(Warning spoilers for ‘Downhill’ and ‘The Lodger’****************)
It’s quite fun watching Ivor Novello movies. Ivor Novello is famous for being a composer and his name lives on in the form of the Ivor Novello awards which are awarded yearly for the best song compositions. Away from the music Novello was Britain’s answer to Valentino in the 1920’s. It’s like he had this whole secret life away from the theatre and composing except that to British audiences he didn’t. It’s pretty hard to be a secret silent film actor when during 1926 Novello was the 2nd most popular male actor, after Valentino, on the British screen and starred in films that were amongst the most successful British films screened in the U.S in 1921-2.
Today Novello is still the best known silent film star who acted in British made silents, as opposed to British performers who made it big in America, like Chaplin. Why? Hitchcock of course, if he hadn’t been in two of Hitchcock’s silents, ‘The Lodger’ & ‘Downhill’, I wonder who would have taken his place, whoever played the Lodger I suppose & if there were no Hitchcock silents?
Such thoughts are just idle speculation though and this post is about ‘Downhill’. Generally ’Downhill’ is ignored in favour of ’The Lodger’. Of the two films Hitchcock did with Novello I prefer ’Downhill’. ’The Lodger’ is undeniably well made but it didn’t grab my attention as much (on this contrary note of the two films Peter Lorre did with Hitchcock, I liked ’Secret Agent’ (1934) much, much more than ’The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1936) again it’s the latter that gets all the critics going). I was drawn to ‘Downhill’ because of it’s twist on a very well worn and common plot that of a series of events leading a character into a life of degradation. Inevitably the character is always a woman, but in ‘Downhill’s case the character is a man. Although after seeing films where the man of the house gets the maid pregnant & she ends up on the street & the man carries on unaffected, it does seem odd that the reason for Novello’s character, Roddy’s descent is caused by getting a girl pregnant. Roddy didn’t as he was taking the rap for his poorer friend so he could afford to go to college, leaving Roddy to be expelled & leave his wealthy family home to try & make his way in the world, in between having visions of his father’s disapproving face. The actor playing Roddy’s father looks like Nosferatu with out his make-up, no wonder Roddy is disturbed by his imaginings!
What’s unusual about Roddy is as a male character is his passivity. I’ve seen a lot of pathetic male characters on the screen but none so passive; Roddy lets the pregnant girl pin the blame on him without a word, his wife makes him a cuckold & spends his cash, again she was only after his money, after becoming broke he ends up dancing for money, with matronly ladies (a quick mention must be made of the excellent Violet Farebrother here) even then he’s not in control as the money’s not his but is given to a the madam who runs the establishment. And finally near the end when Roddy is seriously ill and not capable of even moving much he is only saved as the people around him think they can gain financially from him if they get him back to his rich family. Roddy sticks to his code honour but nobody else does. In the end Roddy’s happy ending, like his downfall is facilitated by others actions & not his own. Much like the career of an actor in fact! Novello did co-write the play after all, maybe it was an outlet for how he felt about being Britain’s top pin-up. As an actor, though, several of his films were based on scripts/plays written by him, so he wasn’t without power.
Being different is not enough to make a film watchable though and even at this early stage of Hitchcock’s career it’s clear he is a skilled film maker with well put together scenes and editing. The reveal where Roddy is shown not to be a waiter but an extra in a play playing a waiter on stage is particularly nice. The scene with Roddy in a lift going down with a close up of the “down” button, to signify Roddy’s life going down the pan was underlining the situation a bit heavily though.
It’s his most noted feature but it wasn’t until Downhill, my 4th Novello film I noticed that yes, he is quite handsome. There’s a lot to be said about a decent quality print. Or perhaps ‘Downhill’ is the most enamoured of Novello’s looks as an object I’ve seen. In a short scene of giving the fans what they want there is a shot of a topless Novello. Back to Novello’s visage, on his (near) deathbed Hitch gives the viewer a good long look a Novello’s face and his stillness adds to the sense of Roddy as a passive object to be looked at. And to Novello’s credit he does a good impression of being suitably tortured and ill. Who needs a cool blonde, eh?
