Hitchcock à la Carte

Hitchcock à la Carte

by Jan Olsson


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Hitchcock à la Carte by Jan Olsson

Alfred Hitchcock: cultural icon, master film director, storyteller, television host, foodie. And as Jan Olsson argues in Hitchcock à la Carte, he was also an expert marketer who built his personal brand around his rotund figure and well-documented table indulgencies. Focusing on Hitchcock's television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) and the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965), Olsson asserts that the success of Hitchcock's media empire depended on his deft manipulation of bodies and the food that sustained them. Hitchcock's strategies included frequently playing up his own girth, hiring body doubles, making numerous cameos, and using food—such as a frozen leg of lamb—to deliver scores of characters to their deaths. Constructing his brand enabled Hitchcock to maintain creative control, blend himself with his genre, and make himself the multi-million-dollar franchise's principal star. Olsson shows how Hitchcock's media brand management was a unique performance model that he used to mark his creative oeuvre as strictly his own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358046
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/03/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Jan Olsson is Professor of Cinema Studies at Stockholm University. He is the coeditor of Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, also published by Duke University Press.

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Hitchcock à la Carte

By Jan Olsson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7602-6



Setting the Table

On 23 August 1937, among other news items, the New York Journal American carried the report that "Alfred Hitchcock, English director of the famous 'Thirty-nine Steps' and other classic examples of dramatic suspense, came over for what he termed a 'gastronomic holiday.' He gave his weight as 282 pounds and has no intention of losing an ounce of it while here." As an East Coast overture to Hollywood, the Hitchcock family came to New York City to do a marketing tour for a director too big for British cinema. Alfred Hitchcock clearly had a game plan from the moment he set foot on American soil: to entertain journalists while eating and turn his culinary propensities into a prime selling point for his creative persona. Topping their entertainment menu was a systematic and very public mapping of the city's best eateries.

The chronicling in the New York City dailies of this long, busy week earmarked the public image of Hitchcock for decades to come. The flourishing British body jokes in the London press, fueled by Hitchcock's own grotesqueries, can be read as mere appetizers for the meatier entrées cooked up by Manhattan pens in dialogue over dinner with the new man in town. When Hitchcock moved to Hollywood a few years later, the local columnists effortlessly tapped into and further promulgated the discourse.

Alfred Hitchcock was by no means unknown upon arriving in New York. His prominent cinematic reputation was underpinned by a series of articles he had recently written for the New York World-Telegram. Hitchcock enjoyed a strong following among U.S. critics as a director of first-rate thrillers, and he would be honored by New York critics in 1938 as best director for The Lady Vanishes (Gainsborough Pictures, 1938). When he arrived in the considerable flesh, his accomplishments on the screen were for a time overshadowed by his gastronomic ventures and commanding physicality.

In the first round of American press accounts Hitchcock was invariably painted as vivacious, vagarious, voracious—and voluminous. The marketing strategy worked, probably even better than he expected, insofar as the mise-en-scène of the Hitchcock figure generated a set of bodacious reference points that were impossible to ignore in future promotion and reception contexts. As he had previously in London (fig. 1.1), Hitchcock held court in private-public settings, preferably entertaining one journalist at a time. In lieu of a home, he used New York City's most renowned tables as venues for gargantuan exploits while displaying his mischievous personality and vulpine humor. At restaurants and in his suite at the St. Regis Hitchcock relied on his conspicuous embonpoint, which, according to the reports from August 1937, was growing by the minute since he was putting away his signature meal—steaks and ice cream—with gusto while renouncing exercise (fig. 1.2).

