Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Elstree Calling (1930)

by Brent Reid
  • The Master co-directed one of Britain’s earliest musicals alongside Adrian Brunel
  • He worked on it after directing Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie, the previous year
  • Amusing all star revue drawn from era’s most popular London productions
  • Also features many regular Hitchcock players in various comedy sketches
  • Waltzes from Vienna is wrongly thought of as Hitchcock’s only musical
  • This is his first part-colour film, 18 years before 1948’s full-colour Rope
  • There’s only one official, good quality release; avoid the many bootlegs

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.

Elstree Calling (1930, dir. Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock) UK poster

UK poster

It’s a well known fact that the Master directed a musical, but less known is that most commentators get its title wrong. No, it’s not Waltzes from Vienna, actually a melodrama not a musical, but Elstree Calling, specifically a comedy and musical revue. It’s one of Britain’s first entries in the genre; in fact, the only earlier one I’m aware of is the all-male, army concert party-set Splinters (1929), whose initial late December screenings seemingly only beat Elstree to the punch by around six weeks. If you live in the UK or have a decent VPN, it’s available exclusively on the BFI Player and if you think Elstree’s Aldelphi and Charlot Girls troupes are a wow, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Elstree is another – though much less noted – achievement for Hitch, after directing Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie, the previous year. But this time around he shared directing duties with his more experienced contemporary, versatile writer-director Adrian Brunel (1892–1958), for British International Pictures. A few years earlier, the then senior Brunel was instrumental in saving Hitch’s fledgling but foundering career by proposing that Ivor Montagu was tasked with reshaping his third unreleased film in a row, The Lodger. I think we all know how that one turned out.

The (André) Charlot Girls in Elstree Calling (1930, dir. Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock) Pathécolor nitrate print

The (André) Charlot Girls in a musical number; Pathécolor nitrate print

Brunel made his name writing and directing a string of sophisticated and popular comedy shorts, the last of which were made for Gainsborough Pictures, for whom he graduated on to directing a handful of features. The second of these was the superb Alma Reville co-scripted, Ivor Novello-starrer The Constant Nymph (1928). A hit on release, it was named Film of the Year in Film Weekly’s annual reader’s poll; the following year’s winner was Blackmail. Along with other films involving Alma, Nymph has been beautifully restored by the BFI and is crying out for a home video release. After helming three more similarly unavailable Hitch-related films for the studio, they and Brunel parted ways due to a dispute over alleged non-payment of fees. He moved on to BIP, then current home of Hitch, where he wrote and shot most of Elstree before being abruptly removed from the project, and indeed the studio, altogether. Hitch was asked to step in and complete the picture and while the full extent of his contribution cannot been established with 100% certainty, Hitch is at least credited with “Sketches and other interpolated items”.

An ambitious production for the time, Elstree Calling has four stencil-tinted Pathécolor sequences and is a multiple-language version film, having been completed in nine different variants for international distribution. From the 22.4.1930 issue of the Dundee Evening Telegraph:

“ELSTREE CALLING” IN NINE LANGUAGES: British International Pictures are to make nine additional versions of their review “Elstree Calling,” one in each of nine different languages. This British film will thus be available for practically the whole of Europe. The compere impersonated in the original version by Tommy Handley—at Palace and Plaza this week—will be played by actors who are popular in each of the respective countries. Supplementary “turns” likely to appeal to individual nations will also be introduced. With these exceptions, the foreign versions will be identical with the original.

I have no idea of the survival status of any of the foreign variants but if you do, please let me know. This was actually the first such film Hitch was involved in, but later the same year would see the release of Murder! which he filmed simultaneously alongside Mary, its German-language version. Three years later, Hitch made his second and final music-based film, Waltzes from Vienna, before embarking on the final and most successful part of his British career with a run of renowned crime thrillers.

Helen Burnell and the Adelphi (Theatre) Girls in Elstree Calling (1930, dir. Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock) Pathécolor nitrate print

Helen Burnell and the Adelphi (Theatre) Girls; Pathécolor nitrate print. Accomplished American stage actress-singer-dancer Burnell is delightful in this, the first of her two musical numbers, which sadly appear to be her only recorded legacy. They were, along with those of husband and wife team Jack Hulbert and Cicely m, taken from Hulbert’s latest revue, “The House that Jack Built“, featuring the input of Ivor Novello.

Shot in black and white, Elstree Calling can be seen via an excellent transfer with its original stencilled colour sequences and pre-credits overture intact, struck from original BFI Archive materials. Its only two official physical outings to date are a UK and a black-sleeved French DVD, which respectively include an image gallery and an entire extra Hitchcock.

You can also see it for free at the BFI Mediatheque (films) in London. Though the print is very good, it’s evident even from the film’s entry at the Timeline of Historical film Colours that with a full restoration it could look, and no doubt sound, significantly better. For instance, there’s a slightly jarring jump at the end of a musical segment, at 51:23. Several poor quality US bootleg DVD-Rs are in circulation from shady, supposedly public domain labels like Reel Vault, Synergy Entertainment, Golden Age Classics, etc. Most, if not all, such releases feature a fuzzy and cropped, B&W VHS recording of a UK Channel 4 broadcast with the ads crudely chopped out, and are obviously to be avoided.

