No one denies that Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) made many of the more suspenseful movies in the English language. Where there is disagreement, is that many fans prefer his Technicolor, big-budget Hollywood movies with glamorous stars, while a sizeable minority prefer his earlier British-made black and white suspense films with their German-Expressionist-influenced lighting design and cinematography.
Hitchcock began his film career humbly in 1919, drawing sketches for movie sets before graduating to art director, then assistant director, before serendipity and Gainsborough Pictures chief, Michael Balcon awarded him a director’s chair. In 1926, Alfred Hitchcock married Alma Reville (1889-1982) and was able to add her selfless gifts as a director, screenwriter and editor to his own skill and experience. They remained married until they both died in 1980.
There have been four filmed versions of author Jack Buchan’s novel, The 39 Steps, only one of which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This 1935 version was made in England and paired elegant blonde beauty Madeleine Carroll’s (1906–1987) spunky character with Robert Donat’s (1905–1958) keen and charming hero. Both actors were popular with American film audiences, and producer Michael Balcon and director Hitchcock expected their starry presence in The 39 Steps would attract and enhance the likelihood of expanded distribution and exhibition of British films in the USA. The 39 Steps successfully garnered both critical approval and financial return, paving the way for Hitchcock’s professional move from London to Hollywood.
It also boosted the star power of its leading woman and man. Hollywood beckoned. Both heeded and accepted. Donat’s life and 20-year film career were limited by chronic illness and ended with his premature death at 53. After Ms. Carroll’s sister was killed in the London Blitz, she withdrew from acting to engage in war relief and charitable work. Thereafter her film and stage appearances were sporadic but her charity work was continual.
As did all canny directors and producers, Hitchcock cast small roles with deft character actors with distinct screen personalities. A member of John Gielgud’s fabled Queen’s Theatre company, the precursor to Britain’s National Theatre, Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991), hailed as the finest Juliet of her generation of stage actors, acted the country wife of John Laurie in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps. Other standout actors in small by key roles were John Laurie, an actor of brisk and wily personalities; and cheery Hilda Trevelyan as the innkeeper’s wife. I found it interesting that both the criminal underlings and the sheriff’s men remained indistinct, unmemorable factotums often filmed in long-shot, seldom in close-up.
The central figure in Hitchcock movies was often on the run and innocent. That is true for The 39 Steps—a spy tale at its core, wrapped in a romance. Or a romance in danger of being smothered in foreign intrigue. What or where are the 39 steps? Some viewers feel the film is a bit slow to start (not I), but few will fault the chase for pace and excitement.
Both Mr. Donat (1905–1958) and Ms. Carroll (1906–1987) found themselves international attractions in demand from Hollywood and English studios. He would win a best actor Oscar for Goodbye Mister Chips, play comedy in The Ghost Goes West and swashbuckle in The Count of Monte Cristo, ending his career in The Inn of Sixth Happiness. Ms. Carroll made three more espionage movies: Secret Agent with Peter Lorre and John Gielgud, I Was a Spy opposite the great Conrad Veidt, and a comedy spy movie with Bob Hope, My Favorite Blonde.
A fine copy of the original can be watched free online here:
Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for the Independent by Frank Cullen, published historian and novelist, co-founder of the American Vaudeville Museum, and 2011 recipient of the NY Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation Theatre History. Send inquiries and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.