One thing I’ve noted about comments about Novello’s acting is people either like it or if they don’t his lack of ability is put down to him being gay. For example in ‘Downhill’ it’s pretty hard to believe Roddy could have got a young woman pregnant he looks like he wouldn’t have a clue. This could be because, as people have said Novello’s gay & couldn’t possibly act convincingly with a girl, or it could be due to his acting ability. Either way it doesn’t matter. I’m not too tied to style if it works it works whether or not it’s an Oscar winning performance or not. Novello’s performance sets up Roddy’s character as a naïve & unworldly young man; he gets upset at not being able to play at the old boy’s match rather than the prospect of making child support payments. And besides after spending all that time at a public school for boys (at the time of filming Novello was 34. At least he didn’t have a paunch like the “teenager” in ‘The Addams Family”, ha) I wouldn’t expect Roddy to know much about girls anyway! At any rate it leaves the dimmest viewer certain that Roddy isn’t guilty of pre-marital sex.
Before seeing ‘Downhill’ I viewed it as merely a twist on the fallen woman theme but the more I think about it, it’s bizarre in it’s orgy of (male) passivity. Maybe ‘The Lodger’ has had more critical focus on it because ‘Downhill’ is dominated by Novello’s on screen persona rather than Hitchcock as auteur, Hitchcock not yet having all the fame and influence he was later to have. ‘Downhill’ could be seen as evidence of the view that 1920’s & 30’s films were all about promoting the star and their image/myth and directors were just there to facilitate that. For all the passivity of Roddy, Hitchcock is a slave to Novello’s creation. Or maybe ‘The Lodger’ gets all the critical attention because a Jack the Ripper based yarn is easier to take than a naff, old melodrama with an idiot boy bemoaning being banned from the old boy’s match. Either way I think ‘Downhill’ should be viewed as a Novello film instead of a Hitchcock film.
To finish off, the other Novello films I have seen are ‘The Lodger’(1927) and it’s talkie re-make ‘The Phantom Fiend’(1932), ‘The Rat’ (1925) & ‘I Lived With You’(1933). In ‘The Lodger’(1927) there is a serial killer at large in London & Novello’s character the, er, Lodger seems a likely suspect. It turns out he’s innocent despite all the situations & behaviour that make him look guilty as hell. Unfortunately for the story to work Novello doesn’t come across as a likely murder suspect, his lodger seems more likely to be found cutting himself rather than strangling blondes. Novello does come across well as a disturbed young man taken to the edge by his beloved sister’s murder and that is precisely what he is ultimately revealed to be.
‘The Rat’ (1925), an agreeably cheesy melodrama & like ‘Downhill’ is based on a play by Novello, which Valentino wanted to make a film of himself. In ‘The Rat’ Novello is the titular Rat who is a sort of a king of thieves figure of the Parisian criminal underclass. When not committing crime he spends his time having tarts fight over him in his favourite dive; The White Coffin, which despite it’s low rentness boasts rather cool coffin shaped doorways. But where does the Rat’s heart lie with Odile who looks after him like a big sister or a rich society lady in search of excitement? Sadly I’ve only seen a wobbly copy of ‘The Rat’ & after seeing the sharp clip in ‘Silent Britain’ I feel a decent picture would have hieghtened the excitement. Still, is it cool to hang a cap up by pinning it to the wall with a knife or supremely silly? It’s an eternal question. I bet quite a few people after watching ‘The Rat’ dreamt about opening a nightspot called The White Coffin, bet those coffin shaped doorways weren’t cheap though. ‘The Rat’ spawned two sequels and would make an ideal box set, alas, the Rat’s melodramatic doings are probably too trashy to get one. ‘The Man Without Desire’ might make it though: C18th Venetian playboy (Novello) wakes up in the 1920’s, I really want to see it.
‘I Lived with You’ has Novello as a Russian émigré with a strong welsh accent (Novello was welsh) which is a bit odd but not bothering with perfecting accents didn’t seem to harm Sean Connery’s career. Actors weren’t that bothered about doing accents in the 1930’s & 40’s anyway. Perhaps the makers thought Novello’s exotic looks would distract from the accent anyway. Novello‘s welsh accent is also evident in ‘The Phantom Fiend’, after welding my ear to the speaker. Novello sounds quite sweet in that!!! Feel the tension. It’s all gone to pot now hasn’t it?
In the 1930’s Novello’s career waned & he went back to making wildly successful musicals full time.
Fox, Julian,(1982) ‘Ivor Novello’ in ‘The Movie’ (magazine part-work, pg 2468, Orbis Publishing)
Sweet, Matthew, (2005) Shepperton Babylon – The Lost World’s of British Cinema (Faber & Faber) [ The first few chapters were the basis for Sweet’s documentary ‘Silent Britain’ and the later chapters for BBC4’s ‘B-Movie Britain’ documentary. Not as scurrilous as the title suggests].