On his arrival in the United States, as Hitchcock told an interviewer after returning to England, reporters "took one look at my shape when I came down the gangplank and started interviewing me on food. I told them my favorite dish was steak à la mode." After having his extraordinary prowess as gourmet-cum-gourmand chronicled by the New York dailies, Hitchcock had to run the not-unfamiliar print gauntlet of cutting body jokes. In the wake of the reported displays of wondrous gluttony in action, his physique became an inescapable topic in the American press. The most famous and trendsetting of the articles from Hitchcock's inaugural visit was served up with verve from inside the renowned Jack and Charlie's 21 Club. This restaurant soon became a prime Hitchcockian haunt, for both Hitchcock and his screen characters. Dr. Edwardes in Spellbound (Selznick International Pictures / Vanguard Films, 1945) habitually dines there; the restaurant's famous chefs prepare the gourmet takeout dinner Lisa Fremont orders in Rear Window (Paramount Pictures / Patron Inc., 1954); and later Hitchcock posed there for photo-essays printed in upscale magazines. The witty journalist H. Allen Smith had dinner with Hitchcock at the club in 1937. Smith's account of Hitchcock's repast is classic, a veritable ur-scene for the director's then-uninhibited approach to eating. Hitchcock ordered two servings of steak, both followed by ice cream, before rounding out his meal with tea and brandy. According to Smith, Hitchcock generally started his day in New York City with ice cream flavored with a dash of brandy for breakfast and invariably had a sizable steak for lunch. In an interview with Janet White a couple of days later Hitchcock said, "I refuse to diet or take any exercise. It makes me disgruntled." He explained, "I never walk when I can ride. My exertion is from the neck up. I watch." By 1919, when he turned twenty, he had already described himself as very fat and very ambitious, and at twenty-seven, when he married the petite Alma, he was five foot seven and the scales registered two hundred pounds. A couple of years later he had reached three hundred pounds, and in 1935 he was well over that and was considered "grotesquely obese." According to his collaborator Charles Bennett, he had by then developed "a monstrous ego that matched his appetite."

According to Hitchcock, the ice cream at the Waldorf was heavenly and the T-bone steak at Gallagher's a masterpiece, but American tea was a total letdown. Wine, in contrast, proved a pleasant surprise for someone fearing that America could serve only something fit "for a fountain pen." Summing up the accounts of Hitch's ten gastronomic days in the United States in 1937, a trade columnist quipped, "In view of all the publicity Alfred Hitchcock has been receiving on his food preferences in the town's cabareateries, [the name of his company should] be changed to GOURMAND-BRITISH."

When Hitchcock stopped over in New York City the following year, on his way to visit Hollywood for the first time to negotiate with David O. Selznick and other producers, dieting dominated the conversation over prime beef. When dining with the World-Telegram's George Ross at Jack and Charlie's 21 Club, Hitchcock pledged to reduce to "a meager 260 pounds" by riveting his attention solely to steaks. A few days later the same paper's William Boehnel outlined Hitchcock's dieting regime in nutritional terms, once again as explained over juicy steaks at 21: "The idea ... is to eat only proteins and let them do all the work. No starches, of course, because the proteins are supposed to eat up all the starch in the body." This is the Atkins diet avant la lettre, or an emulation of William Banting's regime from Letter on Corpulence (1863).

Capitalizing on the director's presence, New York movie houses staged a small film festival featuring Hitchcock's recent thrillers. Ezra Goodman described the event from the perspective of Hitchcock's reputation: "When Alfred Hitchcock, internationally renowned English gourmet who dabbles in shadowy psychoses on the side, arrived for a short stay in New York some time ago, a score of Gotham's movie houses took advantage of the occasion."

The first major U.S. magazine article devoted to Alfred Hitchcock, Russell Maloney's portrait essay, was published in the New Yorker in 1938. This was after Hitchcock had visited Hollywood and signed with the Selznick studio, but before he moved to the West Coast. Maloney could not, of course, avoid the food and body discourse or Hitchcock's recent dieting. He came up with his own spin by comparing Hitchcock to a "Macy balloon," a reference point that others used later. According to Maloney:

The ship-news reporters, for all their notorious industry, seem to have gleaned only one story about Hitchcock; he likes to eat steak and ice cream—ice cream first. They keep asking him about the steak and ice cream and he keeps confirming the story.... He cheerfully perpetuates the steak-and-ice-cream canard: in spite of the fact that for the past six months he has been on a diet—has, in fact, whittled some twenty-five pounds from last winter's all-time high of two hundred and ninety.

His fatness seems to buoy him up. Spiritually and physically, he might be kin to a Macy balloon. His large, close-set ears, bright-blue eyes, scrubby hair, and double chin give him the air of one of his own likeable cinematic villains.

