Wandering around London the other weekend, I took a turn into the courtyard of the complex of flats built by the architects Munkenbeck and Marshall on the site of the old Gainsborough Studios beside the Islington branch of the Regent’s Canal. Here, a giant sculptural head of Alfred Hitchcock rests amongst a small stand of silver birch saplings on a sloped plinth. The sculptor Anthony Donaldson has effectively created a shrine, with Hitch looking like a heavy-lidded Buddha, a half-buried giant embedded in the accumulated historical strata of the area, which has been so heavily ‘regenerated’ in recent years (the luxury flats – are there any other kinds these days? – stand on the borders of both Islington and Hoxton). The resemblance to monumental far-eastern religious statuary perhaps draws on Margaret Lockwood’s observations about Hitch’s laissez-faire attitude towards directing the actors on the set of The Lady Vanishes, the last film which he shot in the studios here. She depicted him as ‘a dozing, nodding Buddha with an enigmatic smile on his face’. Donaldson has positioned him looking West along the axis of the canal, however, his gaze directed towards American and the future, where his film-making would reach its zenith within the expansive conglomerations of the studio systems. The expressionless stillness of his Buddha features also points to the self-contained, emotionally guarded nature of Hitch’s personality. The face is slightly separate from the rest of the head, as if it is a mask which has been bolted on, only to become, over time, fixed and irremovable. Hitchcock had a mordant, macabre and occasionally cruel sense of humour, which could also serve as a way of evading any direct expression of feeling. One staged photo from later in life depicts his wife Alma opening the fridge in which Hitch’s own severed head looks coolly out at her from the shelf. No doubt he would have been amused to find this oversized, disembodied version here, its rust colours like dried blood, set out for all to see in this latter day version of the Rear Window set.
Hitchcock was never inherently loyal to the idea of English cinema. He had, after all, drawn much of his inspiration from the American and continental European directors of the early 1920s. The head is constructed from ready-rusted iron, and its smooth and roundly domed, russet cranium was crowned with a rainwater stain when I saw it. The rustiness could be seen as a metaphor for the state of British cinema in the inter-war years (the era of the quota quickie), an indication both of neglect and of a damp climate. It seems to stand as a validation for Hitch’s decision to head for the Californian light as soon as possible. His name isn’t in fact one readily associated with Gainsborough pictures, so why is he here? Why not an equestrian statue of a defiantly unrepentant Margaret Lockwood tossing her head, dressed in her highwaywoman garb from The Wicked Lady? Or a disdainful James Mason looking down on us with a cruel sneer, dressed in squire’s boots, breeches and high-collared 18th century frock coat? Both were the stars who embodied the full-blooded costume melodramas and adventures for which Gainsborough was best known in the 40s. But for most, I suspect, Lockwood and Mason would prove as unfamiliar as the statues of Victorian and Edwardian worthies scattered through town squares across the land. Hitchcock, on the other hand, is an instantly recognisable figure, probably the only director who achieved a level of celebrity equal and often in excess of the stars he filmed. His carefully developed and cultivated persona was reducible to the iconography of a few curved lines. This sketch was used as the signature for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, a series whose dry, blackly comic introductions made him a universally recognised figure. The Gainsborough Studios do play an important part in the development of Hitch as a film-maker, too, even if his best known work was made elsewhere. For it was here that it all began.
Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899 in High Road Leytonstone, the son of William and Emma Hitchcock. There is a wall of mosaic tiles depicting scenes from his films in Leytonstone tube station on the High Road to mark the area’s most famous son. His father had continued the family greengrocery business, selling on a retail or wholesale basis, and making deliveries around the district on his pony and cart. There’s a wonderful early picture of young Alfred perched on top of this pony in the street in front of the cornucopia of hanging pineapples, carrots and apples on display in the shopfront of ‘W Hitchcock – Fruit Salesman’. The flags and bunting on display, as well as the fact that Alfred and his father are dressed as if heading off for an engagement in the Boer War, suggest that this was taken on some occasion of royal or imperial celebration. The family moved through several East End areas, as the trade dictated, settling in a shop in Poplar in 1907 before moving to Stepney two years later. Hitch went to the Jesuit school of St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill in 1910, where he endured the strict discipline of the brothers who taught there. When he left 3 years later, his official schooling was at an end. He pursued further education in his own time, however, following his own interests in addition to learning matters of immediate practical use. He regularly attended evening classes whilst he was working in an office at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company, studying art history, drawing and painting amongst other things. He had started working in the office at the age of 15, by which time his father, who had suffered from declining health for some time, was dead and Alfred was living back in Leytonstone with his mother. Emma Hitchcock was to remain an abiding and powerful presence in Alfred’s life until her death in 1942. It was through her Irish Catholic background that he received his religious upbringing and schooling, which were to exert their influence on the recurrent themes of guilt and persecution in his films. Hitch’s artistic and creative talents, along with his assiduous, hard-working nature, were recognised at Henley’s. He was promoted to the advertising department where he helped design the layouts of the company’s ads.
