9/30/09

Hitch on the Hump: The Trouble with Harry (1955)

I wanted to take a quick moment today to take care of a little housekeeping. first off i would like to thank John over at Zombos' Closet of Horror for including me in the Meet the Horror Bloggers Series. Head on over there and learn more than you ever wanted to know about the dear ol' Bugg. Secondly, it's the last day of the month, and that means the last day to vote for the Lair on L.A.M.B so after you finish reading head on over to the top right there and click on Larry the L.A.M.B. That's all folks. I'll be back tomorrow with the first of 31 horrific treats, but for today I hope you enjoy today's look at another Hitchcock classic.

Before we get into the guts and gore that October brings, I wanted to pause for a moment to celebrate the fall season. In these late weeks of September and early weeks of October, the trees will begin to explode into a wide color palette. While I am no great naturalist, I do like to take trips into the mountains near my home this time of year to enjoy the explosion of color that marks the beginning of winter. Likewise, once Alfred Hitchcock got the clout and budget to take his movies on location, he often chose material that would allow for him and his wife Alma to travel to beautiful locales. Hitchcock had enjoyed a vacation with Alma in 1951, and now he wanted to return to film his next feature, The Trouble with Harry. In his words he wanted, “to counterpoint its macabre elements with beautifully colored scenery.”

The location for The Trouble with Harry was a small town in Vermont, St. Johnsbury, and the director relished traveling across the country to film the autumnal beauty. Unfortunately, a hurricane in early September and a wetter than usual few weeks stripped the trees of their foliage. Hitchcock waited patiently for the weather to change and passed his time shooting interiors and long vistas, but when all hope was finally lost, it came time for a bit of Hitchcock magic to take control. He sent back crates of leaves to Hollywood where Paramount art director John Goodman built a dazzling array of artificial trees and leaves. Then with a bit of work matching the light to the footage Hitchcock had already shot, and the director recreated the beauty of a Vermont fall in the comfort (and perfect weather) of a Hollywood soundstage.

This was the second relocation that John Trevor Story’s novel The Trouble with Harry had endured on its way to the screen. Trevor’s story was set in the English countryside and ran for only 100 pages. Hitchcock, who had been thinking about adapting the novel since 1951, has been quoted as saying Story’s novel was, “A nice little pastorale”, and he enlisted his frequent collaborator John Michael Hayes to create a script for the film. The Trouble with Harry soon became infused with the same kind of sexy humor that had pervaded Hayes’ previous script, To Catch a Thief. Hitchcock loved all the winking double entendres that pervaded Hayes’ draft, and it appealed to the director’s bawdy sense of humor. Paramount and the production code office were concerned, but Hitchcock soothed their nerves and promised the issues would be taken care of. As usual, instead Hitchcock found a way to get everything he wanted into the final film.

One thing that changed very little from Story’s novel was the narrative of The Trouble with Harry. Simply put, the trouble is that Harry is dead, and no one knows exactly why, but there are plenty of folks who think they may have done it. Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he might have shot him while he was hunting rabbits, Miss Ivy Graveley (Mildred Natwick) thinks she might have killed him with the heel of her hiking boot, and Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) thinks she might have killed him with a bottle across his head. So with everyone thinking they are to blame, what to do with the body? Local artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) is happy to help his friends bury and unbury Harry all afternoon while they try and avoid local deputy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano).

When the film was released, it was met with indifference in the States while abroad the film played much better. Francois Truffaut noted that in Paris, “it opened in a very small theater… it was expected to run no more than a week or two, but it played to packed houses for half a year.” Pat Hitchcock noted that while her father had lost his British accent he had never, “lost his British sense of humor.” “Alma and others often said Hitch made his most British movie.” The humor in the film is reserved and wry, and if you put it on a double feature with a film like Waking Ned Devine, it would pair quite well. When Truffaut mentioned the films humor stemming from the “attitude of disconcerting nonchalance”, Hitchcock commented that, “That’s the idea. Nothing amuses me so much as understatement.” There are a few laugh out loud moments, but the film succeeded is plastering a smile across my face for practically the whole of the running time.

