Young and Innocent

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Minor Hitchcock but a major surprise (to me at least), 1937’s Young and Innocent is terribly, terribly British and also terribly, terribly entertaining, a near-comedy that’s bright, sunny, fast, brilliantly made and very grin-inducing.

Made two years after The 39 Steps it is basically the same film all over again, but with more comedy and less jeopardy and English rural locations standing in for the wilds of Scotland.

Its stars don’t look too unlike Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll either. Derrick De Marney plays Robert, the square-headed decent chap accused of a murder he didn’t commit and Nova Pilbeam is Erica, the pretty blonde who helps him out. She’s not shackled to him, as Carroll was to Donat in The 39 Steps, but Hitchcock (working very loosely from Josephine Tey’s novel, A Shilling for Candles) and co-adaptors Charles Bennett and Edwin Greenwood contrive ways to keep the two in close proximity long enough for them to fall in love.

One big departure from the earlier film’s format is that in this one the female is the star. Pilbeam gets top billing and Erica is the dominant character – she’s resourceful, funny, independent, wise and knowledgeable. De Marney’s Robert, by contrast, is a touch wan. But if you can imagine Donat with all his levels dialled down a bit, De Marney is fine as the innocent man on the run.

I know – Pilbeam and De Marney. Hardly household names. But both were well known in British cinema at the time. Pilbeam is the one to watch. What an absolutely lovely, delicate, captivating performance she gives as Erica, the Chief Constable’s daughter who is herself captivated by the decency of the upstanding and obviously innocent Robert. Pilbeam is 18 years old and she also captivated Hitchcock, who later wanted to cast her in Rebecca. She would have been good, but for various reasons it was not to be and the role went to Joan Fontaine. Pilbeam never went to Hollywood and her career declined into domestic domesticity. What might have been.

Comedy cops John Miller and HF Maltby
Comedy cops John Miller and HF Maltby

Being a Hitchcock film there is a Maguffin. The two of them are searching for a raincoat that will prove Robert’s innocence. And it is this trivial and yet vital driver of the film, pushing Erica and Robert into one comic vignette after another, whether it’s with Robert’s hopeless provincial lawyer (the reason why Robert decides to go on the run in the first place), at home with Erica’s too-well-spoken family, at a chaotic children’s party or at a garage where they refuel her rickety open-topped Morris car.

There is also life-and-death jeopardy, in particular a well done sequence set in abandoned mine. And there is audacious virtuosity – Hitchcock’s crane shot as he swoops across a ballroom, over the heads of the dancers and towards the band, where he zeroes in on the real murderer like the all-seeing eye of god.

The casting is entirely great. Look at those two bumbling comedy-double-act cops, played by HF Maltby and John Miller. Look at the guy who dispenses petrol (an uncredited Frank Atkinson) with a music-hall insouciance and look at his impish little boy. Look at Mary Clare as Erica’s aunt, the exasperated and suspicious grand dame holding the children’s birthday party. Look at Edward Rigby as Old Will, the dignified but down-on-his luck tramp who unwittingly holds the key to the whole mystery. All are unimprovable.

Hitchcock’s regular British DP Bernard Knowles (Secret Agent, Sabotage, The 39 Steps and Jamaica Inn) shoots it all gorgeously – lyrically now and again – and Hitchcock’s driving pace keeps it moving forwards with an energy lifted from screwball comedies. If most of the DNA comes from The 39 Steps, there’s also a good dash from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.

“The sunniest film I was involved with,” said Pilbeam of Young and Innocent (known as The Girl Was Young in the USA) later in her career. That is the word for the film – sunny.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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