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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The George Herman Hitchcock project, Chapter 1: When Boys Leave Home


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: When Boys Leave Home


George Herman Ruth was called many names.  Before 1914, due to his dark skin tone and ethnic facial features, most of those names began with "N*gger".  In 1914, Jack Dunn, the owner of the independent minor league team the Baltimore Orioles, signed Ruth to join his team of young prospects who were often known as "Jack's babes". Because of Ruth's size and prodigious skill the local press enjoyed calling the boy, Babe Ruth.

Ruth had honed his skills for years at St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore.  He had a blinding fastball, strong curveball, and a big looping uppercut swing.  No one in the pros swung like that.  The objective for major league hitters at that time was to perfect the line drive, thus batters used a slight downward chop to achieve the right backspin on hit balls.  Ruth instead modelled his swing after one of the Brothers at his school who used to clout massive drives that the little boys used to ooh and ahh and chase down.

Jack Dunn and his scouts found Ruth at the nearby boy's school doing everything on the field.  For instance, in 1913 the school paper reported on Ruth pitching a complete game one-hitter, striking out twenty-two batters, and getting four hits.  That's the kid that Dunn saw and that's the kid that Dunn signed.

And that's the kid that Dunn turned around and sold to the Boston Red Sox that same year when his financial troubles set in.  The Sox saw a solid left-handed pitcher who rarely connected with his wild swing.  So Boston sent him to their top farm team, the Providence Grays.  For the Grays, the 19 year-old kid won 26 games and hit a home run into Lake Ontario.

In 1915, the Sox called Ruth back up to the majors to join the starting rotation.  On May 25th, the 20-year-old kid hit a ball 475 feet, out of Sportsman's Park into the streets beyond.  It was one of the longest home runs yet struck by a human being.  It was one of three home runs Ruth hit in a four-game span.  He hit four overall that year, playing less than 1/4 of his team's games.  The rest of the Sox team combined had only ten homers.  The league leader had seven.  Though Ruth pitched well -- 2.44 ERA, second in the league in opponent batting average, fourth in winning percentage -- paying fans weren't coming to his games to just watch him throw.  At some point, Ruth was going to have to get to the plate more often, but that wouldn't be for a little while longer.

Creamer, Robert. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1974.
Jenkinson, Bill. Baseball's Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters. Lyons Press. 2010.
Jenkinson, Bill. The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball's Greatest Slugger. Carrol & Graf. 2007.
Montville, Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Time of Babe Ruth. Broadway Books, New York. 2006.


Alfred Hitchcock was born four years after Ruth, in 1899.  Ruth's mother had died when he was a teenager, while Hitchcock's father passed away when the boy was fourteen.  Both were sent away to live at boys' schools to learn a craft.  In Alfred's case, he went to the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation.  After graduating he went to work for an electric cable company putting his engineering skills to use as a technical estimator.  His night school art studies at the University of London aided his transfer to the advertising department to work as an ad designer.  From there, his enjoyment of cinema and his design skills helped him land his next job as a title card designer for the London branch of the Famous Players Film Company.

Title cards are the pauses in the action of silent films when printed text comes up providing dialogue or action description that can't be seen in the image.  These intertitles can thus sculpt the film if the filmmaker doesn't capture the story in the moving images.  By designing title cards for films Hitchcock was learning cinematic storytelling, and also meeting with screenwriters every day.  With their help, he began writing scripts on the side.

When the American owners sold Famous Players to a British company, Hitchcock approached the new management for new work.  From 1922 to 1925, he was hired as an assistant director on six films and the art director on nine.  He also gained three screenwriting credits and one editing credit.

Sadly all of these films have been lost, like so much cinema from this period.  The nitrate film stock from this era ages poorly, crumbles, and is highly flammable.  On a positive note, the first three reels of 1923's The White Shadow (credited as assistant director, editor, and writer) were recently discovered in the New Zealand Archives.  It's doubtful that one could learn everything about Hitch's early influences from thirty minutes of this melodrama, but it's a great addition to cinema history and culture.

From Hitchcock's personal descriptions of these films, they all appear to be dramas or melodramas.  None of them action films or mysteries.  And from his words, these productions gave him a solid understanding of the labor and mechanics behind a production as opposed to helping mold his style.  Except in one case.

In his final art direction gig, the production of The Blackguard (co-produced by UFA) brought Hitchcock to Germany.  While there, Hitch had the opportunity to watch a number of productions in process, including Murnau's The Last Laugh.  Influenced by Expressionism, many German films at this time were much more visually intense and held closer to artistic styles than anything being made in the UK.  Hitch took note of the storytelling being done within the images as opposed to the title cards.  (The Last Laugh originally had NO titles.)  It was a full commitment to the visual medium, free of associations with the printed word.

His first directing job was on The Pleasure Garden.  The film (unavailable in the US) is a melodrama about a chorus girl whose new husband cheats on her, kills his mistress, and then tries to kill his wife.  In his conversations with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock has much more to say about the production of the film than the content or quality therein.  He's entirely dismissive of his next film, The Mountain Eagle, saying bluntly "It was a very bad movie."  Nothing remains of this film and Hitch doesn't seem to be too saddened about that.

The Lodger (1927)

Hitchcock's next film, The Lodger, is available everywhere, even in the public domain, thus resulting in many cruddy home video versions.  The copy I own is particularly poor.

The story: While a Jack-the-Ripper-type serial killer targets blond women throughout London, a very odd man takes up lodging with a small family.  The daughter of the family, a blonde model (of course), takes a weird liking to this stranger.  Her boyfriend, a police detective (of course), gets jealous.  His feelings mix with circumstantial evidence and he begins to suspect that the lodger is the murderer.  Suspense ensues!

The film is soaked with German Expressionist influences: high contrast lighting, exaggerated performances, and distorted imagery.  The style is strongest in the film's eight minute opening sequence of a murder and resulting word-of-mouth news.  It's a well paced montage with an exceptional amount of cuts for an English film of its time.  Like the rest of the movie, the titles are kept at minimum but when they are used they're stylized (likely influenced by Hitch's title card jobs).

The editing and visuals hold up better than the acting and screenplay.  There's a lot of coincidence and characters making unnecessarily dumb horror-film-cliche decisions.  The lead, Igor Novello, plays very weird just so that the audience suspects him, then is suddenly completely normal when the weirdness is inconvenient for the story.  But again, the visuals are dynamite -- overexposed kissing faces, feet pacing back and forth on an invisible floor, the silent screams of the murder victims.  The aforementioned opening is comparable to Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece, M.

We also witness the birth of much of Hitchcock's style.  The obsession with blondes.  The meddling mothers.  The pursuit of the wrong man.  The grim gallows humor.  Upon hearing about the first blonde murder, a newspaper man exclaims, "Tuesday's my lucky day!"  A brunette model announces, "No more peroxide for yours truly."

I can't imagine how audiences of the time reacted to that sort of happy irreverence over manslaughter.  Ultimately the film itself was a box office success, so audiences did take to this new director's style.  This afforded him a future.  But could he keep this burst of style burning?  And what sorts of films would he direct next?

We'll explore this and more in Chapter 2: The Ring.

Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock. De Capo Press, New York. 1999.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster, Paris. 1984.