Week 10: ‘Juno and the Paycock’ – 1930

I found this one a struggle to be honest, and at times felt I was just listening to various ‘oirish’ types yabbing on about stuff I didn’t really understand. It’s based on a Sean O’Casey play and therefore can be forgiven its stagey feel, but it’s still overlong and in need of some increase in pace and shortening of scenes. I noted whilst watching it that ‘this is the toughest one so far’, beating the previous toughest ‘The Farmer’s Wife’…

The opening scene of the film is an attempt to open it up from the bulk of the narrative, which is largely one-room centric. We see a rabble-rousing orator (the great Barry Fitzgerald, who will go on to be a John Ford stalwart) soap-boxing to the masses, a lovely crane move upwards revealing a ‘Parnell Street, Dublin’ arrowed sign that points directly at him (*see misc. notes below).

The orator is cut down by machine gun fire, the crowd hastily dispersing into the nearest pub – the landlord immediately stacking up the glasses in readiness for a brisk trade. This is a rare time in the film where it actually features any exteriors or action. There follows a lengthy, one take dialogue scene between ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle (Edward Chapman) and his drinking ‘butty’ ‘Joxer’ Daly (Sidney Morgan) as they discuss the troubles.

This is very typical of the film: long takes of theatre style dialogue with minimal camera moves – it feels like Hitchcock has had his wings clipped throughout, which has to have been frustrating just as he was getting more mobile with the camera. Also worth bearing in mind that with the limitations of live sound recording – the camera had to be encased in a large sound-proofed box to prevent its  noise appearing on the soundtrack – he would have also been severely limited in its mobility. With ‘Blackmail’ being largely post-synched this wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.

The narrative centres on The Boyle family who are told they are to inherit a goodly sum of money and promptly proceed to start popping the corks while the grapes are still on the vine. They buy new furniture and borrow from their neighbours, then start to get all a bit hoity-toity and ditching their working class friends before finally realizing there’s actually no cash coming to them. The whole thing ultimately unravels in despair, debt and death. It’s a comedy.

A large saving grace to the film is the very great John Laurie. He plays a rather shadowy figure called Johnny who has fought in the War of Independence, betrayed one of his compatriots and has had an arm blown off for his trouble. He lurks hiding in the spare bedroom at his parents’ place. When he appears, and for me it’s not often enough, the film lifts – his performance is poignant, sad, moving and powerful. There is a moment in ‘Juno and the Paycock’ where Johnny listens to the new gramophone and looks up at a statue of a Madonna and child and suddenly, from a scene that started being endless and irritating, his acting makes it really quite moving.

He emits a feeling of haunted fear that is quite at odds with some of the more broad acting from the others – and the film is all the more tolerable for his appearances. What is strange is that none of the other characters seem to notice how at odds his mood and expressions are, they’re busy drinking and mourning and singing and crapping on about God knows what and he’s in the middle of it all looking deadly serious and full of impending doom (captain)  – ‘why does no-one notice? He’s like a needle in a bowl of noodles’ my notes note. There is a lovely camera track to him as his family get the good money news and he gazes towards the window, hearing gunshots signifying his destiny of doom.

‘Remember your oath’
‘Haven’t I done enough for Ireland?’
‘No man can ever do enough for Ireland’

There is a strong undercurrent of Irish politics running through the film, Johnny in hiding from his misdemeanours and (offscreen) troubles are heard on the soundtrack and referred to.  The film is also steeped in the kind of fervent religiosity you would expect from such an Irish subject – much hailing of Mary, general gnashing of teeth and rather clichéd Irish over-drinking – as soon as da(d) hears about the (mythical) inheritance he starts glugging his way through it. There are times when I had trouble deciphering what they were talking about, due in part to the quality of the sound recording, but also the broadness of the brogue.

‘Juno and the Paycock’ seemed more than any of the Hitchcock’s I have viewed to suffer from being very much of its time and I felt it had to be watched with a great deal of patience. There are scenes that, from a modern perspective, way outstay their welcome. There is a whole bit of business regarding dad not wanting to eat his breakfast that just goes on and on until you want to step in and forcefeed the old fella, he also later having some ‘comedy business’ involving his trousers that irritated the patience out of me too. It’s the kind of thing that onstage would work with a live audience laughing along, but onscreen it all falls a bit flat. There is a scene about 50 minutes in where the visiting local chatterbox, Maisie Madigan (Maire O’Neill) is banging on about Lord-knows-what and the camera shows everyone else in the room just looking bored as it pans across them all, this  is actually quite funny as the characters share our opinion of her endless chatter.

Juno then starts singing some dolefully mordant and endless dirge and is then joined by all the others who take turns with a tune…at this point in my notes I just write ‘God help us, what is this film??’ It’s meant to be moving, soulful and elegiac but I’m afraid just comes across as dull and interminable. Later they all start singing along to the gramophone and this goes on for a while until Johnny (God bless him) tells them to stop – finally someone sensible. To be fair, the depiction of a more innocent time with simple entertainments is quite charming, but it all feels very laboured and in need of a bit more pace.

The film finally comes to a vaguely interesting conclusion: Johnny is dragged off by his former comrades and shot to death, the Boyle daughter pregnant by the lawyer Charles Bentham (John Longden) who then flees away back to England. She is then rejected by her original fella who can stomach anything and forgive her – barring her impending motherhood. The hoped-for inheritance never materializes but in the meantime dad has pished away tons of punts on booze, the furniture mercilessly hauled away in payment for all his debts – and poor old Irish mother Juno (Sara Allgood) on her knees praying to Mary.

I’m sorry, but of all the Hitchcock’s I’ve watched, I really rather hated ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and felt it was – a cliché I know – two hours of my life I will never get back. Even the occasionally mind-numbing ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ had its heart in the right place. ‘Juno’ on the other hand doesn’t know it’s arras from its elbow. Watch it for John Laurie only, otherwise either iron those socks or gaze at your shoe for 96 minutes.

Miscellaneous notes

*This camera move reminded me of the opening of Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’ as Robert De Niro is lost in the celebrating VE Day crowd as the camera cranes upwards – only to be pointed out by a close-to-camera neon arrow picking him out amongst the partying throng.

John Laurie is obviously best known for his role as Private Frazer from ‘Dad’s Army’ but his career going back to the ‘30’s is rich and astonishing. He appears in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ and then the Michael Powell classics ‘The Edge of the World’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ and ‘”I Know Where I’m Going!”’, as well as appearing in movies by Laurence Olivier and David Lean. In all his work, he has that dread-full gaze of seriousness married to a gravitas that avoids being hammy. He’s fantastic.

The version I watched was, joyously, the UK one clocking in at 96 minutes. There is a US edit running at 85.

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