The Pleasure Garden marked the “official” directorial debut of Alfred Hitchcock, and while there are moments that elevate the work it will sadly remain little more than a curiosity for most.
The film opens with one of the aforementioned elevating moments, as a gaggle of drunken men leer over the female employees of the eponymous locale. Shot with a diminishing gaze that reflects the state of the figures themselves, the sequence is like, to adopt the cliche, “something out of Dickens”. It’s serves as a timely reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, like fellow British filmmaker of a similar vintage Charles Chaplin, was borne of the Victorian age. The likes of Hamilton, the spitting and cigar smoking stage Svengali and the sort of establishment like the revue is a world the young Hitch knew well. It’s the affinity for the age that shines through, and the lack of such a reverence in much of the directors work is rather surprising.
The Pleasure Garden sees a pair of chorus girls, Patsy and Jill make their way through the entertainment industry of the time. Hitchcock, a filmmaker known for his female protagonists began as he meant to go on, with echoes of the pair of women at the heart of The Pleasure Garden found throughout much of the rest of his body of work. Shades of the women can be found in both Marion Crane and her sister Lila, while fragments of the chorus girls can be seen clearly in each of the female characters in Hitchcock’s penultimate film, and his last to be set in London, 1972’s Frenzy. It’s Jill, the “lesser” of the two women (in terms of her role in the film) whose ultimate arc is the most interesting: she’s a figure broken throughout the course of the picture, beginning it as the naive young girl who prays before bedtime, before succumbing to the temptations of high society. Patsy, ultimately the protagonist of the film begins the film as a confident figure, only to be wronged where one might not expect it. Her arc is the one most positive of the two by pictures end, and her story is the one deemed worthy of the happy ending.
The greatest problem with The Pleasure Garden is that it feels far too unfamiliar for a Hitchcock feature. While there’s no doubting that the filmmaker wasn’t an adept craftsman when he took to behind the camera on The Pleasure Garden (having spent time working around some of the greatest filmmakers of the silent period there is no doubting that he knew what he was doing) it can’t help but feel a little identity-less, which is perhaps the greatest criticism one could pay of a Hitchcock movie. It’s not bad as such, it’s just little else. In fact, this writer was reminded more of Miles Mander’s The First Born than anything in the Hitchcock oeuvre, and its notable that Mander himself does appear in The Pleasure Garden itself, in a role that bears a number of great similarities to his turn in his own movie.
While ultimately feeling a little out of place in the Hitchcock filmography, one can at least see the foundations being laid for a number of themes that would come to define much of the directors body of work. Love triangles feature, as does the notion of a figure “In too deep”, while perhaps the biggest premonition is towards notions of dualities, with the footprints of Patsy and Jill all over a great number of the directors later duos.
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