- His most obscure and maligned film, only surviving in severely compromised condition
- Only a few badly worn 16mm prints exist, all missing over 25% of their original footage
- As one of the Hitchcock 9, the BFI valiantly restored it to the best state currently possible
- Its condition mirrors the pre-restored version of Hitchcock’s début, The Pleasure Garden
- With a new piano score, on home video it would compliment Hitchcock’s first film perfectly
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
- Home video releases
- Easy Virtue (2008)
- More Robin Irvine on home video
- Related articles
Easy Virtue’s French title sums up its plot beautifully: Le passé ne meurt pas (The past does not die). Japan’s inelegant title, ふしだらな女, is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, translating as “Slut” or “Slutty Woman”. Charming. All of which amply illustrates how, despite its age, this film has a lot to say that is sadly still relevant about the grossly unfair way society treats women – in this case a divorcée – compared to their male counterparts. The BFI’s Bryony Dixon supervised the Hitchcock 9 restoration project and I couldn’t possibly describe the film any better than her, so won’t even try…
“In Picturegoer of July 1927, a photomontage advertises the coming attraction of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the recent stage play Easy Virtue with the caption, ‘Screening a Noël Coward play sounds rather difficult – Mr. Hitchcock has just done it!’ In fact all of the trade reviews focused on the clever adaptation by Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock’s scriptwriter and mentor for all of his early films.
It was a challenge. In Coward’s play the blackening of the heroine’s name has already happened before the action starts, with the explanation of how and why coming later. This structure, natural in dialogue-driven theatre, was cumbersome in silent cinema. Stannard came up with a solution he had used many times before – most famously for Lady Audley’s Secret (1920) in which he daringly began the film with the surprise ending of the novel. Easy Virtue, the film, is rearranged chronologically and so begins with the dramatic court case that ends Coward’s play. This reveals the back story to the proceedings, in which Larita Filton is being sued for divorce by her husband on grounds of adultery. It shows the attitude of the judiciary, which is shallow and unsympathetic, and of the press, which is reductive and slanderous. We see the judge yawning, the barristers grandstanding and a lady reporter who reduces the facts of the case – the suicide of the portrait artist in love with his subject, Larita, and the sum of money he left her – to journalistic platitudes that convince both the court and the press that she must be guilty.
The trade reviews exhorted the cinema owner to publicise Isabel Jeans: ‘Talk the star,’ the Kine Weekly instructed. Jeans was an established lead of the Gainsborough studio, most closely associated with glamorous vamp roles like the one she played in The Rat trilogy. She had also starred in Hitchcock’s previous film, Downhill, as the mercenary wife of Novello’s naïve protagonist (she would play one more role for Hitchcock, in 1941’s Suspicion). Charles Barr points out that in many ways the characters of Novello’s Roddy in Downhill and Jeans’ Larita in Easy Virtue are on similar downward trajectories: pursued by scandal from London high society to the south of France. Again ‘society’ – represented in this film by the narrow-minded family of Larita’s new husband, the Whittakers, in their remote moated house – is unforgiving and hostile to the outsider. The love interest, Robin Irvine, also appeared in Downhill, as the friend for whom Roddy takes the rap.
Hitchcock’s own contribution didn’t go unnoticed; he excels himself in Easy Virtue. As he had in The Pleasure Garden and Champagne, he opens the film with an innovative trick shot. A giant mock-up with mirrors was used for the shot of the judge looking through his monocle, reflecting the actor standing behind the camera leading into a perfectly matched close-up of the prosecuting counsel. Impressive too is the scene where John proposes to Larita, whereby, in another Hitchcock favorite device, the crucial action is shown only in the facial expressions of the telephone operator as she listens in to their conversation. Finally, he creates a memorable climax, with the defiant Larita making a grand entrance at the top of the staircase, provocatively dressed in a slinky gown and ostrich feather fan – just like the woman of ‘easy virtue’ her critics always thought her. This delicious movie moment apparently elicited a spontaneous round of applause at the première.