The food discourse, firmly in place in Britain before Hitchcock came to New York City, was set in full motion as Hitchcock discreetly negotiated his future in an opening gambit with studio representatives from MGM, RKO, and Selznick between meals.

On the Gangplank between Cultures

In the late 1920s Hitchcock emerged as a cinematic wunderkind. A decade later, his public persona and showmanship were as riveting as his films, and Hollywood slowly emerged on his radar. Embarking on a career in the film industry, he started out in a British extension of Famous Players-Lasky's Hollywood studio designing title cards. After shifting studios, to Gainsborough, he quickly learned the tricks of the trade at large, working himself up through the ranks until he was entrusted with directing. In the late 1930s, then at Gaumont-British, he was Britain's unrivaled star director and had found his cinematic niche: the suspense thriller. When first visiting the United States and New York City in 1937, he arrived as a renowned director with multiple hit films on his résumé. The inaugural visit ushered in a Hitchcock persona with opportunities for endless spin as his culinary propensities and wondrous table largesse became a blueprint for his future studio biographies well in advance of his being hired by Hollywood.

Early in 1938, Hitchcock formally acquired an American agent, Myron Selznick (David's brother), to take care of his transatlantic affairs. The Selznick agency had hounded Hitchcock via Harry Ham, a former actor turned scout and liaison for Myron Selznick, and convinced him that they could secure a more favorable Hollywood deal than any Hitchcock himself could negotiate. Representation was a novelty; in London Hitchcock had no agent, only a business manager, J. G. Saunders, while Hitchcock Baker Productions Ltd. took care of marketing. Hitchcock had informally enlisted Ham's services in 1935, sensing that his future was in Hollywood rather than in the lean British studios. Still, in 1937 Albert Margolies, Gaumont-British's man in New York, helped set up most of Hitchcock's New York arrangements, not least the introduction to Katherine (Kay) Brown, who was in charge of David O. Selznick's East Coast operations, as well as "Jock" Whitney, a major investor and chairman of the board for the Selznick studio, and later U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. In a memo to Brown on 23 August Selznick stated his position: "I'm definitely interested in Hitchcock as a director and think it might be wise for you to meet and chat with him. In particular I would like to get a clear picture as to who, if anyone, is representing him and what he has in mind in the way of salary; also whether he is dealing with MGM." Through Benny Thau, MGM was indeed the leading contender at this stage for signing Hitchcock. The studio's British wing was closely affiliated with Hitchcock's London producer, Michael Balcon, which from Hitchcock's perspective was something of an impediment. An MGM option was on the table until October. Kay Brown then reported to Dan Winkler at the Myron Selznick agency that the Metro deal was dead. After the first deal fell through, Myron Selznick was confident that another one with his brother's studio would materialize. Even Fox was mentioned, but Fox seemed to prefer to have the director working for them based in England, as had MGM, while Hitchcock wanted to move over to Hollywood, and ideally to the Selznick studio.

Uncertainty lingered, as is reflected in David O. Selznick's memos from November 1937. Selznick wrote to Kay Brown on 6 November 1937: "MGM has no interest whatsoever at this time in Hitchcock and have decided they do not want him." A couple of weeks later (29 November 1937), Selznick returned to the topic: "I do not want to proceed further with Hitchcock negotiations until I see his last picture [Young and Innocent, Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, 1937] and check on Metro's opinion." The initial Selznick strategy was seemingly to pick up Hitchcock in a parallel deal should he sign with Metro. With no offers on the table from other studios, there was no urgency for Selznick. Hitchcock could be plucked in due course. Hitchcock was, for the time being, stuck in England, but he now had proper representation in Hollywood via the relentless Myron Selznick.

Hitchcock felt restless after having finished The Lady Vanishes, and when he learned that a deal with David O. Selznick was "off for the present" he elected to take matters into his own hands. He and his family again boarded the Queen Mary for New York, but this time Hollywood was the final destination, for face-to-face negotiations with studios. Selznick had by then bought the rights for Daphne du Maurier's not-yet-published novel Rebecca, but the producer was still vacillating on the issue of a contract for Hitchcock and was mired in the day-to-day (and night) production of Gone with the Wind (Selznick International Pictures / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939). After a stopover on the East Coast, a perturbed Hitchcock was dragged around Hollywood by his agency for talks with not only Selznick but also several other producers. Eventually David O. Selznick, seemingly strong-armed by his brother, presented an offer. Hitchcock eagerly signed, even though the terms were flimsier than what he had hoped for.

