Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Elstree Calling (1930)

by Brent Reid
  • The Master co-directed this musical, sharing duties with Adrian Brunel
  • Waltzes from Vienna is wrongly thought of as Hitchcock’s only musical
  • It’s a delightful all star revue featuring many regular Hitchcock players
  • 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, part-dir. 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 wasn’t Waltzes from Vienna, which isn’t actually a musical, but Elstree Calling. Versatile writer-director Adrian Brunel (1892–1958) wrote and shot most of this comedy and musical revue before the studio, British International Pictures, removed him from the project. The extent of Hitch’s contribution has not been established with 100% certainty but he’s at least credited with “Sketches and other interpolated items”. Charles Barr and Alain Kerzoncuf‘s thoroughly researched book, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films (2015, also on Kindle) dedicates a lengthy chapter to Elstree Calling and particularly focuses on the whys and wherefores of Hitch’s involvement. Just one of its many revelations is that despite various sources claiming otherwise, there is no actual evidence of any other directors being called in to help complete the picture. An ambitious production for the time, Elstree Calling has four 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 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, part-dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Pathécolor nitrate print

Helen Burnell and the Adelphi (Theatre) Girls; Pathécolor nitrate print. Accomplished stage actress/singer/dancer Burnell is delightful in this, the first of her two musical numbers, which sadly marked her only appearance on film.

Elstree Calling can be seen via an excellent transfer with its special Pathécolor sequences intact, struck from original BFI Archive materials. This is featured on a UK DVD from Network (2014), its only official outing to date.

You can also see it for free if you’re lucky enough to live near a  BFI Mediatheque (films) in the UK. Though the print used is very good, it’s evident even from the film’s Timeline of Historical film Colours entry 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 DVDs 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. All are obviously to be avoided.

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. Many Hitchcock regulars of the 1920s and 1930s put in an appearance, most notably Blackmail villain Donald Calthrop, who repeatedly displays the comedic chops he showcased to such good 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 an angry Anna May Wong in her skimpy Piccadilly (1929) costume.

Piccadilly: all releases

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

The (André) Charlot Girls in Elstree Calling (1930, part-dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Pathécolor nitrate print

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

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.

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 here), right around the corner from my home. Its site is now the car park for a bingo hall. Tragic…

Elstree Calling (part-dir. 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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