This experience was put to good use when Hitch discovered that an American film production company was planning to open up an English branch and set up a studio in London. Famous Players-Lasky was an amalgamation of two companies owned by Adolph Zukor and Jesse L Lasky. These two early moguls had also by this time taken over the Paramount distribution company, so the corporation was in effect a triple barrelled Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, the latter elements eventually to be swallowed up by the expansion of Paramount into one of the dominant players in the studio system of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’. Famous Players-Lasky wanted to capitalise on the British appetite for movies by producing films directly for the native market. They bought up an old railway power station in Poole Street and adapted it into a complex with two studios, workshops and offices. Hitch was by this time already a big film buff, going to the cinema on a regular basis and avidly reading the numerous film magazines published at the time. When he heard about the studio opening in Islington, some distance beyond the Hackney Marshes from his home in Leytonstone, he went along with a portfolio of his Henley’s ad work, along with a selection of set designs he’d made for his own imaginary film adaptation of a book he’d heard they were intending to turn into one of their first productions. The bosses of the new studio were sufficiently impressed, not least by his initiative and forethought, to hire him on a casual, part-time basis. He set out to work in 1920 designing title cards, whilst retaining the security of his regular job at Henley’s. Hitch was certainly not, and never would be, someone to throw caution to the wind.
The first two films for which he produced intertitle graphic designs, The Great Day and The Call of Youth, were sufficiently successful, and his work deemed well-enough accomplished, that he was employed on a full-time basis. He was always very enthusiastic on the studio floor, and was ready with offers of help in all areas, from set and costume designs to script editing. All the time he was observing everything that went on around him, absorbing the techniques of film-making and the preparations which led up to the cry of ‘action’. In 1922, he had his first taste of direction on a film called Number Thirteen (aka Mrs Peabody), with Ernest Thesiger in the lead, but its title heralded misfortune. Funds ran out early on and it was left uncompleted, and has since vanished from trace. But it offered the young Hitchcock valuable experience (not least in the area of film finance) nevertheless. He also volunteered to step in to complete the direction of the picture Always Tell Your Wife in 1923, after the previous director had fallen out with the producer, who was also the star and the husband of the female lead, and evidently the person calling the shots. By this time, Famous Players-Lasky had given up on their British venture, which had not proved the success they had hoped for. The nascent British film industry continued to be in the shadow of American producers and distributors, and had signally failed to create any great native talent or productive base. Famous Players-Lasky leased the Islington studio to other producers, and one of those who took advantage of the facilities was Michael Balcon. He had run a regional film rental company in Birmingham called Victory Films, hiring out pictures to local exhibitors. Now he travelled down to London with the intention of moving into film-making. Along with his business partner CM Woolf, who ran the major W&F film distribution company, and his chief director Graham Cutts, he hired the Islington studios to make the 1923 movie Woman to Woman, bringing over an American star, Betty Compson, to add transatlantic box-office appeal. Hitchcock, who had remained in the studios picking up what work he could, was hired as an assistant director to Cutts. But he also busied himself with script-editing, art direction and anything else which needed doing. He also recommended a young woman by the name of Alma Reville, whom he had met at the studio in 1921, but had scarcely exchanged a word with since. She was a highly accomplished film editor at a time when such a job was in its infancy, standardised techniques still in the process of discovery and development. She was also an excellent script editor and writer. She was to play an immensely important collaborative role in Hitch’s life, both in a creative sense and as an unswervingly supportive wife up until his death in 1980. Woman to Woman proved a great success with the public, and was followed by two further films, The White Shadow and The Prude’s Fall, both directed by Cutts, which did not. After the latter, which was filmed on the continent, Hitchcock proposed to Alma, much to her surprise. She did, however, accept. They married in 1926, once Hitchcock had achieved his first directorial success with The Lodger.
