Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Easy Virtue (1927)

  • One of the Master’s most obscure films; much maligned, it only exists in severely compromised condition
  • Only a few badly worn 16mm prints survive, all missing more than 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

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Easy Virtue‘s French title sums up its plot beautifully: Le passé ne meurt pas (The past does not die). Despite its age, this film has a lot to say that is sadly still relevant about the 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…

Easy Virtue (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK trade magazine ad

UK trade magazine ad

“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.

Ian Hunter and Isabel Jeans in Easy Virtue (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Ian Hunter and Isabel Jeans in Easy Virtue (1927)

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.

A glamorously-dressed Isabel Jeans and Robin Irvine in Easy Virtue (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). She admires a bunch of flowers while he admires her, with lust.

Isabel Jeans and Robin Irvine

The Restoration

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

Isabel Jeans and Robin Irvine on a bed in Easy Virtue (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Isabel Jeans and Robin Irvine

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 a better known and better condition Hitch silent. However, a French label puzzlingly opted to release it as a standalone title – et sans musique:

Aside from one magazine-related rarity, Elephant’s is the only authorised release so far and has similar extras to their Lodger. Easy Virtue‘s preserved version (despite the BFI’s heroic efforts it technically doesn’t qualify as a full restoration) was premièred live with accompaniment by Stephen Horne and even a ‘basic’ recording of that performance would have been eminently preferable to the deafening silence that it does have. There are various un-restored/preserved bootleg DVDs and even BDs from Resen and (not so) Great Movies, but they’re all in a truly execrable state. 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.

Isabel Jeans in Easy Virtue (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

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For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This guide is regularly  updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see the About page.


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