Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The Mountain Eagle (1926)

by Brent Reid
  • The Master’s only missing feature is one of the most wanted silent films of all
  • In the first iteration of his favourite theme, it concerns a Wrong Man on the Run
  • It’s bookended by a pair of masterpieces and is very likely every bit just as impressive
  • Hitch’s own disingenuous, disparaging remarks to Truffaut have soured its reputation
  • Despite rumours to the contrary, this is not a lost film but a misplaced film – we live in hope!
  • Innocent of all charges but despite a worldwide hunt, this particular fugitive remains elusive…

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.

Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville and crew on the set of The Mountain Eagle

Sorry folks, nothings to see here. Topping the BFI Most Wanted list, this film’s completely lost and the only one of Hitch’s solo features not to survive, though there have been other recent discoveries, so never say never… The Mountain Eagle is a torrid tale of love and obsession, loss and redemption, and running through it all it is Hitch’s beloved Wrong Man theme. Of course he would go on to make this now-trope his own, but here it’s further evidence that much of his future cinematic agenda was laid out from the very start. In this iteration of the theme, our hero finds himself falsely accused of a murder (spoiler alert!) that never actually occurred. Don’t worry though: after many travails, everything came right for him in the end.

Bernhard Goetzke and Alma Reville on the set of The Mountain Eagle (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Bernhard Goetzke and Alma Reville on the set. Already a veteran of many Weimar era classics, his imposing frame – perhaps put to best use as the figure of Death in Fritz Lang’s Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921) – dwarfs 5′ Alma.

Like Hitch’s first film, The Pleasure Garden, The Mountain Eagle was an Anglo-German co-production of Gainsborough Pictures and Emelka Film Studios. This time it was shot entirely in Germany and Austria, and released in the former country in May 1926. It had at least eight England-wide trade screenings in October 1926 but was held back and only granted a UK release in May 1927, following the success of Hitch’s third film, The Lodger. As a result, The Mountain Eagle‘s release is sometimes attributed to either year but the earlier is more usual. Its literally-translated German title was Der Bergadler, while despite numerous claims to the contrary, it was not retitled Fear o’ God in the US; that was merely the name of Charles Lapworth’s original short story on which the film was based. The sole surviving US lobby card, in addition to numerous other contemporary sources, confirms this. The academic Peter Noble, via his Index to the Work of Alfred Hitchcock (1949), was the source of that much-repeated misapprehension, as he was the rumour of Nita Naldi, American star of The Mountain Eagle, also appearing in Hitch’s previous film.

For a life and career so publicly lived and thoroughly researched, I’m constantly amazed at just how much Hitch scholarship is sullied by routine repeating of fallacies and misapprehensions. At least (the Wayback Machine aside) publishing in the digital domain allows the luxury of endlessly editing and correcting. But before permanently committing my findings to the printed page I’d be ultra cautious about ensuring they were as truthful as possible. Sadly, it seems generations of Hitch scholars aren’t always as concerned. Check your facts!

Nita Naldi was every inch the Hollywood star and the other cast and crew were initially overawed and not a little intimidated by her presence. But they were soon won over by her conscientious work ethic and down to earth charms. Hitch, in his “Life Among the Stars” article for the News Chronicle (15 March 1938), said:

‘Nita was playing a scene where she had been run out of town (unjustly of course) by the Kentucky farmers. She had to turn on them and tell them just what she thought of them. In silent days, we never wrote dialogue, except for close-ups where anyone could lip-read. In a big emotional scene, we let people say just whatever came into their heads. It helped them to get over the atmosphere.

When Nita finally turned on these “farmers,” I called, “Give them all you’ve got.” She did. She gave them, in English, Italian, American, Bowery, Park Avenue, and, maybe, double Dutch. She called them anything and everything she could lay her tongue to. She told them where they got off, where they came from, where they were going to. She used words we had never before heard.

When, shuddering and shaking with emotion, she stopped and I called out “Cut” the whole studio, none of whom understood a word she had said, burst into spontaneous applause. She caught up her dress, her dog, her maid, her father. She piled into a taxi. She rushed to the station. She caught her train still in her gingham gown, with the makeup still on her face.’

Nita Naldi and Bernhard Goetzke in The Mountain Eagle (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Nita Naldi and Bernhard Goetzke

It appears probable rather than a full-blown national release, only a very limited number of prints toured UK cinemas throughout the rest of 1927 and early 1928. If so, it would explain the much reduced likelihood of a single print surviving. The London trade show length was reported as 7,503ft; based on the 20fps settled on for the restored Pleasure Garden and Lodger, that would give a running time of 100min. As was usual practise for foreign imports and lower budgeted films, it was cut down for US release. Weekly Motion Picture News trade ads from October 30 1926–February 25 1927 list it as 6,000ft, while from March 4–April 22 1927 it was listed at 5,302ft. At 20fps those versions would run at 80 and 71min respectively. It played intermittently throughout the US from early 1927 until at least the end of 1929.