Said première took place on 5 March 1928, while its London trade show took place in August 1927.
Of all of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, Easy Virtue has proved the most challenging for the BFI’s restoration team. It survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original length of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes, depending on running speed [this is based on the team’s preferred 21 fps, used for their transfer]. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet: a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search.
The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much-projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage, and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.” – Bryony Dixon, 2012
Home video releases
Easy Virtue’s preserved version (despite the BFI’s heroic efforts, it’s a stretch to qualify it as a full restoration) was premièred on 28 September, 2012 at the BFI Southbank, London. No new score was commissioned but it was accompanied live on solo piano by Stephen Horne. Given its relative obscurity and severely compromised condition, Easy Virtue is a prime candidate for appearing as a piano-scored extra to tag on the release of one of Hitch’s better known and better condition early works. However, a French label puzzlingly opted to release it as a standalone title – et sans musique, despite the rear sleeve claiming, “En bonus, une nouvelle orchestration”. Even a basic live recording of one of Stephen’s various performances would have been eminently preferable to the deafening silence that it does have. If you do acquire it, try Mozart’s String Quartets as accompaniment; they go particularly well with this and similarly silent copies of Downhill.
- Italy: Eagle 2on1 DVD (2005) w/The Skin Game, also in 8-DVD/15-film AH Portrait
- France: Journaux.fr DVD/magazine (2002, 2005)
- Spain: Filmax DVD (2010)
Elephant’s is the only restored release so far and has similar extras to their Lodger, namely some featurettes: two short discussions in French (4:43, 8:37), “Hitchcock: The Early Years” (1999, 24:04) and a photo gallery. Apart from the (lack of a) score, another huge misfire is French subtitles are forced on the dual format edition’s BD and optional on the DVD! Every other French label has a dogged insistence on making the French dub the default track instead of the original, and then having the original with forced subtitles. Then you’ve examples like this, where they’re not even consistent across a single release! There are countless magnificent and often exclusive French releases but collectors really have to do their homework before buying; DVDCompare is the best resource on this issue. When pressed, some labels claim it’s because of licensing conditions but I’ve asked various licensors about this and have yet to find one who actually requests it. What also gives the lie is often the same title will be released by different labels around Europe yet France will routinely be the only one with forced subs, as with many other British Hitchcock DVDs. Can anyone supply a definitive reason as to why this is?
There are a few other authorised DVDs of Easy Virtue, including some magazine-related rarities, but their shared transfer is from an incomplete, unrestored NTSC-PAL source running at 58 minutes and should be disregarded. As with all of Hitch’s British films, countless bootlegs abound. There are many such DVDs and even BD-Rs from Spain (Resen/Feel Films, with a needle-drop score) and Germany ([not so] Great Movies). The latter, like The Lodger, with which it shares the disc, is probably ripped directly from the French BD as it also has a 1080i/50 transfer running at 25fps PAL speed. The bootleg adds an unsynchronised needle-drop score of anonymous old classical music that’s swiped from a completely unrelated source and does the visuals no favours at all; again, much better the aforementioned string quartets. These BD-Rs are the exact reason why Elephant and others have refrained from releasing any more of the restored Hitchcock 9: they’ve devastated sales of legit copies and signal the threat that any future releases will also be instantly bootlegged.
All other unrestored DVD boots are in a truly execrable state and recycle the same poor standard definition material, as do those on Amazon Prime in the UK and Germany. Those not silent also predictably contain one of a variety of different random needle-drops. Though most run for around 80 minutes, bear in mind they actually contain less footage then the 69-minute restored version, so are transferred much too slowly. Absolutely avoid. Easy Virtue’s current condition is not unlike that of unrestored copies of The Pleasure Garden. However, unlike that film, barring a miracle there’s no chance of it finding redemption, which is perversely – and tragically – fitting, given Easy Virtue’s subject matter. Also like The Pleasure Garden, what we do have of it is crying out for a proper release; both films would compliment each other perfectly on disc. Perhaps one day a brave label will be willing to take up the challenge.
