Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s Juno and the Paycock (1929)

Synopsis:

In the 1920s, a working class Dublin family discovers that they have inherited a large sum of money. They begin spending cash like crazy only to find out that a law clerk made an error and there is really no money coming to them. This kitchen-sink drama is played against the background of the brutal Irish Civil War.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The history of cinema is filled with ineffectual adaptations of stage plays, but Juno and the Paycock has to be one of the worst stage-to-screen adaptations that I’ve seen. Alfred Hitchcock himself later said, “(Juno and the Paycock) had no cinematic value.” I have to agree with Hitchcock — this is a photographed stage play, and a dated play to boot.

Juno and the Paycock is based upon Sean O’Casey’s play of the same name. It was adapted by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville. The Hitchcocks loved the play. I’m not sure what exactly attracted Hitchcock to the material. My best guess is that the director liked how O’Casey’s story explores the idea of large issues affecting the lives of ordinary people, a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films. Hitch later admitted that he had accepted the assignment in order to kill time while preparing Murder! (1930), the movie that he made right after this one.

The main problem with the movie is that Hitchcock was way too deferential to author O’Casey, whom he greatly admired. He was afraid to change anything and only added a prologue after O’Casey gave him permission to do so. Hitchcock always liked to take a story, a novel, a play, and use the bits that interested him and discard the rest. Here Hitchcock felt compelled to keep the material intact and the film suffers because of it.

This is the first time Hitchcock experimented with long, uninterrupted takes. He cuts as little as possible. Hitchcock’s obsession with this technique culminated with the 10-minute takes in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). I tend to like long takes in movies. The technique, however, doesn’t work here at all. It only serves to emphasize the uncinematic quality of the piece. The result is a long-winded, talky movie that feels stagey and static. The visual fluidity of Hitchcock’s previous movies — The Lodger, Blackmail, etc, — is nowhere to be found here.

Anyhow, the material screams for someone like Irish-American John Ford. In fact, the play has a lot of things in common with Ford’s 1935 classic The Informer. Ford also directed a Sean O’Casey biopic titled Young Cassidy (1965).

The overstated acting in the film doesn’t help. Sara Allgood (Blackmail and How Green Was My Valley) recreates her legendary stage performance as the long-suffering mother (a sort of Irish ‘Mother Courage’), Juno, but Hitchcock does little to tone down her performance. Allgood is still playing to the last balcony in the theater. The same can be said of the rest of the actors. Hitchcock failed to realize that the proximity of the camera demands changes in acting style. Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way and The Quiet Man), in his film debut, comes off best as “The Orator.”

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Juno and the Paycock (aka The Shame of Mary Boyle) is really a movie for the curious. Hitchcock is at his laziest. The film, ironically, was a financial and critical success. It was even hailed as a masterpiece by some contemporary reviews. No one was more embarrassed than Hitchcock, who knew he had phoned it in. With Maire O’Neill (Scrooge), John Longden (Blackmail), John Laurie (Hobson’s Choice), and Edward Chapman (Madeleine) as Captain “The Paycock” Boyle. Black and White, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

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