Graham Cutts’ personal life was a bit of a disaster area. He was a compulsive lothario who expended a great deal of energy evading the consequences of his romantic adventuring. Hitch, on the other hand, was dedicated to his work, and went home each night to his mother, playing no part in any wild socialising. Alma continued to live with her parents on the opposite side of London in Twickenham, and she and Hitch would occasionally meet up outside of work for suppers, romantic or not. There was certainly no question of them ‘living in sin’. Cutts grew increasingly bitchy about Hitchcock, who was taking over many of the aspects of the film-making process which he was busy mastering, and whom he saw as an upstart pretender looking to usurp his directorial position. It’s doubtful that the young and in many ways naïve and innocent Hitch was capable of such depths of devious calculation. He was just hard working and eager to learn and expand his capabilities, and Cutts’ increasing unreliability gave him the opportunity to acquire more direct experience. Cutts was in fact an important early figure in Hitch’s cinematic education, but suffered the jealousies and insecurities of the averagely talented mentor whose brilliant pupil swiftly outgrows his abilities. Michael Balcon, to his eternal credit, stood up for Hitchcock in the face of such internal politicking. His acuity as a judge of character led him to perceive the open enthusiasm and potential for development in Hitchcock’s eager and hard-working attitude, and the self-interest and fear of failure and decline motivating Cutts’ carping criticisms.
In 1924, Famous Players-Lasky sold the Islington studios. They had, by this time, made improvements on the original, makeshift set up. Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, writes that ‘glass walls were installed on one side of the studio, and there were adjustable awnings to utilise the natural light; darkrooms, printing and chemical labs, scenery shops, prop departments, carpenters’ quarters, dressing rooms, engine rooms, writing and conference rooms, and executive offices were completed’. This was a very busy working environment when the production of a film was in full swing, both in the studios and out. Balcon was keen to buy the site, and put all his personal charm and considerable gift for salesmanship into action when he went in to meet Paramount manager JC Graham. He bought the property at a knock down price – knocked down by him, with the costs spread over a number of years. With a studio now in his possession, he and his business partner CM Woolf rechristened their film company Gainsborough Pictures. It was a statement of artistic intent, of a desire to make quality English pictures. Their first film was The Passionate Adventure (1924), again with Cutts directing and Hitch doing practically everything else. Balcon then made a deal with German film producers to co-fund a picture, and Cutts, Hitchcock, Alma and the team travelled to Berlin to shoot The Blackguard at the great UFA studios. It was during this trip that Hitch was able to observe the director FW Murnau shooting his film The Last Laugh in an adjacent studio, and enjoy a brief conversation with him. German expressionist cinema, often created at the UFA studios by the likes of Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene and Paul Leni, was to be a huge influence on Hitch’s style. He got to see a good many of the new, boldly lit, shot and edited continental films, particularly those coming from Germany, Scandinavia and the USSR, at the London Film Society. This was an early gathering of cineastes founded in 1925 to foster an appreciation of film as an artform rather than merely a disposable entertainment. One of its founders was Ivor Montagu, an aristocratic intellectual with a Cambridge University background (he’d studied zoology) and a left wing ideological bent who became a film critic and analyst and later an insightful collaborator of Hitch’s.
Hitchcock had effectively supervised the making of The Blackguard, but with Cutts still after his blood, and holding some sway over important members of the studio hierarchy, Balcon decided to send him back to Germany to prove himself as a director. He was to make two pictures at the Emelka Studios in Munich. The first of these, and Hitchcock’s official directorial debut, was The Pleasure Garden (1925), a melodrama centring on the misadventures of two chorus girls, with certain thriller and suspense elements pointing to future directions. It proved to be something of a baptism of fire. Hitchcock gives a detailed and semi-comical account of his travails in the lengthy interview he gave to Francois Truffaut in 1962, later published as a book, Le Cinema selon Hitchcock, in 1966, and in English translation, simply as Hitchcock, in 1968. There was a certain amount of location shooting in Italy, and all the film was confiscated by customs, having been stashed under the seats of the train in an attempt to avoid declaring it. Capricious Hollywood actors (Virginia Valli and Nita Naldi had been brought over from American to star) demanded luxurious accommodation, the money for the daily budgetary requirements which Hitchcock was holding was stolen, and complicated train timetables proved no end of a headache. But when Balcon came over to Germany to see the results, he was satisfied with Hitch’s work and gave the go ahead for more productions. The second film made in Munich, with some location shooting in the Tyrol, was The Mountain Eagle (1925), another romantic melodrama. Hitchcock was always very dismissive of this picture, and it is the one film from his silent period which has completely disappeared. The exchange about it in the Truffaut book is very funny. Truffaut says ‘I have the scenario here. The story is about a shop manager who is after an innocent young schoolteacher. She takes refuge in the mountains, under the protection of a recluse, whom she eventually marries. Is that right?’ ‘I’m afraid it is’, Hitch replies. There’s a wonderful staged picture taken during the production of The Mountain Eagle. It shows Hitchock calling directions, pointing with two-fingered, clenched fist urgency, his face a mask of intense concentration. Behind him, her sightline locked in with his, stands Alma, pencil poised over the script she holds open in her hands, a similar look of intense engagement on her face. The cameraman and the other crewmember rather spoil the effect by looking like they’re just having a bit of a lark. But the photo, staged though it might be, captures something of the energy and excitement which filled Hitch in his apprentice years, and depicts the closeness of his working relationship with Alma.
