Week 47 – Vermont
The Trouble With Harry (1955), produced by Paramount Pictures and Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Jack Trevor Story (novel), with Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers, Royal Dano and Shirley McClaine, cinematography by Robert Burks, original score by Bernard Herrmann
Has there ever been a good comedy revolving around a dead body in which the corpse in question has not been reanimated in some way, shape, or form?
I’m not saying death can’t be funny. There are plenty of dark comedies that tread this particular taboo and do it well. But in most cases where this is true, there’s a tendency to avoid the unpleasantness of bringing an actual corpse into the picture and all the ickiness that comes along with it.
In the late 1980s, the movie Weekend at Bernie’s bucked this trend by making a dead body the star of the show. Perhaps the absurdity of the movie’s premise – two men trying to pass off their dead boss as a still living and breathing person through a complex marionette act – made its subject matter more palatable. Regardless, director Ted Kotcheff’s and writer Robert Klane’s film was a rarity. Kotcheff and Klane had made a funny movie about a dead body – a feat that even one of the greatest motion picture directors of all time was unable to accomplish.
The Trouble With Harry, a 1955 black comedy by Alfred Hitchcock, featured the tag line, “The trouble with Harry is that he’s dead, and everyone seems to have a different idea of what needs to be done with his body.” Aside from knowing that it’s a comedy – the only pure comedy ever directed by Hitchcock – there’s really little more you need to know about the movie that isn’t revealed in this tag line. It’s a movie about a body that turns up outside of a small Vermont town. Hilarity ensues.
The Trouble With Harry is far from Hitchcock’s best work. Don’t I sound like such a dick when I say that – like I could do better than Hitch? Such is the life of the critic, throwing sticks and stones at our heroes. And you wonder why ours is such a reviled way of life?
With a touch of meekness, I admit to you that although The Trouble With Harry is a comedy, it’s not particularly funny – even if there were moments that brought a smile to my face. It’s not particularly suspenseful either, although I don’t think it was intended to be a thriller. Hitchcock is a director who has frequently intertwined suspense with humor with great effectiveness. The Trouble With Harry shows it’s not as easy working the other way around.
Don’t get me wrong. There were things about The Trouble With Harry that I liked. The location – the lush green hills of Vermont – is gorgeous. Bernard Herrmann is incapable of writing a bad score. The cast is great – all virtual unknowns, which is unusual for Hitchcock, whose movies typically feature Hollywood’s biggest and brightest. According to the trivia section at IMDb, casting unknowns was an experiment by Hitch, who wanted to see if – without a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart to gawk at — audiences would pay closer attention to the movie’s story. They may have, had they come to see it. The film was a box office failure in the United States. It did better in the UK, where the humor – much like the food – is considerably more dry and lacking in taste.
For myself, the two most recognizable actors in The Trouble With Harry were a very pretty and young Shirley McClaine (in her film debut – love those redheads) and Jerry Mathers, aka, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver. I was also happy to see Royal Dano, who I know for his brief two-episode appearance on Twin Peaks as Judge Clinton Sternwood. John Forsythe, of Dynasty and Charlie’s Angels fame, also co-stars.
As I mentioned, the plot of the movie is rather simple. A young boy (Mathers) finds a fresh corpse on a grassy hill. It’s no mystery who the man is. His name’s Harry and he’s the estranged husband of one of the local townsfolk.
The question is: How did Harry die? Several people think they have the answer. A sailor who looks remarkably like Alfred Hitchcock (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street‘s Santa Claus) and is hunting rabbits close to where the body is discovered believes that he may have accidentally shot Harry. Harry’s wife (McClaine) considers she may have killed him by hitting him with a bottle. Another woman from the town believes she killed Harry by hitting him with a hiking boot after mistaking him for a prowler.
If you want to spoil the ending of the film and know how Harry died, highlight the text below:
Harry died of natural causes – a seizure.
That’s not the kind of payoff one would hope for after spending the preceding 90 minutes watching a group of people you hardly know about argue endlessly over a corpse belonging to a man you also know little about. Who is this Harry? I mean … really … who is he? And if you’re not going to tell us, bury him and leave him buried. Don’t keep digging him up. I know you’ve got to stretch this movie a whole hour and a half, but use some imagination! String him up like a marionette and try and fool people into thinking he’s still alive! Now there’s a funny concept! They should make a movie based around that idea!
I wish I wasn’t so critical of The Trouble With Harry regarding its story or its character development. After all, it’s just a comedy. Really, it’s not much different than Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune, which I reviewed last year. Like The Trouble With Harry, Cookie’s Fortune is also a comedy of errors having to do with a person dying under mysterious circumstances. Both movies focus on character – quirky small-town folks in each – rather than a complicated story.
The difference between the two movies (aside from the fact that one is funny and one is not) is that the characters in Cookie’s Fortune have heart while the characters in The Trouble With Harry feel wooden, despite the best efforts of the film’s cast to bring them to life. Watching The Trouble With Harry, I’m impressed with the blocking. It’s almost like watching a play. The problem is, I can almost picture the actors and actresses reading their lines from a script. The characters in Cookie’s Fortune, on the other hand, felt more natural and real to me.
Maybe the end result is a product of each director’s unique directing style – Altman with his permissiveness toward improvisation and Hitchcock with his strict adherence to the screenplay. Is one style better than the other? Not necessarily. I couldn’t picture Altman directing a stylistic edge-of-your-seat thriller like Rear Window or Vertigo.
However, the best kind of humor has a level of spontaneity. That’s why a TV show like Saturday Night Live — which features comedians trained in improv – is funny (maybe not this season, but you get the point). It’s why that guy from work who still imitates Rob Schneider’s “copy guy” routine should be punched in the face.
I’m not suggesting that any of the actors or actresses from The Trouble With Harry be assaulted. They were just doing their job, which included not making Mr. Hitchcock unhappy by deviating from the script.
The happy ending in all of this is that Hitchcock went back to what he did best. His next movie was a return to form, quite literally. It was a remake of his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After that came The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959). After that was Psycho (1960). You may have heard of one or more of these films.
As for The Trouble With Harry, unless you’re a Hitchcock fan who’s seen everything else he’s done, don’t go digging this one up. It stinks a little.
Other movies filmed in Vermont: What Lies Beneath, Terror Train, Funny Farm, among others.
Next week: Baby steps