During the Hitchcocks' visit to Hollywood in 1938, the journalist Molly Castle, without an accompanying photographer, found the couple at the Brown Derby. By way of introduction in her resulting article, Castle reeled off the default portrait: "The plumpest, palliest English director, only one of his trade ever to reach top fame-and-fortune rungs by staying in England, had just arrived in the Metro-Goldwyn-opolis for the first time with his half-pint missus, Alma." Hitchcock got a chance to show off his gourmet savvy by comparing French and English mustards, headlined for the article, while Alma, in preparation to take up residence, was heading for the "swank section of Bel Air" to house hunt. The blueprint in her mind's eye, minus a swimming pool, matched what she eventually got: "I want a house ... with a big room in which Hitch can pace up and down, a house with furniture that won't break when he sits on it. At least three double bedrooms. And ... a swimming pool would be nice." Her scouting inspired her husband a few years later, after they had been residing in apartment hotels and temporary rentals, to present her with a gold key to the abode at the top of her desiderata list. This, the only house the Hitchcocks owned in Los Angeles, provided a backdrop for a multitude of encounters with journalists, predominantly with a culinary slant.

Mission accomplished, Hitchcock returned to England with a signed contract, but the date for moving to Hollywood was still not set. To keep himself busy Hitchcock accepted a job directing Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn (1939) for Mayflower Pictures Corporation, a company Laughton had formed together with the émigré producer Erich Pommer. Puritan associations apart, Hitchcock could hardly have found a more aptly named company at a time when he desperately wanted to sail away from his native country for the promises of the New World. In spite of Hitchcock's jesting claim to double fatness vis-à-vis his star and coproducer, handling Charles Laughton proved to be a rocky, nerve-racking venture. Afloat on the waves of his comrade's Mayflower shenanigans during shooting, Hitchcock later described the assignment as refereeing rather than directing.

Hitchcock scholars seldom engage with Jamaica Inn. Peter Conrad's reading is the most appreciative and, in fact, predicated on a brotherhood in fat, among other affinities between Hitchcock and Laughton. According to Conrad, Laughton was configured as a surrogate for Hitchcock twice—the second time around in The Paradine Case (Vanguard Films / Selznick Studio, 1947). "Laughton too," Conrad eloquently explains, "was a fat man, a figure of plaintive grotesquerie whose own body derided him." Abundant fat was not the sole common denominator for Laughton and Hitchcock. They were weekend neighbors in Shamley Green, and Laughton "[dropped] in often to talk things over and listen to Hitch's fund of jokes."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii

Introduction. A Body for All Seasons  1

1. Feeding the Legend  13

Interlude 1. Tasty Bodies  63

2. Smaller Screen, Bigger Brand: Hosting "Hitchcock"  69

Interlude 2. Double Hosting  109

3. Hitchcockian Reflections: Traces, Proxies, Doubles, and Corpses  117

Conclusion. Violent Endings with a Twist  183

Appendix. Director Credits for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour  215

Notes  219

Selected Bibliography  245

Index  253

What People are Saying About This

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock - David Sterritt

"Alfred Hitchcock said his films were slices of cake, and his TV programs were just as tasty, offering bite-sized morsels of the affable demeanor, understated wit, and genius for suspense that made him the world's most iconic movie director as well as one of the greatest. Eloquently blending historical perspective, stylistic analysis, and cross-disciplinary criticism, Jan Olsson has written the definitive study of these quintessentially Hitchcockian entertainments."

Hitchcock's Romantic Irony - Richard Allen

"Hitchcock à la Carte is a major contribution to the inexhaustible literature on Hitchcock. It locates the branding of Hitchcock in the canny promotion of his orotund and mordantly witty persona and traces how the television franchise amplified and consolidated the Hitchcock brand in an unprecedented fashion. Olsson takes us inside the Hitchcockian world in a way that few have."

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