Hitchcock returned to London and the Islington studios for his next picture, which was to be his real breakthrough, and a film which he himself described (again in the Truffaut book, but frequently elsewhere, too) as ‘the first true “Hitchcock movie”’. This was The Lodger (1926), a suspenseful thriller which contained many of the elements which would become trademarks of his later films: the ‘wrong man’ plot, the persecution of the main character, the need of the protagonist to evade the forces of law in order to clear his name (often by tracking down the true culprit), the seductive charms of evil or amorality, and the ambiguous divide between guilt and innocence. Ivor Novello’s lodger, who falls under suspicion of being the perpetrator of a series of murders, is the forerunner of the charming but potentially monstrous characters played by Cary Grant and Joseph Cotton in Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt. Hitch had wanted to end the film with the audience still not clear as to whether Novello’s character was a latterday Jack the Ripper, but the actor’s star status led to the studio insisting that his innocence be proved. Hitch had planned the film out to the last detail before shooting began, and there’s a sense that this is the first film in which he felt fully engaged. Indeed, it’s the first film in which he makes one of his cameo appearances, which were to become so renowned in later years. He appears in the midst of the bustling newsroom. He designed the Georgian terrace street set which was built in the studio, worked extensively on the script, drew the title cards, and lit and shot the film in the German expressionist style. He was extremely proud of the resulting picture. But Cutts was once more intent on undermining any potential success, and persuaded CM Woolf, who was in charge of the distribution side of things at Gainsborough, that the Lodger and the two German films were unmarketable. Balcon once more intervened on Hitchcock’s behalf, but in order to save it from oblivion, the film was to be subject to revision. Ivor Montagu was brought in to look at the picture as it stood and suggest what might be done to improve it. Hitchcock was understandably angered by this interference in his work, and there may initially have been an element of class friction between the East End boy and the well-educated, heeled and connected intellectual who had been given power over his film. But Montagu was sympathetic to Hitchcock’s artistry, and expressed his admiration for the picture and its innovative, German inspired look. He suggested a couple of scenes be reshot, partly to re-insert corners which had been cut for reasons of cost. He also significantly reduced the number of intertitle cards (from about 300 to 80), making the film more purely cinematic, and less beholden to its literary origins. The result was a huge success, and Montagu’s relationship with Hitchcock would continue on his next two films, Downhill and Easy Virtue, on which he was a consultant and editor.
The Lodger attracted huge interest and acclaim at trade screenings, incidentally ensuring that The Pleasure Garden and the Mountain Eagle would also gain a release. There was also a sense of excitement and anticipation generated amongst the public even before the film went on general release. Much of the focus was on Hitch, who became the first British director to gain popular renown, his own signature written on a picture over and above that of the star. It seemed that Cutts’ machinations had finally been foiled for good and all. The success of the Lodger with industry figures also led to John Maxwell, head of the other great production company in the country at the time, British International Pictures, to approach Hitch with an offer to make several movies, with a considerable increase in salary as an enticement. He readily accepted. Balcon was obviously disappointed, but understood Hitch’s need to move onward and upward, and sent his congratulations to the newly feted director whose nascent career he had done so much to protect and foster. Hitchcock still had two films left to make to work out his Gainsborough contract, however. Downhill (1927) once more starred Ivor Novello, who also co-wrote the script. It concerned one man’s descent from social grace due to a voluntary adoption of the role of scapegoat. He is a persecuted and ostracised ‘wrong man’ in a melodramatic rather than a suspense thriller narrative. Easy Virtue (1927) was based on a play by Noel Coward, and was again concerned with social hypocrisy, and the rejection of the protagonist by shiftless friends and judgemental family. The film failed to transcend its theatrical origins, however, and Hitchcock was disengaged from the literary material which was assigned to him in both films, producing proficiently workmanlike efforts nevertheless. Having completed his contract, he left the Gainsborough studios in Islington for Elstree, where a new phase would begin.
