Up in Alfred Hitchcock's Tree of Life

By Elisabeth Karlin

"Somewhere in here I was born...and here I died. It was only a moment for you...you took no notice."

Belying the words of Vertigo's Madeleine Elster, this past year we did take notice. During that time, we on the Alfred Hitchcock Geek Facebook Fan Page acknowledged the birthday of just about every actor, designer, writer, cinematographer and more, who made a contribution to The Master's movies.

On the surface, the year of birthdays proved to be something of a popularity contest. Those redoubtable behind the screen contributors like Bernard Herrmann, Edith Head and John Michael Hayes certainly received loving appreciation from the fans but if we are to gauge idolatry by the Facebook comments and approving thumbs, it's the movie stars who rule. And sitting supremely and unassailably on the loftiest perch, are the Fab Four: Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.

Comfortably resting on branches beneath that mighty quartet are scads of other beloved screen stars. Kim Novak, Doris Day, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Thelma Ritter, Claude Rains, Teresa Wright, Suzanne Pleshette, Alastair Sim, Barbara Bel Geddes and Miss Torso herself, Georgine Darcy, all garnered over one hundred "Likes" each. Included in that bunch is Eva Marie Saint whose daughter's friend let us know that Ms. Saint was absolutely tickled when shown our birthday post tribute and comments. Oh, and on August 13th the man himself amassed seven hundred and three thumbs, making Alfred Hitchcock, appropriately, the most popular figure on The Alfred Hitchcock Geek Fan Page.

There is a lot to be learned about Hitchcock when we stop to look at the people who worked with him. We know that he surrounded himself with immense talent. And his great love for the theatre is evident in how he employed the majestic figures he had seen on the London and New York stages, such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Gladys Cooper, Judith Anderson, Cedric Hardwicke, Tallulah Bankhead and Canada Lee.

At the other end of the spectrum, were "those guys," the familiar faces who had names like Malcolm Atterbury (the man who notices the crop duster dusting where there are no crops in North by Northwest) and Minerva Urecal (the telegraph operator in Shadow of a Doubt.) We even paid tribute to Bess Flowers, the queen of the Hollywood extras, who technically appeared in more Hitchcock films than anyone, even if you never noticed her. Look sharp and you can catch her in Rear Window as the composer's party guest with the poodle.

We know that when Hitchcock cottoned to a colleague he held fast to him. Cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and set designer Robert Boyle are just some of the names that show up repeatedly in the Hitch oeuvre. But it wasn't until we took our daily birthday stock of all the players that we saw returns we weren't even aware of, such as Leonard Carey who played balmy Ben in Rebecca and who cleaned up nicely as proper butlers in Suspicion and Strangers on a Train. Or Mort Mills, the unsettling highway cop in Psycho who was far less menacing as a farmer on a tractor in Torn Curtain.

Someone is born and a story begins. And when we investigated a little deeper into the lives of those who worked with Hitchcock, we found the stories could be surprising. After all, if there is one thing we know from Hitchcock it's that people are not always what they seem to be.

Cheerful Robert Young (Robert Marvin in Secret Agent) suffered from alcoholism and depression. 1960's pretty boy Jeremy Slate (a blink and you miss him Grand Central Station cop in North by Northwest who also appeared in four Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV) distinguished himself in a wild variety of accomplishments from the shores of Normandy to the football field to the business world to winning a Peruvian Tony Award, all before arriving in Hollywood. John Loder (Ted, the secret agent and green grocer in Sabotage) was taken prisoner in WWII and upon release chose to stay in Germany and run a pickle factory. Prim Laraine Day (Carol Fisher in Foreign Correspondent) a devout Mormon who never swore or drank, was married to Leo "the lip" Durocher, the brashest manager in baseball. Reginald Denny (loyal Frank Crawley in Rebecca) made good on his passion for aviation as a pioneer in drone technology. Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders in Shadow of a Doubt and the hotel lobby masher in Spellbound) survived a hardscrabble youth that would have shocked Dickens. Laura Elliot (Miriam in Strangers on a Train) blazed trails when, as Kasey Rogers, she created the Women's Pro-Class Division in motorcycle racing.

And then there was Clarence Muse. Perhaps you recall him as the helpful Pullman porter who tended to Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Muse appeared in more films than any other African-American in history. But that's hardly the most notable aspect of his career. While he was playing porters and chauffeurs and waiters, he was also turning in startling performances of full-bodied characters in films created for black audiences. Many of these films he wrote himself. He was the first African-American to star in a Hollywood film and the first to receive a screenwriting credit. As a writer, he collaborated with Langston Hughes. As a producer, he founded the formidable Lafayette Players in Harlem. He held a law degree from Dickinson College and he composed the Louis Armstrong hit "Sleepy Time Down South." Clarence Muse is probably the apotheosis of what can be discovered when we look past what we first see. And if we have learned anything from Hitchcock, isn't it that?

A day of birth begins a story but as we who are stuck on movies know, every story has an end. And in Hitchcockland it is the finale of life that holds us in thrall. Many of the lives we celebrated ended prematurely and some rather gruesomely. Per-Axel Arosenius (Boris Kusenov in Topaz) set himself on fire in protest of Swedish tax laws. Lillian Hall-Davies, the leading lady of The Ring and The Farmer's Wife, locked herself in her kitchen, turned on the gas, stuck her head in the oven and leaving nothing to chance, cut her own throat.

But the most macabre date in Hitchcockiana falls on September 12. It was on that date in 1992 that Anthony Perkins died. On that date in 1993, Raymond Burr died. On that date in 1995, Tom Helmore died. So, on the same date in almost consecutive years, Norman Bates, Lars Thorwald and Gavin Elster, three of the most memorable of Hitchcock's murderers, left this world.
Somewhere in this tree they were born...and there they died. And we took notice.


Dan Auiler said…
Excellent work Elizabeth--made me reconsider the entire "birthday" topic
doug noakes said…
A very informative and moving tribute. Really top-notch!
Kathleen Kaska said…
Really enjoyed this article, Elizabeth. One summer I watched every Hitchcock movie in chronological order. What an enjoyable education! And we can't forget these actors who appeared in Hitch's films: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Vera Miles, Joan Fontaine.
Elisabeth Karlin said…
That must have been one edifying summer, Kathleen. And you're right, so many great actors, like those you mentioned. Once you start listing them it's hard to stop!
Page said…
I really need to get over to your FB page..check it out. It's obviously where the cool Hitch kids are hanging out. : )
This really was an interesting read. I enjoyed that you payed hommage to forgotten characters in Hitch's films. I'll pay closer attention to their contributions when I see your mentioned films.

Interesting info on the death dates.

As for Kathleen and her dedication to watching every Hitchcock film. Now that's a feat and the sign of a true fan. I think you two might just be long lost sisters! : )

Not sure if you know this but my favorite film of all time is Rebecca. I've probably seen it 30 times now and it never gets boring.

Elisabeth Karlin said…
Yes Page, come on over! You'll find us on Facebook at Alfred Hitchcock Geek. Lots of REBECCA news in the coming year: A Broadway musical and a proposed remake in the works. I know what you mean, it never gets old. I love it too.
sigit hermawan said…
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