If you see “The Pleasure Garden,” though, you won’t be thinking about the hundreds of hours technicians spent sprucing it up. You’ll be making mental notes of the symbols and images that Hitchcock returned to later in his career. The film opens with a snaking line of dancers clattering down a spiral staircase (“Vertigo” alert!) into the bowels of the theater, taking us down to an underworld where it’s not artistry that counts, but how much skin you show.
Hitchcock may have been thinking of Degas, whose top-hatted dandies peering at ballerinas didn’t have art on their minds either. The next scene is like something out of a Degas painting: A long tracking shot takes us across a row of finely dressed gentlemen in the audience leering at the dancers with predatory enthusiasm. One gent is peering through binoculars, and we see, “Rear Window”-style, exactly the extent of the flesh he’s ogling.
At one point, Patsy is having tea, and the camera zooms in on her cup, where a couple of tea leaves are floating. It calls to mind that eerie glass of milk, glowing supernaturally in Cary Grant’s hand as he carried it up to Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion,” and the frame-filling shot of the coffee cup that is poisoning Bergman in “Notorious.”
But what’s so special about the tea? Webb explains it’s a Britishism that would have resonated with audiences at the time. The leaves represent “an omen about a stranger approaching,” he said, and at that moment Patsy meets the handsome villain who will talk her into marrying him.
Thanks to the BFI’s restoration, we’re treated to a sly little shot pertaining to that marriage that had been lost. It was discovered at SMU, and it offers a telling bit of Hitchcock’s humor. Remember, this is a man who liked to punctuate a love scene with a bawdy punch line — the train entering a tunnel after a kiss in “North by Northwest,” fireworks exploding after a cuddle in “To Catch a Thief.” So as the pretty young dancer wakes up from her wedding night, beaming, the director gives us a close-up of a bitten apple.
Not subtle, but then again, kid Hitchcock was scarcely out of his teens.
‘The Pleasure Garden’
4:30 p.m. Sunday
East Building Auditorium,
National Gallery of Art