Oddly, he didn’t follow up the success of The Lodger and the affinity with suspense thriller material which it evinced with similar fare. Only Blackmail (1929), his first sound picture, stands out from his British International, Elstree years. Hitch showed little regard for the films from this period in the Truffaut interview book, with the exception of Blackmail, his boxing picture The Ring (1927), Murder (1930), and Rich and Strange (1932). Meanwhile, Gainsborough was struggling financially. Easy Virtue had been a box office failure, and in the year following its release, 1928, the studio was bought up by the Ostrer brothers. They were five East End Jewish boys who had worked their way up from immigrant poverty to found a business empire which included film production and distribution companies and a chain of cinemas. In 1926, they had acquired the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, and Gainsborough became absorbed into its overarching structure. Michael Balcon was hired as the head of production at Gaumont-British, with Ivor Montagu as his assistant producer. Hitchcock’s had suffered great disappointment with his 1933 picture Waltzes from Vienna, a light musical to which he was utterly unsuited, and which he often described as marking the nadir of his career. In the Truffaut interview, he observes that ‘at this time my reputation wasn’t very good, but luckily I was unaware of this. Nothing to do with conceit; it was merely an inner conviction that I was a film-maker. I don’t ever remember saying to myself, “You’re finished; your career is at its lowest ebb”. And yet outwardly, to other people, I believe it was’. Luckily, Michael Balcon was once more on hand to second Hitch’s belief in his own inherent capabilities. He enticed him into the Gaumont fold, offering him the chance to make the films he really wanted to. Balcon was to prove as sympathetic and responsive a producer at Gaumont as he had been at Gainsborough, with Montagu a perceptive and insightful assistant. With the old team back behind him, hitch made a string of classic thrillers and adventure stories in the Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush which mark a sustained golden period in his British output. They were the films which fully defined his thematic concerns and stylistic trademarks: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1938). Young and Innocent was shot at both Lime Grove and Pinewood studios in 1937, but when it came to the editing, Hitchcock returned once more to the Gainsborough studios in Islington. And it was here that he made his next film for Gaumont, The Lady Vanishes. Confusingly, whilst it was released as a Gaumont-British picture, it was in fact a Gainsborough production, with new Gainsborough star in the making Margaret Lockwood in the lead role opposite Michael Redgrave. Gainsborough was now effectively a subsidiary concern (albeit an independent one) within the Gaumont empire, having been re-established as such in 1928 under the guidance of Balcon, CM Woolf and the representative of its new owners, Maurice Ostrer. By the time Hitchcock made Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes, Balcon had left (or been encouraged to leave) Gaumont in the wake of financial problems which had become apparent in 1936 (and which were none of his doing). He would move on briefly to MGM’s British outpost, and subsequently steered the Ealing studios into its golden age. Ted Black was appointed as the new head of production at Gaumont and Gainsborough, and he was in charge of Hitch’s last two films with the company.
Studio carriage - The Lady Vanishes
Hitchcock said of The Lady Vanishes, again in the Truffaut book, that it was ‘made in 1938 on one of the smaller Islington stages, on a set ninety feet long. We used one coach; all the rest were transparencies or miniatures’. Margaret Lockwood’s memories of the studios were less than fond – she found them ‘cramped and uncomfortable’. The Lady Vanishes was the last film Hitch made a the Islington studios (which, despite always having been referred to as such, are in fact technically within the borders of the borough of Hackney). His American period began soon after, as he left Britain to make films for David O Selznick, RKO, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox in the 1940s. The Ostrer brothers sold their shares in Gainsborough in 1941 to J Arthur Rank, who took over the company completely in 1944. It didn’t last a great deal longer, with both Gainsborough Pictures and the Islington studios being shut down in 1950. The buildings were used for a variety of purposes afterwards, before falling into dereliction for a good many years. They were finally cleared in 2002, and the new flats and ground floor retail spaces built around the remaining studio building. Now Hitchcock’s head sits silently in the centre, a closed-mouthed oracle, watching sage and silent, his secrets kept to himself.