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How I Got Hitched

Marjorie Baumgarten on the trouble with Hitchcock

By Marjorie Baumgarten, 10:00AM, Fri. Oct. 19, 2012

Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe in 'The Trouble With Harry'
Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe in 'The Trouble With Harry'

The trouble with Hitchcock is nearly identical to the one that pops up in his charmingly morbid comedy, The Trouble With Harry: The corpse just can’t stay out of the way. It’s like that with Sir Alfred – he’s gone but he won’t stay put. He keeps reappearing – as predictably as one of his cameos.

We often summon Hitchcock when we need to reconcile bits and pieces of movie culture: The great entertainer vs. the canny filmmaker; the artist whose talent was underestimated by his peers vs. the showman whose name was known in every household in America; the man who was in touch with our deepest, darkest fears vs. the man who was dismissive of his actors and perversely brutal toward his leading ladies. Invoking Hitchcock’s name and example is suitable for almost every occasion as we look for signposts to guide us through cinema’s second century.

We all know Hitchcock had a thing for cool blondes – most prominently Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, and Kim Novak. His fetishes are fairly well-known by this point and should cease to surprise us. But November brings us a couple of new movies that will once more crack open the Hitchcock legend for our popular delectation – if not edification. Tippi Hedren, in particular, has had a lot to say in recent weeks about the perverse cruelty he showed toward her during the filming of The Birds. Yet why does it shock us that misogyny was mixed in with Hitchcock’s misanthropy? The director was famous for disdainfully saying that actors should be treated like cattle. The corollary to that maxim is that the Hitchcock must have thought of his actresses as cows.

But then there is the case of The Trouble With Harry. Released in 1955, the film is a macabre comedy that’s also known for showcasing the film debut of Shirley MacLaine. The story presents a series of New England villagers individually stumbling over a dead body that’s lying in the woods. Each person feels in some way responsible for the corpse’s demise, and attempts to hide the evidence, but the corpse keeps surfacing like a bad penny. The film is one of Hitchcock’s few out-and-out comedies – dark though it is – and the gaminelike quality of fresh-faced MacLaine stands in marked difference to Hitchcock’s more “womanly” heroines.

The Trouble With Harry was made at the peak of Hitchcock’s career following his success with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief. His TV show was soon to begin and catapult Hitchcock’s career into a whole new level of popularity. The films Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho were yet to come. Make of this what you will, however: The Trouble With Harry was a U.S. box-office flop. Perhaps the viewing public prefers seeing full-figured women in mortal danger than pixieish women cracking wise. Or maybe that was just Hitchcock’s takeaway.


Editor’s Note: In anticipation of Saturday’s premiere of HBO Film The Girl, about Alfred Hitchcock’s fraught relationship with leading lady Tippi Hedren, all week the Chronicle staff will be writing about their own relationships – sometimes tender, sometimes tortured – with the master of suspense.

See Marc Savlov's Monday post about Family Plot and Alfred Hitchcock Presents here.

See Richard Whittaker's Tuesday post about The 39 Steps here.

See Margaret Moser's Wednesday post about The Birds and Rebecca here.

See Aleksander Chan's Thursday post about Vertigo and Rear Window here.

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