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Fellows Find: How Hollywood producers used Alfred Hitchcock’s weight to their advantage

By Casey McKittrick

Casey McKittrick is an Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University. He spent June and July of 2012 researching the David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick archives at the Harry Ransom Center.  His work, which was funded by the Warren Skaaren Research Fellowship Endowment, produced the first chapter, and informed several others, of his forthcoming book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread.

 

When I learned of my Warren Skaaren fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I had just begun work on a book-length project examining how Alfred Hitchcock’s experiences as a fat man influenced his filmmaking and the path of his career. After reading that Hitchcock had undergone a 100-pound weight loss upon moving from London to Hollywood in the 1940s, I became convinced that his relationship with David O. Selznick, the Hollywood “super-producer” who provided him with a seven-year contract, must have been partly responsible for this radical body change.  Thus, I approached the Selznick archive at the Ransom Center with the working hypothesis that Hitchcock lost weight under the auspices of Selznick (renowned for tightly controlling his employees) to conform to the rigid bodily standards that Hollywood visibility necessitated.

 

The archive told a completely different story. For five weeks, I not only revised my thinking, but through the marvelously kept records—memos, legal documents, publicity material, scripts-in-process—I developed a narrative about the Selznick-Hitchcock relationship that had never been addressed at length. To be sure, a lot of research has been done on this historically important and largely successful collaboration, but Hitchcock’s fatness had never been suggested as a meaningful factor in their negotiations or their relationship dynamics.

 

First of all, it became clear that Selznick marketed Hitchcock as Europe’s greatest export by focusing on his fatness.  Selznick capitalized on Hitch’s enormity to build a literally larger-than-life profile of the director. He was proud that he had managed to enlist the “Master of Suspense” in the face of great studio competition, and he wanted to ensure that Americans could look to Hitch as a celebrity figure—one belonging to Selznick International Pictures (SIP). The publicity photos for Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca revealed this reliance on making Hitchcock a spectacle. For example, in one photo, Hitchcock holds a fake barbell while yawning; the photo caption reads: “Heavyweight in light mood.”  In four different pictures Hitch is captioned as either a “239-pound Englishman” or a “239 pound director,” and in yet another, the caption reads, “‘Hitch,’ who likes to talk about movies and himself, doesn’t mind allusions to his 239 pounds.” Thus, far from encouraging the director to lose weight, Selznick commodified his body and did so quite successfully. In fact, when Selznick heard of Hitchcock’s drastic weight loss, he became concerned and in a memo urged him to “Drink a Malted!”

 

Another guiding idea that I uncovered through careful examination of the archive was that Selznick and his cronies at SIP would often use Hitchcock’s size against him in a shaming capacity. For example, Dan O’ Shea, one of Selznick’s vice presidents, sent a scathing memo to Hitchcock that scolded him for his prima donna attitude, and he capped off the missive with the taunt, “How’s the metabolism?” In nearly every altercation between the director and producer, communications emerged that referred to Hitchcock’s greed, his “big appetite,” or the notion that he was getting “too big for his britches.” Even as Hitchcock complied with Selznick’s publicity strategies and realized that his popularity hinged on this kind of “body marketing,” he still retained a great deal of shame surrounding his size, and Selznick exploited this shame many times in an attempt to “manage” him—to control what cinematic projects he took on, how fast he completed them, his other collaborations, and what he said to the press.

 

My research in the Selznick archives generated the first chapter of my recently completed monograph Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread, and the data I collected there is evident throughout the book. The book truly could not have been completed without this research. I look forward to using materials from the Center on future projects.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting fellowship applications for the 2014-2015 academic year

 

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"North by Northwest": The Chase Across Mount Rushmore

By Alicia Dietrich

Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.
Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s including Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest (1959), a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956), wrote the screenplay, his only original work and which is widely regarded as his best.

View a slideshow of Lehman’s photographs of Mount Rushmore from his research trip. The photographs were developed from previously unstudied negatives found in the Lehman collection.

This is just one film scene highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition tomorrow night. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman plan Hitch's final film

By Alicia Dietrich

Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945
Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945

Except for the actor, no other position in filmmaking is as much discussed or as little understood as that of the director. Directing a film requires sensitivity to the story, understanding of technical filmmaking processes, and coordination of these two skills. It also demands the ability to communicate, persuade, and shape the work of other artists and technicians working on the film.

Visit the Ransom Center’s website to listen to an audio clip of director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman developing the storyline for what would be Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976).

Cinematography: The financial effects of Ingrid Bergman's beauty

By Alicia Dietrich

Director Alfred Hitchcock frames Ingrid Bergman in a still from the set of
Director Alfred Hitchcock frames Ingrid Bergman in a still from the set of

The art of cinematography goes far beyond the simple recording of a scene or event. It is a creative and interpretive process that involves many skills and techniques, some that are shared with still photography and some that are unique to motion pictures.

The cinematographer can manipulate the image through the selection of film stock, by moving the camera, or, in the case of digital cameras, through the adjustment of color sensitivity, light sensitivity, and image contrast. Color filters can be used for dramatic effects, and lenses can be chosen for their control of perspective and spacial relations. A cinematographer may film a subject in sharp focus but leave the background blurry (“rack focus”), or he might keep the entire scene in focus (“deep focus”), as the innovative cinematographer Gregg Toland did in Citizen Kane (1941).

Among the myriad options available to the cinematographer, the most important and constant element is lighting. The art of lighting has a significant impact on the emotional response of the viewer. The most beautiful sets and most talented actors will have no impact unless they are lit and photographed effectively.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to production manager Ray Klune, director Gregory Ratoff, and editor Hal Kern regarding the importance of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman in 'Intermezzo,' July 11, 1939
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to production manager Ray Klune, director Gregory Ratoff, and editor Hal Kern regarding the importance of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman in 'Intermezzo,' July 11, 1939

A close-up connects with the viewer in a very different way than an establishing shot of a setting or a full shot of a group of people. A close-up is meant to focus the viewer’s attention. And in the case of a glamorous close-up of the lead actor it is meant to establish an emotional connection between the viewer and that actor. In this memo, producer David O. Selznick carries the idea further, into the financial returns a good close-up can provide—specifically good close-ups of actress Ingrid Bergman.

“As I have said so often, I think the success of ‘Intermezzo’ is to an unusual extent dependent upon how beautifully we can photograph Miss Bergman,” Selznick writes. “Every beautiful shot of her is a great deal of money added to the returns on the picture and I urge Mr. Kern and Mr. Ratoff [to] start to work on a list of where re-take close-ups might be made.”

This is just one item from the “Cinemetographer” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.