Trailers: 16mm, modern/#2, book | intros: restoration, Pierce, Giacchino/Silverman, Feinstein, Carlotta | clips, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8

King of Jazz (1930) it ain’t, but though made on a much smaller budget, Elstree Calling had no less ambition than that strongly recommended American revue powerhouse, and is well worthy of your time. Utterly charming and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, it features a virtual who’s who of British radio, film and theatrical talent of the day. Here are additional contemporary filmed performances by some of the 20 or so featured musicians:

It being a BIP production, many Hitchcock regulars of the 1920s and 1930s also put in appearances, including Blackmail villain Donald Calthrop, who repeatedly displays the comedic chops he showcased to such great effect in Shooting Stars (1927). His final sketch, impersonating Douglas Fairbanks in then recently released The Taming of the Shrew (1929), also features an appearance from angry Mary Pickford substitute Anna May Wong in her skimpy Piccadilly (1929) costume. In his autobiography and his extensive papers archived at the BFI, Brunel actually states that this item was shot by Hitch.

Peccadillo and Taboo in Piccadilly: The Entrancing ‘Otherness’ of Anna May WongElaine Lennon

Elstree was the fourth and final Hitchcock film for accomplished stage and screen actor Gordon Harker, who particularly excelled in comedic roles. This followed his scene stealing appearances in The Ring, The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne. Here, in Hitch’s linking segments, he plays an amateur inventor whose obsessive tinkering continually thwarts his attempts to watch the revue in question on an early television set. Harker played supporting roles in many British films from the 1920s–1950s, but for more examples of his comic and dramatic talent, I strongly recommend checking out the trilogy featuring his highest profile role if you ever get the chance. Inspector Hornleigh (1938), followed by Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941), starred Harker as the titular character, spun-off from a popular BBC radio series.

Inspector Hornleigh Investigates (1937–1940) was the creation of German-Jewish émigré Hans Wolfgang Priwin, who also produced an eponymous 1939 novel. Though the radio series was played as straight drama, the films strongly emphasise humour, largely via Alastair Sim as Sergeant Bingham, Hornleigh’s bumbling sidekick. This neatly mirrored many similar occurrences across the Pond with the likes of the reimagined Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, so memorably played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Note that as of June 2019, the Hornleigh films are only available to buy on very poor US bootlegs; if they ever become officially available I’ll post them here.

The last Lily Morris clip above sees her teaming up with fellow music hall star Nellie Wallace to play charladies in the 1934 Will Hay vehicle Radio Parade of 1935. It’s very similar to Elstree Calling in featuring a panoply of performers and musical numbers strung together with a fun but flimsy plot, and even has a couple of sequences in Dufaycolor.

If that floats your boat, I strongly recommend Network’s six-volume, 24-film DVD series British Musicals of the 1930s, which is absolutely crammed with rare gems of the era.

More trailers

The authors of several thoroughly researched tracts have uncovered a wealth of production data relating to Elstree Calling, particularly focusing on the whys and wherefores of Hitch’s involvement. Among their many notions are the possibilities his contribution accounted for up to a quarter of the film (Vest) or that he had hardly any involvement at all and his name was mainly attached to boost its chances at the box office (Botting). All agree that despite various sources claiming otherwise, there is zero evidence whatsoever of any other directors being called in to help complete the picture (Barr-Kerzoncuf). Nonetheless, three choreographers are commonly cited as co-directors despite receiving the explicit onscreen credit “Ensemble numbers staged by Jack Hulbert, Paul Murray, André Charlot”. This is similar to Leon M. Lion having long been erroneously credited as a producer on Number Seventeen; Murder! and Mary being based on a stage play; Nita Naldi appearing in The Pleasure Garden; etc. All just a few examples of commonplace lazy scholarship and non-existent fact checking when it comes to British Hitchcock.

Another revelation drawn from Brunel’s papers is that he originally intended “The Wrong Flat”, a widely noted Elstree sketch depicting a crime of passion and mistaken identity, to be shot and shown in three separate versions. Initially, Brunel planned to appear onscreen announcing Hitch himself directing the sketch in three styles; this would have been the latter’s third cameo, following those in The Lodger and Blackmail. In a later script revision, Hitch was excised but Brunel remained, though being interviewed by a journalist and explaining what was now four approaches to the scenario himself. The first was as “a little sketch as it would be done on the West End stage” followed by the others executed in different film genres: a Hitch suspenser, an early western by D.W. Griffith and an Al Jolson version, presumably another musical like The Jazz Singer. They clearly hark back to Brunel’s early short burlesque comedies. The Hitch version pays strong homage, actually naming the director, and is full of direct references to Blackmail with cockney characters, repeated mentions of Scotland Yard, the word “knife”, and so on. In the event, only the “West End stage” version made it into the film and it seems almost certain to have been directed by Hitch.

It’s thought that Brunel’s legal action against Gainsborough made him something of an instant pariah in the film industry, which led to him being booted off Elstree. He was completely left out in the cold, not even being invited to the première, and his offer to help edit the MLVs was rejected, as were his requests for more work at BIP. His career never fully recovered: following a three-year hiatus, he directed a slew of now mostly lost B-pictures and had a few minor co-directing stints before giving up on the film business together by the age of 50. Thankfully, Brunel wrote extensively of his time in the industry and left behind a substantial archive, now at the BFI, to assist with future studies.

Elstree Calling was widely touted in the press as having been shot and finished in a record time of under two months. Though it wasn’t rolled out nationally until late September 1930, previews commenced from as early as the 6th of February that year. This mini-review from the Nottingham Evening Post, 18.3.1930, is from just such a screening at the beautiful, recently built New Empress Cinema (more info), right around the corner from my home. Its site is now a block of flats and the car park for a bingo hall. Tragic…

Elstree Calling (1930, dir. Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock) Nottingham Evening Post review, 18.3.1930

The Multiple-Language Version Film: A Curious Moment in Cinema History

Multiple-Language Version Film Collectors’ Guide

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.

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Fr. Matthew Hardesty
Fr. Matthew Hardesty
7th July 2023 21:05

A new Blu-ray release of Piccadilly is coming from Milestone Films, due September 26, 2023 with the restoration from the B.F.I.

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