Thursday, May 10, 2012

Juno and the Paycock

Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is one of those plays you hear about but don't really see any more.   It was a huge hit when it was first produced way back in 1924, and within six years Alfred Hitchcock was given the task of directing the film version.  Unusually, (perhaps restricted by the contract he was then under) he stuck to the original script to a great extent, only opening out the one setting in the play occasionally, notably at the beginning, when Barry Fitzgerald (who played the Paycock in the original stage production) is seen briefly as a rabble-rouser.  

I've just watched the movie online - the copy is a little erratic: it sometimes cuts the tops of people's heads off, and in some shots it looks like it's not centred properly.  All that aside, it's great to see a top-flight cast giving this classic play all they've got.

The play doesn't entirely translate well to the screen: as it shifts increasingly from semi-farce to tragedy, the transition seems a bit over the top.  Perhaps in the theatre Juno's last speeches would be more effective.  On screen they don't quite work - for me.  It's not that we haven't been warned that tragedy is on the way: the son, Johnny, is a perpetual dark cloud in the background of the comedy scenes, but the other two disasters (daughter Mary's out of wedlock pregnancy, and the loss of the inheritance they'd all been banking on) seem just a little forced.  We can appreciate what O'Casey is doing without actually feeling as emotional about it as he intends.  This may, of course, be caused by the play being almost 100 years old, but I think it's more that some of the intensity that a theatrical performance would give is lost in the cinematic version.

What works best now is the superb comedy that the principals indulge in, especially the so-called Captain (the 'peacock' of the title) and Joxer, his drinking partner.  These two are played by Edward Chapman, an established stage actor in his first screen role, and Sydney Morgan, another stage actor who seldom appeared on screen, but directed a great many movies.  They're a wonderful team, and the detail in their characters is a delight.  Sara Allgood was also a stage actress, having worked in the famed Abbey Theatre, and having originated the part of Juno on stage.  Along with Chapman she appeared in at least one other Hitchcock movie.  She has the difficult role of being the mainstay of a somewhat erratic family, and being made representative by O'Casey of much more than just her matriarchal status.  John Laurie (a Scotsman), who plays the son, Johnny,  made a bigger impression in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a few years later.   Here he has little to do except for occasional outbursts; most of the time he's in the background of scenes, burning with a kind of gloomy intensity.  His big moment at the end doesn't quite come off, for me, but again it's the sort of role that might be more effective in the theatre.

Hitchcock brings his talent for comedy to light here throughout the movie, but the main scene in which he and the actors revel in O'Casey's script is when they're celebrating (along with the local barmaid, Mrs Madigan (Maire O'Neill, who played the part of Juno in a 1938 TV production) their new-found fortune.  There's huge comedy over drinks drunk too quickly and within the singing that takes place, and the interruptions of the long rambling stories Mrs Madigan indulges in.  This kind of comedy appears in a number of Hitchcock's films, especially those made up until the 50s, where a bunch of British actors would have delightful group scenes in which detailed characterisation was to the fore.  While comedy was almost always a part of Hitchcock's movies, the later films tend to sprinkle it more thinly.

Incidentally, on the imdb site, Chapman, who's the father of the family, is listed as only being 29 when he made the movie, which makes him younger than Laurie, who plays his adult son.  I think there may be an error somewhere, or else he manages to look (and act) considerably older than he actually is.

I also caught up on a short propaganda film Hitchcock made during the war, Bon Voyage.  This is a curiosity: it's made in French, with even the English characters speaking French (although one of them keeps on going on about the way his French is affected by his Scots accent).  It's about a young RAF man who's 'rescued' from France and sent home courtesy of the Resistance.  Except it isn't the Resistance but a German spy posing as a Resistance man.  As the story is retold (after our initial viewing of it) we discover that the spy is systematically killing off the Resistance people who are involved in the story without the hero's knowledge, and has used the hero to take an important piece of information to Britain.  A good deal of the story is told in dialogue rather than action, which is perhaps an indication of the frugality of the budget.  Nevertheless, it's well enough done, and worth catching up with if you're a Hitchcock buff.

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