If he hadn’t hit on suspense as a metier, Alfred Hitchcock might have devoted his life to screwball comedy – he did make Rich & Strange and Mr & Mrs Smith, and high society knockabout elements feature in quite a few of his thrillers, even as late as The Birds, which features a madcap heiress heroine well after such creatures had become extinct in the cinema. Here, Betty (the appealing Betty Balfour) is the despair of her Wall St tycoon father (Gordon Harker), forever running off and getting into scrapes – she chases a smooth young fellow (Jean Bradin) across the Atlantic, ditching Dad’s plane in the ocean so she can be rescued (touching up her smoke-stained face with a powder-puff) by a passing ship and get together with her boyfriend (‘your boulevard sheik is only after my bank roll’ reads a telegram). Hitch stages a nice bit which shows how devastating the heroine can be as the posh voyagers are distracted from an apache dance show by news that Betty has been sighted and rush off to watch her rescue, with an early use of giant props as we get a view of the crowd through a just knocked-back glass of champagne.
With ‘Cupid at the prow – but Neptune at the helm’, the ship starts rolling badly – this seems to be done with gimballed sets as well as wobbly camera (even some doubled and tripled images) – which puts the youth out of sorts (a close-up of a leftover glazed pig’s-head suggests his tummy upset) but doesn’t much affect the girl, who is plainly used to shifting seas, and fails to discomfort ‘the Man’ (Ferdinand von Alten), the hard-drinking, slightly sinister moustached loiterer who clearly has a hidden agenda. Betty tells her boyfriend she’s arranged for the captain to marry them, but he has a snit at being unmanned by her tendency to arrange things – so she gives back the ring and vows that this won’t ruin her trip and she’ll have a good time in Paris despite him. While the relationship is rocky, so are the seas – in a big, amusing use of the pathetic fallacy: like a lot of Hitch’s devices, it’s not subtle but undeniably works. In Paris (some location shots prove this was a big enough production to take a trip), the lovers are less argumentative, and Betty has a productive week: ‘come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns’. The boyfriend is still put out by her showiness, making the (reasonable) point that a beaded, collared, trailing, flouncy dress Betty is parading in might be considered a bit excessive (‘I’ve always understood that simplicity is the essence of good taste’), whereupon she dresses down in a modest black number with a headscarf and a downcast expression, prefiguring a sudden reversal (Daddy shows up in Paris to tell her he’s lost all his money) that means she has to wear things like this without irony (‘that dress suits you better than you know’).
Father and daughter have to share meagre lodgings, and she learns to cope with making beds, preparing breakfast (her bad cooking is a gag which Hitchcock would be reprising as late as Frenzy) and wearing shapeless sack dresses. Of course, it’s all a scam to teach Betty a lesson, and Daddy goes from the inedible breakfast to a sumptuous repast with an excessive number of fawning waiters: this is an early instance of Hitch’s favoured method of suspense – a conventional film of 1928 would have sprung the revelation that Betty isn’t really broke after her suffering and reformation, but this lets us in early to facts she doesn’t know and we then see her ordeal from the superior position of understanding that she doesn’t need to be going through this. The boy turns up as Betty is trying to get better at cooking and offers to stick by her, even magnanimously saying he would support her father, but she feels patronised by his high-tone, and he leaves after telling her he expects she’ll make a mess of everything as usual (as he turns to go, we see she’s left floury handprints on his smart jacket). She applies for a job as a toothpaste model by flashing a scary grin, to be told ‘we’re only interested in legs here’ by a sleazy agent (are there any other kind in films?) who sends her off for ‘a job in cabaret’ – which turns out to mean pinning boutonnieres on gents’ lapels in a swank nightclub (nice, tall set) under the direction of an oily fat fellow (Clifford Heatherley) with a disreputable moustache.
There’s a nice, cynical cut between kitchen chaos as food is slopped onto plates by dirty hands and polite, punctilious service in the restaurant room. Betty fouls up, by being a ditz: she’s been told to give out the flowers only to gents in evening dress, and thinks that includes the band. She also observes a jazz baby making a drunken idiot of herself by jittering in the centre of a crowd with the same motions a bartender makes as he mixes a cocktail called a Maiden’s Prayer. The older man from the ship is in the club and spots Betty, kissing her hand before realising with an exaggerated shock what she’s doing here (‘I used to pay to come to places like this – now they pay me’). Given that Hitchcock has stressed the covert sexual activity in the club (there are curtained alcoves for couples!), it’s possible he’s hinting that it’s a brothel, and the gent’s reaction is at least as much to being seen here by the girl as finding out about her new station in life. In what might be the first screen use of a now-common device, we get a plot development – after telling her ‘don’t you realise that anything could happen to a girl like you in a place like this?’, the man gets Betty in an alcove and forces his attentions on her – which is instantly revoked – what we took for reality is actually her fantasy of what might happen (which she desires as much as dreads). The boy turns up, and gets the wrong (which is to say right) idea of what flower girls do – making up to old, bearded patrons. In a weird star turn, Betty does a seated jazz dance which parodies her old fun-loving self, taunts her now-stern boyfriend (‘it’s bad enough to find you here, but worse to find you enjoying it’) and shows she’s on the point of a hysterical crack-up (like a lot of screwball comedies, there has to be a point where the comic sufferings become excruciating).
Balfour was a silent star (Hitch wasn’t pleased to be assigned to work with her, perhaps because it meant the film was more hers than his) but her usual screen character (which she played in a run of films from 1921 to 1935) was a cockney flower girl called ‘Squibs’ (Harker joined her in the series, also playing her father): this means that when she’s being flighty and decadent in the early scenes, audiences must have known she’d change and revert to her familiar persona later in the drama (her other screen characters tended to have names like ‘Blinkeyes’, ‘Cinders’, ‘Tip-Toes’ and ‘the Nipper’, though I love the fact that she also starred in something called Satan’s Sister). The boy drags the father to the club to show what Betty has become (ie: a professional rather than an amateur drunken slut), and he reveals that all New York was in on the gag – he shows her a newspaper whose main headline is about the lesson he’s teaching her (a secondary headline is more Hitchcockian, ‘error’s victim shot down by constable’). In a realistic development, Betty doesn’t really learn anything from her ‘lesson’ – in fact, her attempts at being domestic or industrious (a breadwinner or a breadmaker) are belittled and she winds up furious at her father and her love interest, which drives her to throw herself on the mercies of the sinister moustache guy, who takes her home. She has second thoughts about this when she assumes she’s about to be raped, but the boy turns up (after race-to-the-rescue cutaways) and gets a clout over the head for his pains. It turns out that the Man is not a roué but a private detective hired by the father to look out for the girl during her lesson. At the finish, the boy (who really has been a div throughout) and girl are still squabbling over who gets to arrange their marriage and the detective is warily eyeing them through the natural fade-out iris of a champagne glass.