The 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock had done nearly every job on the studio floor by the time he was given his first directing job by the Gainsborough studio boss Michael Balcon – he had designed titles, written scripts, art directed and had been assistant director to the studio’s most successful director, Graham Cutts. His first assignment was an adaptation of the bestselling 1923 novel by Oliver Sandys, the pseudonym of Marguerite Florence Barclay.
The fates of two chorus girls fall into sharp relief – Jill, the schemer, finds success, and Patsy, the good-hearted girl, is betrayed by her unscrupulous husband. Hitchcock’s confident filmmaking style is evident from the first frame, with a cascade of chorus girls’ legs tripping down a spiral staircase, but it is his ability to condense the story and then to weave in extra layers of meaning that is truly impressive.
The Pleasure Garden is a conventional enough story of the period – as Hitchcock conceded: ‘Melodramatic. But there were several interesting scenes in it’. He may not have cared much for the subject matter but he certainly gave it an extra dimension – The Pleasure Garden is a treatise on voyeurism, sexual politics and the gap between romantic dreams and reality. Hitchcock uses the minor characters to comment on the principals, to contrast the behaviour of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters through the use of parallel action. T
he shot of the casually discarded apple, one bite taken from it, effectively symbolises Patsy’s husband’s disregard for her on their wedding night, and hints at his future conduct. It also fits into a scheme of visual images of ‘natural’ elements, such as fruit and flowers, that Hitchcock uses to express the Patsy’s character. The restoration has enabled us to reintroduce many of these little flourishes and Hitchcock ‘touches’, revealing how much of his talent was present in his very first film as director.
It was presumably this kind of artiness that C.M. Woolf, one of the partners in the early Gainsborough enterprise, took against and he postponed the release of the film for over a year. The reaction from other quarters was much more positive. The Daily Express in their review of The Pleasure Garden saw the cleverness that we see now and dubbed Hitchcock the ‘Young Man With a Master Mind’. His career was launched.