The Trouble with Harry’s humor could not have translated if it were not for the stellar cast that Hitchcock rounded up for his ensemble cast. The leading lady was quite the sticking point for a while. Hitchcock of course wanted Grace Kelly, but by then the future princess was being swept off her feet by Prince Rainier and proved to be unavailable. Hitch considered casting Brigitte Auber who had appeared in To Catch a Thief. After all in John Michael Hayes words, “Auber had a casual way of wearing a blouse which exposed her bosom frequently. And Hitch, of course was delighted.” Instead, Hitchcock settled on a newcomer who had been suggested by producer Hal Wallis. Shirley MacLaine was a chorus girl and understudy for the Broadway show The Pajama Game when Hitch met with her. The story goes that after finding out how little experience the actress had Hitchcock commented, “That makes you the copy of a shamrock, doesn’t it?” MacLaine, sure her chance was sunk replied, “Yes, I suppose so. Should I go now?” To which the director gamely replied, “Of course not. Sit down. All this simply means that I shall have a fewer bad knots to untie.” In the end MacLaine’s tomboy cuteness and fresh face provided the perfect leading lady for the film. While the redheaded MacLaine was no Hitchcock blonde, she fit the bill for the other kind of ladies found in Hitchcock films, brainy, clever resourceful, and most often, dark haired.

The film also found Hitchcock with a chance to reunite with an actor he had not worked with in 15 years, Edmond Gwenn. Gwenn had appeared in three previous Hitchcock films, 1931’s The Skin Game, 1934’s Waltzes from Vienna, and 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, but, while he appeared in 92 films during his lifetime, he will be forever remembered as the kindly Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. Gwenn gave his character, The Captain, a wonderful turn, and I think there are parts of his character that are even meant to conjure up Hitchcock himself. It is a wonderfully funny performance, and the budding romance between The Captain and Miss Ivy Graveley is extremely sweet and surely a highlight of the film. Miss Gravely was played by Mildred Natwick, a favorite of legendary director John Ford, and she does an exceptional job as the prim old maid besotted with The Captain.

There were two more interesting faces in this film and I’ve grouped them together because they are most recognizable from their days in TV. Jerry Mathers made his first screen appearance in The Trouble with Harry, and only a few years later he would play an equally precocious child in the hit series Leave it to Beaver where he played the title character. The lead male role of Sam Marlowe was originally intended for William Holden, but because of one thing or another, the actor was not available for Hitch’s film. When passing through New York on business, Hitchcock met with John Forsythe, an actor with few film credits to his name, but a lengthy resume of Broadway and radio roles. Hitchcock found him to be a quirky charmer and thought he had what it took to fill the role of the quirky, charming artist. Forsythe would have a robust career thereafter, and nowadays he is probably best remembered as Blake Carrington on Dynasty or for his more invisible role as the voice of Charlie on Aaron Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels.

The Trouble with Harry also marked an important first for Hitchcock. With the score for To Catch a Thief going slower than expected, Hitchcock could not use composer Lynn Murray for another score. Murray suggested that Hitch might be interested in working with his friend Bernard Herrmann. The composer was already an Oscar winner for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (which beat out his score for Citizen Kane), and Herrmann had worked on films as diverse as Jayne Eyre, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Few thought the pairing of composer and director would work, but when they finally met Herrmann commented they had “a great unanimity of ideas”. Herrmann’s score for The Trouble with Harry perfectly sets the mood for the droll film with macabre overtones. It would be the start of a fruitful collaboration which would not bear sour fruit until nine years and a total of seven films had passed.

Even though The Trouble with Harry never gained the wide response that his more classically thrilling films did, Hitchcock considered this film among his favorites. He even counted the moment where The Captain is dragging Harry away and Miss Gravely primly approaches him and says, “What’s the trouble, Captain?” as his favorite line in all his films. Hitchcock had always infused comedy into his films, but this was the first of his films to be pointedly comedic. Still its dark humor seems to fit in with the rest of the Hitchcock canon. As he noted, “With Harry, I took the melodrama out of the pitch-black and brought it out in the sunshine.”

Bringing it out into the light, Hitchcock set a pattern for dark comedy that still runs through the works of modern film makers. It would be quite easy to imagine The Trouble with Harry being remade by Coen Brothers, but it would lose something, something primordially Hitchcockian with any translation. The Trouble with Harry really is that this infrequently seen film is often ignored in the midst of Hitch’s work. So as fall begins, kick back and enjoy the leaves from the comfort of your own home while you watch The Trouble with Harry. Sure, it may be a soundstage, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t look grand.


Bugg Rating

2 comments:

  1. "The Trouble with Harry" is one of my favorites! Watching it makes me want to go back and explore MacLaine's early works. The whole cast is amazing but she glows when she is on screen.
    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Christine, you;re entirely right. The film made me want to reexamine my notions of MacLaine's film work. I have seen very little of her oeuvre, but after seeing her in Harry, it made me want to investigate her career further. Glad you enjoyed the review, and thanks for your continued interest in Hitch on the Hump.

    ReplyDelete

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