...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

George Herman Hitchcock project, Chapter 4A: Rich and Strange

Introduction

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2A  and  2B

Chapter 3A  and  3B


RUTH
(1918)

(Source)
1917 had ended on a sour note for Ruth and the Red Sox.  They'd finished far behind the White Sox in the final standings.  Their team hitting and baserunning were below league average.  Their pitching remained their strength, but was also bested by Chicago.

Then, just as the season was closing up, the draft for The Great War took away more than half of their roster (as a married man, Ruth was not called up).  Owner Harry Frazee saw this as an opportunity to rebuild, cheaply, and bought up players from teams that were struggling with their financials.  Because the Sox lost their manager, Jack Barry, to the service, Frazee hired big Ed Barrow to manage the team on the field and the Sox's accounting!  Barrow's knowledge of the game was limited but he was a serious disciplinarian.  Barrow and The Babe butted heads immediately.

Ruth spent the entire offseason begging Barrow to let him play the field.  First base, outfield, anything.  The spots were open due to the departed players and Bambino just wanted to bat more often.  During exhibition games, Ruth was once again making baseballs vanish far beyond the field of play.  But Barrow wouldn't budge; Ruth was to pitch.

But since Barrow's strategic acumen was at a minimum, he put Harry Hooper (outfielder and, at the time, the team's best player) in charge of the on-field game.  Hooper knew Ruth's power and he knew it's draw to the fans.  So Hooper appealed to Barrow's financial side (since Barrow owned a share of the team) -- the more at bats for Babe, the more ticket-buying fans fill the seats.  In May, Barrow gave in.

On May 4th, Ruth homered (after calling his shot to the umpire).  The next game, May 6th, he played the outfield and hit a home run.  May 7th, he took a Walter Johnson pitch out of National Park and into a neighbor's yard.  On May 8th, he went 5 for 5.

Two weeks later Ruth had caught the strain of influenza that would kill 600,000 Americans.  But not Ruth.  He would return to baseball two weeks later and homer in four straight games.  He'd hit seven home runs in the span of one month.  Had he hit seven for the entire season, that would have been second best in the league.

In July, more players were called up to fight.  Barrow put Ruth back in to pitch again.  But Ruth had fallen too deeply in love with hitting.  He was already at 11 home runs with only half of the season done, the American League record was 16.  He continued to battle in out with Barrow for the rest of the season.  In July he hit five triples and four doubles, but no home runs.  In August he agreed to return to his pitching-only duties and didn't hit a single home run after than.

The Sox won the pennant, then beat the Cubs 4-2 in the World Series.  Ruth had two spectacular starts, including a six-hit shutout in the opener.

For the regular season, Ruth had tied for the major league lead in home runs, despite not playing a quarter of the games.  He was also first in the AL in Slugging Percentage (SLG), Production (OPS), and extra base hits.  He was also second in OBP, eighth in batting average, second in doubles, fifth in triples, and first in strikeouts (the batting kind, not the pitching kind).

As a pitcher, he completed 18 of his 19 starts.  He was 9th in ERA.  He had brought his walks down, so he finished second to Johnson in baserunners per 9 innings.  Had he been a full time pitcher he would have likely continued his southpaw statistical dominance, but no had ever multitasked to this level in major league baseball.  And no one would ever do it again.

The Red Sox were not fools, Ruth was going to get his appropriate time at the plate next season, but only if the World War did not stop the sport entirely.


Sources:
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 Times of Babe Ruth. Broadway Books, New York. 2006.




HITCHCOCK
(1931-1935)

Thanks to continuing box office success and a good relationship with British International Pictures, Alfred Hitchcock remained an in demand director.  In 1931, he directed The Skin Game, Rich and Strange, and Mary (the German version of Murder!).  This would be the last time three of his films were released in one year.  From 1932 to 1935 he directed Number Seventeen, Waltzes from Vienna (unavailable on home video), The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps.  The style and quality of these films varied greatly as he was still being hired to adapt purchased properties, and rarely had an opportunity to pursue ideas of his own.

The Skin Game (1931)

Like previous pictures of lower quality (see: Juno and the Paycock, or actually don't see it), Hitchcock was hired to adapt a popular play into a film.  This time it was John Galsworthy's The Skin Game.  Hitchcock didn't even want to talk about this film during his interviews with Francois Truffaut.  Donald Spoto, the great Hitchcock expert who always seems to find something positive in every Hitch film, avoids this one almost entirely.  For good reason.

It's boring.  Stuck-at-the-DMV boring.  It's a pity since Hitchcock viewed being boring as THE directorial deadly sin.  And it's also a shame because it has such a great title:  The Skin Game.  Sounds like a Grand Guignol horror story.  Or a lurid vintage porn film with white slavers and opium dens.  But it's not.

Oh dear. How do I get out of this film? (Source)
It's a land battle between the Old Rich and the New Rich.  This feud between the parents causes larger problems for their children until ultimately one of their daughters commits suicide.

