Over the last 75 years or so the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence, and the decades worth of turmoil in Ireland and Northern Ireland that followed, have provided inspiration for some pretty powerful and suspense-filled cinematic tales: The Informer, Odd Man Out, In the Name of the Father and The Crying Game, to name just a few. Oddly enough, when the director universally regarded as the Master of Suspense–Alfred Hitchcock–took his only shot at crafting a movie set amid “The Troubles” of 1920s Ireland, the end product was more drawing-room family drama that gripping nail-biter…and minus many of the filmmaker’s trademark touches, to boot.
Juno and the Paycock (1929), released the following year in the U.S. as The Shame of Mary Boyle, is a faithful–perhaps too faithful–adaptation of a successful stage play by Dublin-born author Sean O’Casey (Sure and can there be a more Irish name than that?). Depicting the hardscrabble lives of the war-weary city’s slum dwellers, the film opens with a pro-independence orator (future Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald, making his screen debut) trying to rally a crowd in a Dublin street. Abruptly, machine gun fire (apparently) kills the speaker and sends the listenrers scurrying for cover…most of them finding it inside a local pub.
Among the scurriers is one “Captain” Jack Boyle (Edward Chapman), a smooth-tongued former merchant seaman who spends his days faking leg pains to avoid work and coaxing his friends–particularly old mate “Joxer” Daly (Sidney Morgan)–into springing for a pint. The pair eventually make their way back to the Captain’s shabby tenement apartment, where Boyle’s long-suffering wife, Juno (Sara Allgood), is preparing to go out to work as a charwoman. Juno, who tolerates her husband’s idle ways and his “gallavantin’ around like a pay-cock” ( Or peacock; now you know what the title refers to, so get those Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo thoughts out of your head.), provides not only for her and her spouse but also their grown children living with them: bookish daughter Mary (Kathleen O’Regan), on strike from her job, and son Johnny (John Laurie), an IRA fighter who lost his right arm in the rebellion.
‘Tis a tough road the Boyle clan must travel along, but things may finally be looking up when Mary’s new boyfriend, a dapper British attorney named Charles Bentham (John Longden), informs them that an estranged relative of Jack’s has died and left him a substantial inheritance, enough to move out of their violence-plagued neighborhood. This news can’t come too soon for Johnny, who spends most of the film sitting next to the fireplace with guilt written all over his face. That guilt comes from him having turned informer on a friend and fellow IRA member, who was assassinated by pro-Irish Free State authorities. As for Juno, the promised money is cause to order new furniture and a luxury item–a gramophone–on credit and arrange for a party for the family and their friends…a party held on the very night of the funeral for Johnny’s former colleague.
This being an Irish melodrama–and one steeped in Catholic philosophy and guilt, to boot–it’s plain that all the happiness and celebrating can only lead to tragedy (WARNING: There be spoilers ahead). Thanks to an error made by lawyer Bentham, the will turns out to be worthless and leaves the Boyles with nothing; Mary discovers she’s pregnant by Bentham, who has already fled back to parts unknown in England (And now you where American distributors got their title from!), all the furnishings get repossessed, and IRA gunmen come looking for Johnny. The Boyles are worse off than ever, which means that Captain Jack heads back to the pub as he disavows his “fallen” daughter, while poor Juno is left to pick up the pieces, lament her loved ones’ fates, and pray aloud to a God who seems to have turned a deaf ear to her pleas. Surely there is no dramatic mother’s sorrow like an Irish mother’s sorrow.
Juno and the Paycock was Hitchcock’s first picture after the critical and commercial success of his (and, by most historians’ accounts, Britain’s) first talking feature, Blackmail, earlier in 1929. The director was initially reluctant to take on the project of bringing O’Casey’s stage drama to the screen, saying years later in an interview with fellow auteur François Truffaut that, while a fan of the play and its blend of the comic and the tragic, he “could see no way of narrating it in cinematic form.” “The film got very good notices,” Hitch told Truffaut, “but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema. The critics praised the picture, but I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.”
Well, Hitchcock did indeed find a way of narrating it, but the limitations of early sound technology didn’t help matters. He did try to make early use of ambient sound, with street noises–and occasional machine gun fire–coming up to its main set, the Boyles’ rundown apartment. As with many filmed plays of the era, however, Juno is pretty much anchored to said main set (think the Kramdens’ flat in The Honeymooners with no kitchen, a fireplace, and more people). Alfred was able to convince O’Casey to add the opening scene with the ill-fated speaker to help give the story a sense of place (the screenplay was also worked on by Hitchcock’s wife/collaborator, Alma Reville). There’s a nice upward shot, as Jack and Joxer enter the tenement building, from the street to the window of the apartment that foretells the more elaborate and sweeping crane shots that would become a staple of Hitch’s Hollywood tenure. Once inside the apartment, however, the action is mostly medium shot after medium shot, with only an occasional close-up (a particularly effective one comes when everyone is talking about the murdered IRA member and the camera slowly draws in on Johnny, who has been acting so tortured prior to this it’s a wonder no one suspected what had happened). Oh, and if you’re looking for the Obligatory Hitchcock Cameo, forget it. While he started the stunt in 1927’s The Lodger, it had yet to become de rigueur for the nascent auteur.
For the picutre’s cast, Hitchcock used a number of actors who had performed in the play during its Dublin and London runs. Oddly, Barry Fitzgerald, who played the Captain on stage, was instead given the minor role of the orator. His replacement, Edward Chapman, at times turns the braggadocious “Pay-cock” into a more comical figure that may be necessary, but he is nicely balanced by Sara Algood as Juno, the backbone of the Boyle family. Her plaintive cries at the film’s climax carry all the impact they must have had in a live performance. Oddly, though, considering how the film bore her name in the States, the character of Mary gets short shrift in the proceedings, but Kathleen O’Regan’s expressive face helps her makes the most of her on-screen time. If anything, the picture should have given its two female leads more camera time and less on the at-times indecipherable drinking banter between Jack and Joxer.
Juno and the Paycock stands as an intriguing oddity in the earliest part of the Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre. His second “talking picture,” with the emphasis on “talking,” it offers a rare contemporary depiction of the bloodshed and terror that gripped Ireland during its struggle for independence, while likewise offering a glimpse of a young filmmaker who was just starting to come into his own and trying out the tricks of the trade that would, a half-century later, make him perhaps the most renowned director in the world.
Oh, and while Hitchcock may not have felt that he gave Juno and the Paycock his all, he and Sean O’Casey nonetheless enjoyed working together, and almost collaborated again in the mid-1930s when the playwright brought him an idea that would later turn into the stage drama Within the Gates. Nothing would come of the project from the director’s side, but Alfred thought of his old friend decades later, when he based the drunken barstool philosopher (“It’s the end of the world!”) played by Karl Swenson in 1963’s The Birds on O’Casey.