In Picturegoer of July 1927 a photomontage advertises the coming attraction of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the recent stage play Easy Virtue with the caption; “Screening a Noel Coward play sounds rather difficult – Mr Hitchcock has just done it!” In fact all of the trade reviews focused on the clever adaptation by Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock’s scriptwriter/ mentor for all of his early films.
It was a challenge. In Coward’s play the blackening of the heroine’s name has already happened before the action starts, with the explanation of how and why coming later. This structure, natural in dialogue-driven theatre, was cumbersome in silent cinema. Stannard came up with a solution he had used many times before – most famously for Lady Audley’s Secret (1920), in which he daringly began the film with the surprise ending of the novel. Easy Virtue, the film, is rearranged chronologically and so begins with the dramatic court case that ends Coward’s play. This reveals the backstory to the proceedings, in which Larita Filton is being sued for divorce by her husband on the grounds of adultery. It shows the attitudes of the judiciary, which is shallow and unsympathetic, and of the press, which is reductive and slanderous. We see the judge yawning, the barristers grandstanding and a lady reporter who reduces the facts of the case – the suicide of the portrait artist in love with his subject, Larita; the sum of money he left her – to journalistic platitudes that convince both the court and the press that she must be guilty.
The trade reviews exhorted the cinema owner to publicise Isabel Jeans – ‘Talk the star’, the Kine Weekly instructed. Jeans was an established lead of the Gainsborough studio – most closely associated with glamorous vamp roles from the three The Rat films. She had also starred in Hitchcock’s previous film, Downhill, as the mercenary wife of Novello’s naïve protagonist (she would play one more role for Hitchcock, in 1941’s Suspicion). Charles Barr points out that in many ways the characters of Novello’s Roddy in Downhill and Jeans’ Larita in Easy Virtue are on similar downward trajectories: pursued by scandal from London high society to the south of France. Again ‘society’ – represented in this film by the narrow-minded family of Larita’s new husband, the Whittakers, in their remote moated house – is unforgiving and hostile to the outsider. The love interest, Robin Irvine, also appeared in Downhill, as the friend for whom Roddy takes the rap.
Hitchcock’s own contribution didn’t go unnoticed – he excels himself In Easy Virtue. As he had in The Pleasure Garden and Champagne, he opens the film with an innovative trick shot. A giant mock-up with mirrors was used for the shot of the judge looking through his monocle, reflecting the actor standing behind the camera leading into a perfectly matched close-up of the prosecuting counsel. Impressive too is the scene where John proposes to Larita, in which – in another Hitchcock favourite device – the crucial action is shown only in the facial expressions of the telephone operator as she listens in to their conversation. Finally, he creates a memorable climax, with the defiant Larita making a grand entrance at the top of the staircase, provocatively dressed in a slinky gown and ostrich feather fan – just like the woman of ‘easy virtue’ her critics always thought her. This delicious movie moment apparently elicited a spontaneous round of applause at the premiere.