Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, Disc 1

This four-disc DVD set is part of Mill Creek’s “Legends Series” and also a 20-movie pack. In this case, that means 18 early Alfred Hitchcock movies, all b&w, including six silents, and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But there’s an extra: 55 minutes of trailers from movies throughout Hitchcock’s career. This isn’t some beautifully-remastered retrospective—but you’re getting 18 movies, two TV episodes and an hour of trailers for $8.50 or so. As with some other newish Mill Creek sets, this one uses double-layer single-sided discs rather than double-sided single-layer discs, so the labels are a lot easier to read.

Disc 1

Starting the first disc, I see significant upgrades in the presentation. The menu is DVD-like, not stills with menu. Alfred Hitchcock directed all of these, so I don’t repeat that.

The Lady Vanishes, 1938, b&w. Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Basil Radford, Mary Clare, Emile Boreo. 1:37.

What a start for a set! I’d only vaguely heard of this first-rate movie before.

The movie begins in some Central European hotel, where too many people are stuck because the train’s snowed in. Lots of comedy with two stuffy English types forced to share the maid’s room, three apparently-wealthy young women having a final get-together before one of them goes off to marry someone with title and money who she may not love, and a young man rehearsing some heavy-footed folk dancers in the floor over the young woman’s room. Oh, and the former nanny for some children, headed back to England.

Next day, they all head for the train—but the nanny’s mislaid a bag and the young woman helps her out. In the process, a flowerbox pushed off a ledge from above, and quite clearly intended for the nanny, strikes the young woman on the head, not quite knocking her out…but she’s swooning as the train pulls away. She and the nanny find themselves sharing a first-class compartment with an Italian couple and a stern older woman; at one point, the two go off to have tea, using a special tea the nanny carries with her, and there’s interaction with the Britishers.

All of which is just setup—because when the young woman wakes from a nap, the nanny’s gone. And everybody says she was never there.

Well now. What a start for an intriguing plot, enriched by a psychiatrist on the train (picking up a patient at the next station to take to a hospital), the young man’s presence in the crowded, smoky coach car, and lots more. Throw in a nun in high heels, magic boxes, adultery, two people who think cricket is more important than possible abduction, international intrigue… The plot turns out to be intricate, confusing, suspenseful, enriched with humor and the kind of thing that really needs a master director—which, fortunately, it has. There’s even a little romance.

Any time I feel the need to watch the last quarter of a movie on our regular TV because I’m too intrigued to wait another day, I know I’ve got a winner. In this case, the story’s interesting, the direction is…well, Hitchcock, the acting is good, the photography is…well, again, Hitchcock. Great stuff, pretty much a masterpiece and enormously entertaining. Oh, and the print’s about as good as “VHS-quality” ever gets. A winner and a classic: As good as they get. An easy $2.50.

The Farmer’s Wife, 1928, b&w, silent (with music). Jameson Thomas, Lillian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker, Ruth Maitland. 2:09.

Hitchcock wasn’t always devoted to suspense, not even suspense-crosses such as The Lady Vanishes. This early silent (with music that’s at least partly specific to the movie, since the only vocal portion, a men’s chorus, arrives at the point that a male glee club is starting up in the movie) is pure comedy—a cross between romantic comedy and British rural comedy.

Here’s the plot, in its entirety. A farmer—that is, the master of the farm—is a widower. After his daughter weds (some years later?), he decides he should marry again. With the help of his housekeeper, an attractive younger woman who’s intelligent and has a good personality, he draws up a list of possibilities. Then he goes after each one—basically arriving at their doorstep (or in one case confronting them during a party at another previous possibility’s house), saying he wants to get married again, and telling them they’re the one. Maybe a trifle more of an actual request, but not much. He gets turned down, in some cases with laughter, in one with a hysterical fit (after he says something mean about the woman after she rejects him). Finally, dejected, he comes to realize that he should have been looking closer to home…and finds his wife. (Who, notably, is by far the prettiest, nicest and most suitable of the lot.)

That’s it. Oh, there’s lots of mild comedy turns along the way, including an extended party sequence involving his handyman, who he’s loaned to one of his potential mates to announce people at her party—and the outfit the farmhand’s required to wear, with pants that he can’t close and is holding up all the time. But that’s it. You’ve just read the entire plot, spoilers and all.

I like the more natural pacing of some older movies. I’m not quite sure that this story is enough to hold up for more than two hours, even with Jameson Thomas’ remarkable facial expressions. It’s one of those silents where I wonder whether sight-readers would get a lot more dialogue—or whether all that stuff that doesn’t show up on cards is just nonsense. (One IMDB review says this version was recorded at “the wrong speed,” but that seems unlikely given the natural pace of everything in the film. I should learn never to pay any attention to IMDB reviews…)

Well-directed, to be sure, also well photographed, well acted and generally a good print. But it’s a bit slight to get more than $1.50.

The Manxman, 1929, b&w, silent (orchestral score, not apparently related). Carl Brisson, Malcolm Keen, Anny Ondra, Randle Ayrton. 1:30.

A fisherman on the Isle of Man is best friends with a rising young barrister—and is wooing a barmaid, but her father forbids that because he’s poor. So he goes off to Africa to seek his fortune, telling the barrister to take care of her in the meantime. Which the barrister does, with predictable results—especially once they get a telegram saying the fisherman’s dead.

