JAMAICA INN—“Make way for Pengallan!” boldly declares Charles Laughton in the climax of this wooly 1939 adventure, but from his very first scene he has already essentially let fly “make way for Charles Laughton!” In his last British film before moving to the United States, director Alfred Hitchcock had to make way for his leading man’s eccentricities, not just in his devilish broadside characterization of ‘Sir Humphrey Pengallan’, but because co-producer Laughton dominated how the thriller was shaped to accommodate his wishes, quirks and demands. The 99-minute adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel was scripted by Sidney Gilliatt, Alma Reville, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestly.
England, 1820, a dark and stormy night on the coast of Cornwall. After an introductory meeting with the avuncular local squire and magistrate (Laughton’s Pengallan), young ‘Mary Yellan’ arrives at nearby hostelry Jamaica Inn to stay with her aunt and uncle, she’s aghast to find the place is a den of thieves, including ill-tempered ‘Uncle Joss’ (Leslie Banks, in top form), a scurvy lot who plunder shipwrecks and murder their crews after guiding the vessels onto rocks. Fleeting hope may lie with undercover policeman ‘Jem Trehearne’ (Robert Newton), but Mary and Jem will find squire Pengallan is something more than a jovial host.
“What are you all waiting for, a spectacle? You shall have it!
Though financially successful (27th place in the States, taking $5,000,000), it drew a good deal of disparagement, starting with the director, and was unavailable in decent prints until 2015: now it has been reappraised much more positively. Laughton’s flamboyant showboating provides humor and eventually a touch of pathos to balance the dark moods and deeds of a colorful array of cutthroats. Along with employing a bizarre style for Pengallan, Laughton brought along his new find and “introduced” the 18-year-old Maureen O’Hara, who’d only done two brief bits in England under her given name Maureen FitzSimons. As damsel Mary, Maureen’s learning on the job, but she already displays the spirit that would win fans over in years to come. Laughton made sure she was cast in his marvelous The Hunchback Of Notre Dame that same year, beginning her career in Hollywood.
Things kick off with a superb storm scene and shipwreck attack. Tom Morohan’s superb art direction includes the neat design for the forbidding title establishment, and despite the wntire production being done on obvious indoor sets, Morohan’s work, the cinematography (Harry Stradling and Bernard Knowles) and Hitchcock’s attention to mood and pacing give it the proper old-time storybook feel. You have to keep your ears in gear, sometimes Laughton speaks so fast you are in danger of missing a stray morsel. Good fun.
With Marie Ney, Horace Hodges, Emlyn Williams, Hay Petrie, Mervyn Johns. 99 minutes.
Hitchcock: “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” “The hardest thing to photograph are dogs, babies, motor boats and Charles Laughton.” Though he always discounted the film, and found the star a royal pain (he liked him personally) he would later have Laughton co-starring in 1947’s The Paradine Case, but by then Hitch held sway.
Laughton, on O’Hara: “On the screen was a girl. She looked at least 35, she was over done up … very made up face, and her hair in an over-grand style, but just for a split perfect second light was on her face and you could see as the girl turned her head around your extraordinarily beautiful profile, which was absolutely invisible among all your makeup. Well Mr. Pommer and I sent for you and you came and blew into the office like a hurricane. You had a tweed suit on with hair sticking out and coming from Ireland. You blew into the office and said [in Irish accent] ‘Watchya want with me’. I took you out for lunch and I never forgot when I asked you why you wanted to be an actress. I’ll never forget your reply. You said ‘When I was a child I used to go down the garden, talk to the flowers and pretend I was the flower talking back to myself.’ And you had to be a pretty nice girl and had to be a pretty good actress too. And heavens knows you’re both”.