David Deignan checks out Brian O’ Flaherty’s documentary When Hitchcock Met O’Casey, which tells the fascinating story of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 collaboration on one of the early British ‘talkies’ – an adaptation of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
It’s not often that Sean O’Casey and Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned in the same sentence, let alone thought of as close collaborators. The latter, oft hailed as the ‘Master of Suspense’, is a household name; renowned as one of the most significant and influential filmmakers to have ever lived. The former was, and still is, a widely celebrated writer and memoirist whose work is synonymous with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Abbey produced the three plays collectively recognized as O’Casey’s crowning achievement: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).
O’Casey emerged from Dublin’s poorest people; he was the first playwright of note to write about the experiences of the city’s working class, electrifying the Abbey stage – which was sustained in its early years by his work. By the end of the 1920s, with his art receiving international acclaim, O’Casey had moved to London where Alfred Hitchcock had already directed ten films, the majority of which were silent.
It was the London premiere of Juno and the Paycock, in 1925, which brought the pair together for an unlikely project. Hitchcock adored the play and approached O’Casey with a view to adapting it for the silver screen. The Dubliner gave the filmmaker his blessing and the resulting film, released in 1930, turned out be something of an anomaly; an oft-forgotten and rarely talked about footnote in the outstanding careers of the two men. This documentary by director Brian O’Flaherty sets out to tell the story behind this altogether strange production and assess its place in the canon of each artist’s work.
O’Flaherty’s film opens by contrasting the dichotomous backgrounds and upbringings of the two men. Through examining their early lives and careers, we learn about their totally different personalities and the documentary begins to hint that maybe – just maybe – the pair aren’t going to see eye to eye on every issue that arises during the production of Juno. The documentary decides to act as a study of these two characters just as much as it focuses on the making of the film. Structurally, this approach works well. It serves to ground the audience in the lives of both Hitchcock and O’Casey, while contextualising the world to which the screen adaptation of Juno arrived.
The medium of cinema was still in its relative infancy, and Juno – which the doc states Hitchcock originally envisioned as a silent film – was produced during a period of great change, as sound-on-film was fast becoming the standard for motion pictures. As a result, Juno inadvertently became one of Britain’s first “talkies”. What’s so fascinating about this from a contemporary point of view is seeing Hitchcock who was still unfamiliar with this unheralded form of cinema and, like everyone else, had to learn the ropes.
O’Flaherty’s documentary does a brilliant job of depicting this side of the production, showing the great director getting to grips with the new technology and exploring how this presented inevitable problems for his shoot. The documentary has managed to obtain a great deal of archive footage as well as clips from the film and snippets of interviews with Hitchcock himself, which imbue these stories with an immediacy and intimacy, making them feel contemporary despite being almost a century old.
The stories of Juno’s production are really interesting, and the documentary is smart to intersperse the clips of Hitchcock – with his droll demeanour and wry sense of humour – throughout the film, with the director almost guiding us through the story of his project. The documentary also features a host of other engaging interviewees, the majority of whom are associated with O’Casey. These include Joe Mooney of the East Wall Historical Group and the writer’s daughter Shivaun, both of whom give valuable insight into the Dubliner’s life and, in the case of the latter especially, provide a sense about how he felt personally about Hitchcock and the eventual final version of Juno. Alongside the talking-head interviews and found footage, the documentary is punctuated by inserts of still drawings by Peter Marry.
As a fan of Juno, as well as both artists’ work, I can’t help but wonder whether the documentary would need an audience to be familiar with the play to fully appreciate this documentary. It wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but some of the production stories are undoubtedly helped by a knowledge of the source material.
The fact that Alfred Hitchcock and Sean O’Casey are so different, both as artists and as people, is what makes this story enticing. The documentary is at its strongest when it focuses on the interaction between the pair, as their lives and careers dovetailed momentarily, and there is part of me that wishes O’Flaherty had been able to focus more on their relationship and deliver a more personal account of their brief partnership.
Nevertheless, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey is a well researched and executed historical study of a truly enigmatic film and a fascinating examining of an oft-forgotten collaboration.
When Hitchcock Met O’Casey screened on 21st February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).