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Early Hitchcock rom-com is rich in fun but lacks flair

Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Kupferberg shows how she used to splice movie films.

To appreciate a film, a viewer needs to see a high-quality print. In the case of many vintage films, copyright laws of the latter half of the Twentieth Century allowed for many titles to move into the public domain. With the onset of home video, a solid industry developed among certain companies that bought up 35mm and 16mm prints of public domain movies, films that could be exploited commercially without needing permission from any copyright holder.

As a result, without strict controls, some older titles on VHS and Beta tape were poor quality. A film enthusiast would be so eager to see a certain film that they would accept almost any quality. Copyright rules have tightened, and home viewers have become more sophisticated in their tastes in this digital age.

One of the titles that was peddled, maybe boot-legged, in barely viewable condition is Rich and Strange, also known as East of Shanghai, a feature film that may have been under copyright the whole time. It’s a 1931 rom-com from the master of suspense films himself, Alfred Hitchcock. He hadn’t quite hit his stride in 1931, but certainly was a competent filmmaker by then.

Kino Lorber has just released a Blu-ray version of Rich and Strange that blows out of the water any previous version that I have seen. The b/w image is so clear that it practically glows. The soundtrack is terrific, unlike many British tracks of the 1930s.

While rom-coms never were Hitchcock’s forte, Rich and Strange has good entertainment value for those who enjoy films of the period. The sets are well above average, and the acting is typical for the early sound era. It’s nicely directed and well edited.

The story, closely based on a novel by Australian journalist Dale Collins, is predictable but offers fun for audiences willing to accept its dated qualities. It’s really a must for Hitchcock fans. The first scenes are shot as a silent film. We see London’s faceless workforce in rush hour speeding to and then on the Underground. The scenes make their point but lack the dramatic flourish of the NYC workerforce scenes in King Vidor’s The Crowd from 1928.

Then the focus falls on one man, a dime-a-dozen bureaucrat of sorts. We learn that he wants more than a living wage. He wants adventure, and nice clothes for his lovely wife. He wants money! Just then, a letter arrives from his aunt. She is giving him his inheritance while she still lives. So… off he and his wife go to Paris…

Good seats for the Folies Bergere, lovely evening wear and a negligee for afterwards, drinks at a Paris bar. Then a cruise…. Who could ask for more? But “more” arrives in the form of the unexpected.

There are weak points in the storytelling. For one thing, we do not even know the first names of the two main characters till we are 44 minutes into an 83-minute film, although we know their surname after almost ½ an hour. The casting is jarring for the modern viewer, in that Percy Marmont plays a romantic leading man. Marmont actually was a romantic lead in American and British films from 1916 onward, but difficult to believe watching him in this film. Henry Kendall and Joan Barry are competent players. Elsie Randolph performs a silly comedy turn in the film, and it’s worth noting that Hitchcock cast her forty years later in Frenzy.

When Rich and Strange originally was released, it flopped at the box office both in Britain and around the globe. The humor should be wry but is blunted. It’s like a Lubitsch film without the famous “Lubitsch touch”, without the flair. This Blu-ray also includes bonus clips of interest to Hitchcock fans.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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