On Saturday April 27th, 2013 I attended a screening of the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938). Leonard Maltin hosted and started off with asking the audience if any of us had never seen the film before. I was one of the people who raised their hands. This film has been on my to-be-seen list for as long as I can remember and I'm so glad that my first time watching it was at this screening.
Maltin noted that many Hitchcock fans tend to focus on his later American films but his sentimental favorites are Hitchcock's British films from the 1930s. Maltin introduced Norman Lloyd calling him a "rare individual", one of the few people who can speak about a long working relationship with notable figures including Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Martin Scorcese, cast and crew of St. Elsewhere and Alfred Hitchcock. Maltin said Lloyd was one of the producers of the long running Alfred Hitchcock TV series. He also noted that the only unfortunate thing about Norman Lloyd being there that day was that he was missing his daily tennis match. Maltin referred to him as the "ever eternally young, 98 year old Norman Lloyd".
As I had said before in a previous post, Norman Lloyd was one of the oldest guests at the TCM Classic Film Festival but he was in the best shape. Several stars required wheelchairs or assistance walking. Lloyd at 98 years old needed no help whatsoever and seemed the epitome of health. God bless that man!
Lloyd was greeted with a standing ovation. Maltin joked that he would have to work hard to bring Lloyd out of his shell because he is very shy. Lloyd was by the far the most entertaining guest I saw interviewed at the festival.
I will do my best to transcribe the interview. It's not word-for-word and I use a lot of paraphrasing.
Maltin kicked off the interview by asking Lloyd by noting Hitchcock was able to blend the thrilling and suspenseful elements of film with humor.
Maltin - Tell us about Hitchcock's sense of humor.
Lloyd - Hitchcock said about his humor that the moment he got a new script, he threw out all logic. Lloyd notes that Hitchcock was the one who made famous the term "MacGuffin". When asked for a definition of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock would say that it was a plot point that has nothing to do with the plot. The MacGuffin was used to hunt lions in the Scottish Highlands. So Lloyd replied, but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands! And Hitchcock replied, there's no MacGuffin. When asked to define it, Hitchcock said it's what the actors talk about at great length and has nothing to do with the story. He notes that it propels the story but no one knows what it is. Maybe that's accounts for how movies achieve their fame.
Maltin - One of the examples of Hitchcock's sense of humor, something Lloyd had a lot to do with, were the introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. Hitchcock became well-known to many generations visually and through his droll wit. Hitchcock always said something snide about the commercial sponsor. How did you, the producer and Hitchcock arrive at the idea and executing Hitchcock's intros and interruptions.
Lloyd - Lloyd notes that he wasn't there on the show when Lew Wasserman got the idea to have Hitchcock appear in that manner. Even having a television show with Hitchcock was an extraordinary coup for the agency MCA because Hitchcock was only connected with films. (Interjection: I read that Hitchcock was very reluctant to do the TV show at all because he wasn't sure it would work). Comedy writer James Allerdice found in Hitchcock a vessel for Allerdice to voice his views about the world and a ready collaborator. Joan Harrison was the producer of the show, was once Hitchcock's secretary and Lloyd remembers her fondly. James Allerdice's imagination ran wild so much so that he'd put Hitch in a bottle, in golf knickers (Lloyd notes "that's quite a sight!"), have him play his own brother with a mustache, etc. Allerdice would send in the intro ideas to Lloyd and the producer and Lloyd would think, Hitch would never do that! But Hitch always did. Lloyd shares an anecdote of how Allerdice once had a lion sent in for an intro and the lion had his head in Hitch's lap and Hitch kept talking the whole time. Hitchcock did every intro Allerdice wrote and Lloyd notes that it was an amazing collaboration that went on for 10 years. Hitchcock became a real star, a world-wide figure. Hitch particularly loved that they showed the program in Japan especially because the captions were perpendicular and that seemed to amuse Hitch. Hitchcock would come up to Lloyd in the morning and would say "You sent for me?". Lloyd would reply, no no! Hitch was the boss, you don't send for the boss. Hitch loved that surprise element that caught people off their guard.
Lloyd remembers cameraman Joe Valentine on the set of Saboteur (1942) laying out a whole shot and asking Hitch if he wanted to look at it. Hitch responded "oh no, I've looked through a camera before."
Maltin - At this point, Maltin informs the audience that Norman Lloyd was in Saboteur (1942) and he's the one hanging off of the Statue of Liberty in that famous scene. So if you weren't impressed before...
Maltin - He asks Lloyd whether he remembers Hitchcock talking about his British films.
Lloyd - Lloyd says that Hitchcock never talked about The Lady Vanishes and 39 Steps, which Lloyd refers to as "two perfect films" which helped Hitchcock become the most famous director in England. Lloyd goes on to say that Hitchcock never topped the perfection of these two films in his opinion. The Lady Vanishes was made under the most difficult conditions. The stage was only 90 feet long and everything was happening on that set. All the trains you see in the film were toy ones. Lloyd asked Hitchcock, didn't that worry him about the trains being fake. Hitchcock replied that it didn't matter. He knew in telling his story that he could convince the audience otherwise.
Maltin - Maltin notes that because the story is so good that audiences tend to forgive rear projection and miniatures. He then brings up the two amusing Greek chorus characters Caldecott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) which became so popular that they appeared in future films, even ones that Hitchcock wasn't involved with.
Lloyd - Lloyd says that this was an example of Hitchcock's humor. Wayne and Radford were straight actors and not comics. Hitchcock was the one that put them together and made a comedy team out of them.
Maltin - What do you think is the appeal of The Lady Vanishes and Hitchcock's other British films?
Lloyd - There was a technical mastery in these films. If you want to know how to shoot a film, Lloyd advises watching the 39 Steps. Every shot, every camera set, every movement is perfection. Hitch had a saying "camera logic", when asked about what that meant Hitch said the camera logic is when the camera is exactly where it should be to tell the story. Lloyd shared an anecdote of a particularly difficult shot that Hitchcock was filming in Saboteur. Hitchcock believed that the shot had to tell a story and every close-up should move the story along. Lloyd was on a balcony, standing on a railing and Hitchcock asked him if he would do a backflip over the railing (Lloyd notes he was much younger then and would do anything for art). Lloyd did the backflip in lieu of a stunt double because Hitchcock was shooting it as a close-up and didn't want to go right with Lloyd as he did the flip. With a stunt double the camera would have had to move away and back and away and back so as to hide the stuntman. But Hitchcock thought it crucial for storytelling and wanted to maintain the close-up. Hitchcock knew how to tell a story. Hitchcock once said, if you can tell a story you can shoot it, if you cannot tell it, you cannot shoot it.
This was such an amazing event. I'm very grateful to Norman Lloyd, Leonard Maltin and the folks at TCM for putting this together! And I enjoyed The Lady Vanishes (1938) very much and was glad to see it on the big screen alongside other grateful festival attendees and Norman Lloyd himself. Even Marvin Kaplan was there to watch the film!