There are themes of modern versus baroque, money versus sentiment, city versus country, industry versus agriculture.  But these are really more like settings than themes.  It's mostly about how the sins of the parents destroy their children.  But with cardboard spoiled characters and a complete absence of visual sense.

It's not schadenfreude that makes me enjoy watching Hitchcock struggle.  Instead, I feel more secure as an artist to witness struggles by the greats, seeing them stumble and labor on their way to an eventual ascent.

Aside from some interesting but ultimately unmotivated POV shots in an auction scene and some ample d√©colletage bearing in another sequence, The Skin Game flounders as cinema.  Adapting one medium for another is difficult, as even Hitchcock would attest.



Rich and Strange (1931)


(copyright Studio Canal)
Rich and Strange is indeed rich and strange.  It bubbles over with oddity, momentum, and (dare I say) zaniness.  It's an epic romantic comedy, that is anything but romantic.  There really isn't anything else like it in Sir Alfred's oeuvre.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
     (The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2)
Fred and Emily are a middle class married couple who are dissatisfied with their lives.  Then they receive a big inheritance with the money being earmarked only for their travels.  So they happily set off on a voyage around the world.  On the voyage they fall out of love with each other, and into love with others; she with a military man and he with a fake princess.  Their cruise ship sinks while they sleep and in their escape they are left alone, until Chinese pirates salvage the ship and take them to safety.  They return to their old life and have to figure out how to deal with each other on normal terms.

What makes this unlike any other "romantic" comedy are the details.  Two onscreen deaths, including one graphic drowning.  A spectacularly gruesome dead cat joke.  And the fact that Fred and Emily don't just cutely fall for others outside their marriage.  They actively have sex with them on the same cruise ship.  It suddenly puts the film in grown-up territory that contemporary comedies dare not tread.  And the alacrity with which this happens (especially with Fred and the princess) makes one question if the marriage should continue.  What would normally be light marital quibbling in the final scene is underscored by their sexual choices and the deaths they have seen.  That which is daffy on the surface is actually quite complicated underneath.

(copyright Studio Canal)
And Hitchcock's style, so repressed in the previous film, EXPLODES out of the gate in this one.  A four-minute silent opening, with shadows painted Expressionistically on the walls.  Dozens of silent-film-style title cards pop up throughout, even once the dialogue starts.  There's a dizzying Parisian montage with rapid split-second cuts reminiscent of Vertov and Eisenstein.  And jump cuts!  Then there are fractured unfinished scenes that are tied together with further montage.

Hitch suddenly has film-school brazenness tied to actual skill, with visuals wrapping sophisticated themes.  At moments he seems to be trying to break through to a new style of filmmaking.  It's funny and weird and exciting and...

The film was a flop at the box office.

Unlike The Skin Game, Rich and Strange wasn't an adaptation (despite what Wikipedia says).  The idea was pitched to Hitch and his wife, Alma.  They then did the research and developed it on their own.  Thus it feels so much more personal than the previous film, or most of his other cinema up to that point.

Though it failed publicly, it's an artistic victory for Hitchcock.  He gets to use one of his favorite themes -- people yearning for a more exciting life and then regret when they get it -- and packages it with cinematic excitement.  Could he keep this up in his next film?



Number Seventeen (1932)

No.  A pattern of "one for me, one for them" begins to emerge, as Hitch was hired to adapt ...wait for it... a popular stage play, Number Seventeen.

Ugh.  Even Hitch called it, "A disaster!" (Truffaut 81)  I have to say that it's the worst Hitchcock film I've seen so far.  It's right up there with The Farmer's Wife.  I have so many notes on this.  I'll list only some since they start getting repetitive:

  • Acting is somehow both broad and stiff.  (Insert joke here.)
  • Amateur porn level of line delivery.
  • Written by Ed Wood's twelve year old handicapped son
  • Terrible pacing fueled by strange editing.  Did someone just keep falling on the editing flatbed?
  • Characters keep showing up, each less interesting than the last
  • Characters abandoned when they're no longer of use to the writer?
  • Nominee for worst fight scene in cinema?
  • Every time there's a twist, it gets announced again in the dialogue
  • Every twist stupider than the last
  • The eyelines don't match
  • Quick cutting and weird camera tricks, none of which are motivated
  • The town bus travels as fast as an out of control train?
  • Miniature work is more primitive than Melies' Trip to the Moon
  • Stunts are urine-inducingly funny. Maybe I should watch this in the bathroom.

You get the point.  I was going to write about how this would fit right into the works of Ed Wood and piss on it further.

But then I read a quote by Hitchcock about this time in his life.  I'd never seen him get this personal.  I'm still thinking about it:
In fact, at this time my reputation wasn't very good, but luckily I was unaware of this......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......There was no careful analysis of what I was doing. Since those days I've learned to be very self-critical, to step back and take a second look. And never to embark on a project unless there's an inner feeling of comfort about it, a conviction that something good will come of it.
(Truffaut 85)
So, what would come of it?  We'll see in Part B.

TO BE CONTINUED...


Sources:
Spoto, Donald. The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock. Anchor Books, New York. 1992.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster, Paris. 1984.