Monday, December 15, 2008

Alma Hitchcock by Pat Hitchcock O'Connell

Pat Hitchcock O’Connell and Laurent Bouzereau. Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man. New York: Berkeley Books. 2003.

This book, written by the daughter of director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma, is about her parents. Alma was one of the few people Alfred listened to most closely about professional matters. She was experienced in the film business before they met and together they developed their knowledge about the film industry. Alma became Alfred’s closest confidant and was involved in screenwriting, casting, and providing Alfred with directorial advice.

Alma is credited with screenwriting and continuity credit in several of Alfred’s films as Alma Reville, her maiden name. She also had numerous uncredited roles in his work.

Alma began working at the London Film Company at Twickenham Studios as a film rewinder. She then became a film editor, which then involving cutting and splicing film by hand. She asked for more responsibilities and was promoted to cutting from film negatives, working on sets as a floor secretary, and then working simultaneously as an editor and on continuity. At that time, editing consisted mostly of splicing entire scenes together. Later directors such as Alfred Hitchcock would being using close-ups and more complex visual techniques that also required greater editing involvement.

Alma learned a lot about filmmaking from her work. She worked with and learned from numerous people including director D.W. Griffith, actor Lillian Gish, then-actor Erich Von Stroheim, and actor Noel Coward. She also played small roles in several films.

Alma then got an editing position at Famous Players-Lasky British Producers Ltd. It was there she met Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred first drew inter-titles and drawing for silent movies before moving to becoming an assistant director. Alfred walked past Alma for two years without every looking at her. Alfred would later explain he didn’t want to approach her until he had a better job than hers. The studio closed and Alma was out of work for six months until Alfred called and offered her editing work on a film where he was the assistant director. Alma first turned down the job, stating the pay was too low. They later reached an agreement.

Alfred and Alma first worked together on the 1923 film “Woman to Woman”. More working together followed, including work in Germany where both learned to speak German for their positions. Alfred was concerned when he ran out of money while making the movie and didn’t want it known this was his first movie as director. Alma begged the production people for more money and received it.

Alfred’s second move, “The Mountain Eagle” filmed in 1925 but released in 1927, had Alma as assistant director. It was a financial failure.

The next film Alfred directed, “The Lodger” was the first film Alfred considered as a Hitchcock film. He relied on newspaper headlines, clocks, and calendars instead of inter-titles when he could, as he felt that kept the action of a silent movie progressing better. Yet it was so unique that the studio thought it was awful.

Alfred and Alma married in 1926, at a time they feared Alfred’s directing career was over. Afterwards, “The Lodger” was given a limited released. Audiences liked it and positive words about it spread. Alfred’s career rebounded. In 1927 he directed four movies including one he co-wrote as well as the one of the four on which Alma worked with him, “The Ring”.

Alfred directed “Blackmail” as a silent film and then added sound. It was released in 1929 as both a silent and sound movie. It is considered the first British-made sound movie.

Numerous film projects followed for Alfred and Alma. Alfred liked to employ what he called the MacGuffin, which is something a villain wants but knowledge of not known by the audience. He also liked to give villains charm and manners.

The Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood. Alfred directed “Suspicion”. It’s original ending with a murder was changed so no murder happened due to poor audience reaction to the original ending. Alfred listened to audiences more than to critics.

The author recalls a memo Alfred received complaining, during the filming of “Lifeboat”, that Tallulah Bankhead was noticeably not wearing underpants. Alfred replied “I don’t like to get involved with departments disputes. I can’t tell if this is the responsibility of wardrobe, makeup, or the hair dressing department.”

Alfred’s Hollywood movies were very successful. He also hosted a TV series. Grace Kelly starred in several Hitchcock movies. When she left acting to marry and become Princess of Monaco, Alfred chose a new leading female star while watching Tippi Hedren in a TV commercial. She passed a screen test and landed the lead to “The Birds”.

Alfred was invited to speak at a White House dinner with President Lyndon Johnson. Alfred drew laughs by stating, after Woody Allen spoke, “I always thought Woody Allen was a national park.”

The author recalls her parents getting one of the first VCRs. Two of the most technically proficient filmmakers in history were baffled by the instructions and getting the VCR to work.

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