Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Rich and Strange (1931)
Marriage is a recurring theme in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The filmmaker showed troubled marriages, dangerous marriages, unconventional marriages, and sometimes even happy ones. While many of his films ended on the promise of marriage (through a visual joke or perhaps a double entendre), the union between a man and a woman fascinated the 20th century director. The marital relationship was fraught with possibilities for suspense and character study. In 1931, Hitchcock made a pleasant comedy called Rich and Strange (titled East of Shanghai in the U.S.) about a mundane middle-class couple going on a fantastical adventure. Though more lighthearted than, say, Rebecca or Marnie, Rich and Strange has characters acting out of their normal bounds and figuring things out.
Henry Kendall stars as Fred, a rather ordinary white-collar Londoner treated like a worker bee in the metropolitan. His wife Em (Joan Barry) is half-satisfied, half-bored with her life. Fred receives a letter that he’s getting an advance on his inheritance from his uncle, and decides to quit his job and go on a cruise to East Asia. While crossing the English Channel, Fred gets seasick and Em begins a flirty friendship with Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont). When Fred feels well enough, he is quickly seduced by a German “princess” (Betty Amann). Fred and Em are faced with adventures and setbacks that could bring them back to each other again.
I found Rich and Strange to be an enjoyable little comedy. Running a tight 83 minutes, the film moves at a zippy pace. Though this kind of comedy isn’t really Hitchcock’s strong suit—he’s much more suited towards macabre humor—his handling of the physical gags and visual humor is charming and fun. Rich and Strange has a disarmingly annoying spinster played by Elsie Randolph who enlivens her scenes. Fred’s seasickness is captured well, as is the couple’s encounters with belly dancing at the Folies Bergere in Paris. That scene has a very Hitchcockian exchange:
Em: Someone just pinched me!
Em: You know where…!
Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife/screenwriter Alma Reville took a trip to Paris and wanted to go see belly dancers (you know, for “research”) and somehow ended up at a brothel or strip club. He told this story to Francois Truffaut but the French director strangely did not ask any follow-up questions about this experience! Much like the Hitchcock-Revilles, Fred and Em are just clueless people out of their depth while traveling abroad.
My favorite part of the film is the use of interstitials. This is not a silent film, but Hitchcock directs certain sequences like one. And he uses sarcastic, witty, or cutesy interstitials to move the story along or just comment on the action. The film begins with the Shakespeare quote “Doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange” (The Tempest) from which the film gets its title. And from there the interstitials are just fun asides from the director to his audience.
Rich and Strange offers a few striking camera shots and angles to suggest Hitchcock’s command over his frames. His use of a miniature ship for the climax suggests his directing of models in future films. The screenplay is credited to Hitchcock and Reville along with prolific British screenwriter Val Valentine. The film is playful, and at times charmingly unsophisticated. The performances are pretty solid. Henry Kendall would work with Hitchcock twice more in the far superior Young and Innocent and Secret Agent. Joan Barry would leave acting in the early 1930s after marriage. Both actors have an easy chemistry, and I think with a more polished script they could have been great screwball actors.
Hitchcock told Truffaut he liked the film though found the lead characters unconvincing. Neither Kendall nor Barry were big enough stars to overcome that with sheer star charisma either. The film was a failure both with critics and audiences. Rich and Strange is waiting to be rediscovered as a weird little movie for Hitchcock—not great but odd enough to be worth its running time. The film is currently streaming on FilmStruck.