There’s a marked tendency for modern authors to damn this film with faint praise, despite having never seen it. While acknowledging its status as one of the most desired lost films of all, they’ll almost inadvertently follow up by claiming that’s wholly due to Hitch’s name being attached to it, rather than any inherent artistic merit it may possess. Why say such a thing, when the last confirmed screening was the best part of a century ago? Several reasons spring to mind. Firstly, as already stated, too many Hitch commentators can’t think for themselves and are far more comfortable lazily repeating what others have said before them.

Secondly, while some contemporary reviewers were positively gushing, others were generally lukewarm or at best only cautiously enthusiastic, applauding the film in some respects while criticising others. The scenario itself doesn’t seem to have gone over as well as it could, whereas they’re unanimously approving of the film’s technical artistry. Some of the negative points are ill-founded, even based on the relative little we know. For instance, the Film-Kurier review (no. 125, 1 June 1926) said, “Also the location of the village is not exactly specified. The action seems to be playing somewhere in the Bavarian Forest, but this impression is soon blurred by English inscriptions and signs.” That particular reviewer was an idiot, completely lacking in imagination; it’s a fantasy, not a documentary. As stated, The Mountain Eagle was partly shot in Austria, in and around the village of Obergurgl, nestled in the Ötztal Alps in Tyrol, to be exact – all of which stood in quite nicely for the story’s (reputed but disputed) setting of the Kentucky hills in the US of A.

Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen in The Mountain Eagle (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen. She plays schoolteacher Beatrice Brent (cool name!), he John ‘Fear o’ God’ Fulton.

Contemporary writers are also hasty to dismiss the film based on the fact it follows the seemingly lacklustre The Pleasure Garden, but those opinions are only based on the terrible Rohauer-butchered copy that’s been circulating for decades. The restored version of The Pleasure Garden is in fact rather brilliant and bodes extremely well for its successor. Lastly, Hitch himself had an unfortunate and entirely misleading habit of dismissing or even being outright critical of earlier films he had an unhappy time making, or that didn’t turn out exactly as hoped for. When interviewed by Truffaut he determinedly distanced himself from his first two efforts, citing The Lodger thematically as “the first true Hitchcock picture” but as on so many other occasions, any such remarks should be taken with a sackful of salt. This is yet another example of the director’s narked tendency to disparage anything he made that didn’t enjoy wholesale critical and commercial success. The bottom line is that given the masterpieces bookending it and the many others that followed, The Mountain Eagle has all the signs of being a bloody good film in its own right. For that reason alone it thoroughly deserves to be found.

Despite devoting eight pages apiece to The Pleasure Garden and The Lodger, Hitchcock/Truffaut dispenses with The Mountain Eagle perfunctorily:

F.T. The following year you made your second picture, The Mountain Eagle. It was filmed in the studio and on location in the Tyrol.
A.H. It was a very bad movie. The producers were always trying to break into the American market, so they wanted another film star. And so, for the part of the village schoolmistress, they sent me Nita Naldi, the successor to Theda Bara. She had fingernails out to there. Ridiculous!
F.T. I have the scenario here. The story is about a store manager who is after an innocent young schoolteacher. She takes refuge in the mountains, under the protection of a recluse, whom she eventually marries. Is that right?
A.H. I’m afraid it is!

Very unfair. For now, the only significant tangible artefacts we have left of the film are a few dozen production photos, many of which are included in this article, which will tell you just about everything you need to know about it. For even more, Dan Auiler, author of several books concerning the Master, has penned Hitchcock Lost (2013), an eBook collating all currently known facts and materials on The Mountain Eagle, as well as some of Hitch’s unrealised projects.

To tide us over until something more substantial turns up, some talented and enterprising film students made a clever short, The Projectionist. It was released in 2012 to coincide with the re-premières of the restored Hitchcock 9. In true Hitchcockian fashion, it’s an alternately light and (very) dark imagining of where a stash of missing reels of The Mountain Eagle might be hiding.

Finding The Mountain Eagle: behind the scenes of The Projectionist

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. Matt
Fr. Matt
7th May 2022 03:58

It looks like the link to the Hitchcock Lost ebook is broken

Fr. Matt
Fr. Matt
7th May 2022 04:11

For those who must have something related to this on a DVD, you could try to burn this YouTube video to a disc. It shows a commentary by three guys on 54 images of the film.

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