Easy Virtue (2008)
For those seeking a slightly more faithful – and obviously complete – screen adaptation of Coward’s play, you could do worse than give the successful 2008 remake a spin. Starring Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas, the main location has pleasingly been transposed to my grandmother’s birthplace, Flintham in Nottinghamshire, just a few miles from where I’m writing this. The film was preceded by a December 1999 BBC Radio 3 adaptation featuring, among others, Anna Massey, who earlier met an unfortunate end in Hitch’s Frenzy, and Rupert Penry-Jones, who went on to star in the 2008 remake of The 39 Steps. Given the current condition of Hitch’s take on the material, where this version really shines is in the sumptuous visuals, especially in HD. Home video options are:
- US: Sony BD and DVD (2009, reissued 2017)
- Canada: Alliance DVD (2009)
- UK: Pathé DVD (2009)
- Italy: Eagle BD and DVD (2009, reissued 2018)
- Germany: Sony BD and DVD/alt (2009)
- France: TF1 Vidéo DVD (2009) – forced French subtitles
- Spain: DeAPlaneta BD, DVD and 2-DVD (2009)
- Poland: Best Film DVD (2009)
- Australia: Roadshow BD and DVD (2009)
- Mexico: Sony BD and DVD/alt (2012)
- Brazil: Sony BD and DVD (2009)
All DVDs are region- locked, while the identical BDs are region free, and all contain the same extras: an audio commentary with director/co-writer Stephan Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins, a “New York Premiere” featurette (6:12), four deleted scenes (4:51), a blooper reel (8:50) and the theatrical trailer (2:02). Except for Italy that is, whose region B/2 discs contain cast interviews, a behind the scenes featurette, and the English and Italian trailers.
More Robin Irvine on home video
Prior to appearing in Hitch’s Easy Virtue, Robin Irvine had played a less, ahem, virtuous role in Downhill. Sadly, in the midst of a very successful stage and screen career, he died from pleurisy aged only 32 while holidaying in Bermuda. At the time, he had been married for almost two years to actress Ursula Jeans whose older sister Isabel appeared alongside her future brother-in-law in both of Hitch’s films. Ursula herself was later cast as Chloe Hornblower in The Skin Game, but bowed out when she had to have emergency surgery for appendicitis on the eve of shooting. Incidentally, immediately prior to Robin’s 1933 death, Ursula shot the utterly brilliant I Lived with You co-starring Ivor Novello – miss it at your peril! After publishing this article, I was emailed by a distant relative of Robin Irvine, who asked if I knew the status of his other films. This is what I discovered, so thought I’d share it with you, but let me know if you can add any more info:
- The Secret Kingdom (1925) – BFI Archive
- Downhill (1927)
- Land of Hope and Glory (1927) – BFI Archive
- Confetti (1928) – BFI Archive; apparently lost
- Easy Virtue (1927)
- Palais de danse (1928) – BFI Archive; 2019 review
- The Rising Generation (1928) – BFI Archive
- The Intruder (1928) – short; apparently lost
- Young Woodley (1928) – Based on John Van Druten’s risqué 1925 play and 1928 novel. Irvine played the title role, but it wasn’t released and despite the scant BFI Archive holdings, it is fortunately extant and a real cracker. Also quickly remade as a talkie, also in the BFI Archive.
- A Knight in London/Eine Nacht in London (1928) – BFI Archive; any other archive holdings?
- Come Back, All Is Forgiven/Kehre zurück! Alles vergeben! (1929) – archive holdings?
- The Ship of Lost Men/Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929) – US: Grapevine R0 DVD-R (2012); archive holdings?
- Mischievous Miss/Fräulein Lausbub (1930) – archive holdings?
- Leave It to Me (1930) – BFI Archive; apparently lost
- Keepers of Youth (1931) – apparently lost
- Above Rubies (1932) – BFI Archive; apparently lost
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.