A Hitchcock Rarity: “Elstree Calling”

8 12 2010

Filled with singing, dancing and comedy, “Elstree Calling” is a ninety-minute revue that has roots in the past while looking to the future. Released in 1930, the movie is not officially available at this time, although you can find quite a few clips from it on youtube. It is, however, an interesting, if minor, piece of Alfred Hitchcock’s career.

Hitchcock co-directed this early British talkie with André Charlot, Jack Hulbert and Paul Murray; Hulbert appears in the movie, and Charlot certainly must have been related to the Charlot Girls who also appear in it.

Filmed at England’s famous Elstree Studios, the film apes the early Hollywood revues that were staples of the 1930s, like the “Broadway Melody” films. It consists of three types of segments, starting with a master of ceremonies who introduces the various acts, speaking into a microphone as though it was going out on radio and making silly jokes, such as referring to “the greatesto studio in Europo.” Then there are the acts he introduces – mostly singing and dancing acts, but a few comedians as well, all pulled straight out of England’s music hall tradition.

There’s another framing sequence, though, which is credited to Hitchcock. In it,

Gordon Harker, right, with Carl Brisson in Hitchcock's "The Ring"

a man attempts to tune into the show on that new invention, the television. In about half a dozen brief sketches, the man tries to tune in his set, but he only succeeds in making things worse – as well as giving himself shocks and setting off an explosion. The man is played by Gordon Harker, who had only recently appeared in Hitchcock’s films “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “Champagne.”

The official directing credits for these sketches don’t exist anymore, but I do believe that Hitchcock directed them for a few reasons. First, Hitch obviously enjoyed working with Harker enough to do so again here. Second, these are the only segments with Hitch’s typical fluid camera work; virtually everything else in the film is shot head-on to capture the performers as they would have appeared on stage. And third, these are the only parts of the film that attempt to tell a story, however slim it is, rather than present a vignette. Harker’s tinkerer experiences progress and setbacks in his attempts to make his television work.

The music hall performers are a mixed bunch. There’s the rotund bandleader Teddy Brown, who plays xylophone and drums; the blackface tapdancers called The Three Teddies; singer Cecily Courtneidge, clearly a star in this crowd; the singing, dancing female troupe The Charlot Girls; the endearing if awkward singer-dancer duo of Jack Hulbert and Helen Burnell; homely-but-funny Lily Morris, who sings “Always a Bridesmaid”; and Scottish comedian Will Fyffe, who performs in a kilt. Nearly all of their appearances are on a stage, in front of backdrops. Without a story or even a clue about their personalities, many of these acts are hard to sit through, even if they are somewhat quaint.

There is one other running gag, about a Shakespearean actor played by Donald Calthrop, who played the villain in Hitchcock’s “Blackmail.” Calthrop is determined to get out on the stage and perform a scene from “The Taming of The Shrew,” against the wishes of the emcee. When he finally gets his chance, the scene is a disaster, although he does not seem to be aware of it.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Elstree Calling” is that a few of the

Cecily Courtneidge in color

segments were filmed in Pathécolor, an early color process that looks like it uses red and yellow but not blue. It’s a pleasant effect, if not entirely successful, reminiscent of early movie tinting from films like “The Lodger.”

The Three Eddies. Not cool.

And then there’s the racism. Besides the blackface dancers, Teddy Brown tells an anti-semitic joke, and of course Will Fyffe’s jokes are based largely on the idea that Scots are so very cheap.

Still, “Elstree Calling” provides a window into the world of the British music hall scene, which was then fading away, while looking ahead to the age of television. And yes, when TV finally became commonplace, viewers spent countless hours trying to adjust their pictures, so Gordon Harker’s futile efforts here do have some prescience about them.

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