and John Stuart, whose careers were considerably more long-lived. The role of Mander’s native mistress is persistently and inaccurately credited to silent screen vamp Nita Naldi, which is mystifying since Naldi’s name appears nowhere in the credits and the actress playing the native girl bears no resemblance to her. Naldi was still in the U.S. at the time the film was shot and did not embark for Europe until after filming wrapped, so although we don’t know who the native girl was, we know she wasn’t Naldi.
Filming on The Pleasure Garden began in the last week in May 1925 and was completed by August 1925. Exteriors were shot in Genoa, San Remo, and Lake Como while the sets were being constructed at Geiselgasteig Studio in Munich. Nightclub dance sequences were shot in a glass-roofed set in late July 1925, in conditions made miserable by summer heat.
The film is a programmer, and a programmer that starts out being one story and ends up being another, not altogether successfully. Patsy (Valli), a chorus girl with more moral fiber than is economically sound for a chorus girl, offers a helping hand to newbie Jill (Geraghty), whose kewpie doll face masks the heart of a sharpie. Jill is engaged to stalwart Hugh (Stuart), who is going off to work in “the East,” an exotic locale that is never geographically defined. Hugh introduces Patsy and Jill to his well-dressed co-worker, Levett (Mander), and toddles away to toil in the tropics. While Hugh toils, Jill ignores her engagement ring and dates up, finally bagging a Russian prince. Patsy has fallen in love with Hugh but must remain true blue to her less worthy friend and so marries Levett, which is inexplicable because he oozes caddishness like baby back ribs ooze barbecue sauce. After an idyllic honeymoon at Lake Como, Levett too departs for “the East,” while Patsy goes back to hoofing. At this point, The Pleasure Garden ceases being a “backstage with the chorus” story and becomes a tale of “white men whose character is tested in the tropics.”
Upon arrival in “the East,” Mander immediately resumes what is obviously a long-standing affair with a native maiden, but soon comes down with a fever. Patsy rushes to “the East” to nurse him. Through the magic of editing she arrives the next day, but discovers him in the arms of his native mistress, whereupon he drowns the poor girl and then threatens to kill Patsy. Happily he’s shot by the local doctor ex machina, who informs Patsy that there is another white fever victim who needs nursing. Experienced movie-goers will not be surprised to learn that it is Hugh, who has found out about the Russian. He and Patsy live happily ever after.
In other words, art it ain’t.
The film was released November 3, 1925 in Germany and trade shown in London in March 1926; it played at the Capitol Theater in Haymarket in April 1926. UK reviews of the film were limp, although Hitchcock himself was singled out as a young man on the move.
The Observer, April 14, 1926: Mr. Hitchcock, the young English director, is here saddled with a complicated story, and, while its raggedness has in the main overcome him, he has made some of it so interesting as to make one eager and optimistic for his future.
The Pleasure Garden was brought to the U.S. with a group of Gainsboroughs by the American distributor Arthur Lee for the Lee-Bradford (Artlee) Company. It played at Loew’s in New York for one day in October 1926. U.S. reviews were cranky:
Photoplay, January 1927: A foreign picture. And “can they make wiener schnitzels? Yes, they can make wiener schnitzels.” Two American girls - Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty - got into this one by mistake.
Variety, November 3, 1926: A sappy chorus picture, probably intended for the sappy sticks where they still fall for this sort of a chorus girl story. Those are about the only places which could use “The Pleasure Garden,” other than the one-dayers and Loew's New York, a one-dayer doubled up with 'Dangerous Friends,' even worse.
Although Balcon had reportedly been pleased with the film at its Munich showing, The Pleasure Garden, as well as Hitchcock’s next English-German picture, The Mountain Eagle, was shelved as unreleaseable. It wasn’t till January 1927 that the two films were released as a buildup to his thriller The Lodger. The film quickly languished and died, and Hitchcock went on to bigger and better things.
Because The Pleasure Garden is the Master’s first directorial effort, it is tempting to see more in the film than what may be there. There are undoubtedly interesting cinematic moments in The Pleasure Garden, moments we recognize in hindsight as distinctly “Hitchcockian”: voyeurism, as the male audience salivates while watching chorus girls; an overhead shot of the nightclub stage; a UFA-esque shot of a spiral staircase with chorus girls scrambling down it; Patsy waving her tear-stained handkerchief in farewell to Levett, which fades into the hand of his native mistress welcoming him home; a psychopathic murderer threatening the heroine. (The reported Sapphic undertones in the scene where Jill and Patsy undress for bed in Patsy’s tiny bedroom bypassed me completely. All I saw were two girls sharing a small room because they couldn’t afford more. Color me insensitive to subtext.) It is a journeyman effort, a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, but easily forgotten. Because it is Hitchcock’s first film it deserves critical study, but there is no way around it—there are better films out there.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Pleasure Garden is that it illustrates the rapidity with which Hitchcock completed his journeyman requirements. His second film, The Mountain Eagle, is lost, so unless a print of that work is eventually found, we have only The Pleasure Garden as evidence of the first phase of Hitchcock’s long directorial career. Six months after completing this effort, he began filming his first masterwork: The Lodger.
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