Well, he’s not. He comes back with his fortune. He marries the young woman (apparently she’s to gutless to say she doesn’t love him, or maybe that’s Just Not Done on the Isle of Man), who turns out to be expecting, albeit not with his child. Some time after the child is born, she leaves and convinces the barrister—on the road to becoming Deemster, which is apparently what the magistrate is called on the Isle of Man—to hide her away. But she pines for more affection, tells the Deemster he has to make a choice, and goes off to take the child away from the fisherman. Who won’t give up the child.

She jumps into the ocean, but is saved—and shows up in court (on the Deemster’s first official day) on the minor charge of attempted suicide. The fisherman also shows up…and the father finally figures out what’s going on. As you might expect, there is no happy ending.

Or maybe that was all that was happening. This silent really requires you to read lips to get much out of it, with titles few and far between. The leads all seem to emote mostly with their eyes, and the barrister and woman both seem perpetually semi-hysterical. I think this is one primarily for Hitchcock completists; it’s not terrible, but it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. $1.00.

The Cheney Vase (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), 1955, b&w. Darren McGavin, Carolyn Jones, Patricia Collinge, Ruta Lee. 0:25.

Remember when half-hour TV shows actually had 25 minutes and 30 seconds of show? In the case of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that seems to means a 22-minute pocket drama and lots of time for Hitchcock to do his schtick before and after.

A ne’er-do-well gets canned from his job at a museum and, using a forged letter of recommendation (his girlfriend is the museum head’s secretary), gets a job caring for a disabled elderly art patron and amateur artist—who has The Cheney Vase, which the museum (and a shady German art dealer) wants to buy. He figures he can nab the vase, sell it and take off…and for some reason feels he needs to isolate the woman while trying to find it.

There is, as you might expect, a twist.

Darren McGavin is good in the role, but despite Hitchcock and “golden age” credentials, I thought this was pretty ordinary stuff. The print’s decent. Given that it’s less than half an hour, I’d never give it more than $0.75 unless it was a masterpiece; being generous, I’ll say $0.35.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), 1962, b&w. Diana Dors, Brandon De Wilde, David J. Stewart. 0:25

A carnival magician with a devilish appearance steps out of his trailer and sees a person sprawled unconscious over a grating—and discovers it’s not a drunken bum but a sick teenager. Rescued, the teen turns out to be an escapee from some institution, a little simple-minded. He thinks the magician is the devil and his wife (and assistant, in the usual short outfit) is an angel.

She’s no angel; she’s carrying on with a highwire man (and the kid sees them together, but he’s extremely gullible, so…). He watches the magic act and is terrified when the magician’s sawing her in half. Later, she confides to him that the magician really is the devil and that the magic’s in the wand (two conflicting notions, but…). Somehow, this is enough to convince him to kill the magician—and, in what ensues, leave the boyfriend passed out, drunk, in the magician’s trailer, and, eventually, well, if the assistant in the saw trick is unconscious…

There have been many nasty little stories based on the sawing-the-woman-in-half trick. This is one of them. Yes, Robert Bloch wrote it; yes, it’s Hitchcock. But it’s basically a nasty little piece of work. Give the show’s sponsor credit: This episode was deemed unsuitable and never shown as part of the series (until syndication). It should have stayed lost. Not worth a dime, and a blemish on the disc.


Note: A briefly-present comment, deleted because it makes claims that are legally actionable, may be based on a misunderstanding.

Clearly, much of what Mill Creek Entertainment releases is in the public domain, and I give them credit for mining the public domain in a way that makes items readily accessible. But it’s also 100% clear that never, in any of its materials, does Mill Creek Entertainment assert that everything they release is in the public domain. All of the DVDs include the standard copyright warning (also on the boxes in many cases), and it’s fairly clear that some items from Mill Creek are not from PD materials.

4 Responses to “Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, Disc 1”

  1. Dave Pattern Says:

    Hi Walt

    Darn it — it look me ages to write that deleted comment! ;-)

    I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on US copyright and the Public Domain, but everything in the comment was based on corroborated research and discussions with both the respected film historian Robert A. Harris (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Harris) and a representitive of Canal+ Image UK .

    As the films are no longer in the Public Domain in the UK, the combination of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act and the resulting US copyright restoration which occured on 1st Jan 1996 means that the same applies to the USA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/URAA).

    [Paragraph removed by wcc, as it still makes claims of illegal activity without providing a direct link to such claims. This is simply not the right place to make such claims.]

    I too give the company credit for releasing PD material, but Hitchcock’s British films will not be in the PD again in either the UK or the USA until at least the year 2050.

  2. walt Says:

    Without getting into a discussion of “retroactive crime”–which is what you have, at least potentially, with “restored copyright”:

    I simply will not allow this venue to be used for assertions of illegal activity, unless the assertions include direct links to authoritative claims of such illegal activity.

    I don’t see any such links here, and have therefore removed the paragraph. To be blunt, if you want to accuse a company of copyright infringement without direct evidence, use your own blog.

  3. Dave Pattern Says:

    That’s fair enough Walt, and I apologise profusely if you feel I’ve made any unfounded allegations (I felt the deleted links to the documents on the U.S. Copyright Office provided suitable evidence) or if I’ve used your blog as a soapbox.

    However, I would still encourage anyone wishing to find pristine transfers of Hitchcock’s early films to seek out the 3 disc set from Lionsgate, which uses source material licensed from Studio Canal.

  4. walt Says:

    And I have no problem with that recommendation. With MCE, you do get what you pay for, typically VHS-quality transfers, some worse, some better.


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