In Young and Innocent (1937) Alfred Hitchcock uses all the signs in his visual vocabulary to tell one of his favorite stories: fugitive hero unjustly accused of murder. Yet this is also a story of youth and innocence triumphant—a light entertainment, a souffle made by a master chef. It’s nestled between the doom-laden Sabotage (1936) and the spy scenario of The Lady Vanishes (1938) like a water pistol in a drawer full of handguns.
Setting off the plot line is a murder committed during a thunderstorm—but elliptically, off-camera. The violence we see—a marital brawl between a puritanical husband and free-spirited wife—is mostly verbal and laced with details that become important later. When the soon-to-be killer puffs on a cigarette, lightning coincides with the glow of his inhalation. When he steps out onto a balcony to contemplate revenge on his libertine wife, thunder punctuates the nervous twitch of his eyes. Below him, a stormy sea pummels the shore. Nature is a foil for his raging emotions.
“Youth” is Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam): chief constable’s daughter, Girl Guide, reluctant sleuth. “Innocence” is Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney). He finds the body on the beach as gulls swarm overhead. (Having just used birds as messengers of death in Sabotage, Hitchcock was keen to continue that train of thought.) Robert finds himself wrongly accused of murder, even by his own bespectacled solicitor. “Youth” and “Innocence” must vindicate Robert on their own, unaided by the police. Even Erica’s father, decent Colonel Burgoyne, is no help. Though played by pleasant Percy Marmont (the sympathetically portrayed murder victim in Secret Agent), he too mistakenly believes in Robert’s guilt.
A greater threat than the police is Erica’s clever aunt (Mary Clare). In a key scene, the children’s birthday party, the couple narrowly escape the suspicious matron and her prying questions. They are saved by a game of Blind Man’s Bluff contrived by Erica’s helpful uncle (Basil Radford, soon to appear as a rabid cricket fan in The Lady Vanishes). With the blindfold on, Auntie is like the nearsighted solicitor, her vision too feeble to see the truth. Like the twitchy-eyed killer, she may not even want to see it, for beneath her suspicion of Robert lurks an undertow of puritanical disapproval.
The birthday party scene begins with a magician entertaining the children: me director, you audience. The connection between children and audience members is doubly important because Hitchcock sees both groups as noble innocents who know instinctively that Robert is innocent too. Standing on the beach among his accusers, Robert appeals to us directly by gazing into the camera, and he’s still appealing to us in the next scene as he’s grilled by detectives.
The camera does some gazing of its own. In one of film history’s most celebrated crane shots, the camera pans from the Grand Hotel lobby past a dividing wall and across the length of a huge ballroom, created on Pinewood Studio’s largest soundstage. Through Hitchcock’s artistry. the audience knows that the camera is zooming in on some truth—a truth that will be apparent when the camera stops.
Young and Innocent is not all doom and gloom. Robert and Erica may barely survive capers like the mine disaster, but these near-misses are just suspenseful tricks to keep the children amused. As Robert hoists Erica to safety it is hard not to think of a similar sequence in North by Northwest (1959), another innocent fugitive story with a light touch. There is plenty of outright comedy here—not black comedy as an instrument of torture, as in Sabotage, but comedy for laughs. An example is the pig farmer and his taunting of the constabulary, which moviegoers usually greet with laughter. Hitchcock may have started a trend with his little pig/ police joke. He was never fond of cops; after this, no doubt the feeling was mutual.
By Hitchcock’s standards, Young and Innocent is a merry romp. Its hero and heroine are untroubled by the shocking murders and moral ambiguities of Secret Agent and Sabotage. The director must have felt his public required some comic relief after those two dark works, especially Sabotage, built around the death of a child. Hitchcock needed to consolidate his position as cinematic magician, master of suspense—not just another serial murderer. Through the fresh-faced protagonists and birthday-party revelers of Young and Innocent he found the freedom to celebrate youth, innocence, and the safe romantic conventions of the cinema.