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 back story to the proceedings, in which Larita Filton is being sued for divorce by her husband on grounds of adultery. It shows the attitude 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, and 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 publicize 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 favorite 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.
Of all of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, Easy Virtue has proved the most challenging for the BFI’s restoration team. It survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet—amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the U.S., Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimize scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.
A BFI/Park Circus Films Release • 82 minutes • 35mm
Restoration by BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment
and Park Circus Films
Restoration funding provided by The American Friends of the BFI, The John S. Cohen Foundation, Deluxe 142, The Idlewild Trust, and numerous film societies across the U.K. that donated to the Hitchcock 9 campaign
Presented at The Hitchcock 9 event in 2013 with live music by Judith Rosenberg