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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

Hitchcock and The Academy

Academy alumni have worked in cinema for the past century, leaving their mark on audiences and critics alike. From Cecil B. DeMille to Paul Rudd, our alumni capture the attention of many, winning awards, garnering praise, and finding themselves side-by-side with some of history’s greatest filmmakers--including the great Alfred Hitchcock. Dubbed the “Master of Suspense,” Hitchcock’s films spanned over six decades and earned 46 Academy Award nominations and six wins. His filmmaking style is one of the most studied in the history of cinema. Numerous books discuss everything from his technique as a screenwriter, producer, and director, to the intimate details of his life and interpersonal relationships. Known for his intricate casting style, Hitchcock had a hand in every facet of his filmmaking, and he saw great potential in some of our most talented alumni. The first on our list, Hume Cronyn.

Hume Cronyn (Class of 1934)

Hume Cronyn was a Canadian-American actor who had a long and successful career on stage, screen, and television. He often starred alongside the equally talented and well-known actress Jessica Tandy, for whom he was married to for over 50 years. After graduating from Ridley College, Cronyn began a pre-law program at McGill University. But it was the allure of the stage that drew him and he changed his major to drama, continuing his studies at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, with Max Reinhardt. His stage career had a great start and he quickly became known for his versatility, playing a wide array of characters, sometimes within the same production.

Cronyn labeled himself a kind of stage elitist, shying away from the cinema because he didn’t see it as the actor’s true medium. He would dodge screen tests and interviews so that he could put the full force of his energy into his stage performances. With great reluctance, he finally created a screen test, but in the end, opted to not make the film for which he was being sought. Then, in 1942, Cronyn was contacted by Hitchcock’s office regarding a role in an upcoming suspense/thriller he was making. Only knowing of Hitchcock’s name and reputation, but nothing of his actual work, Cronyn agreed to meet with Hitchcock to discuss the role. In a 1999 interview with Michael Rosen for the Television Academy, Cronyn detailed this first meeting with the director, having in his mind that he would discuss and negotiate the role. Hitchcock had other intentions. Talking as if Cronyn already agreed to take the role, Hitchcock outlined the film, its special location, and what would be expected of him. Cronyn went on to say that he just went with it, and in 1943, Hume Cronyn made his very first film, "Shadow of a Doubt." Cronyn was hooked and became a close friend and collaborator with “Hitch.” A psychological thriller, Shadow of a Doubt follows a family living in the quiet northern California town of Santa Rosa. In the film, Hume Cronyn portrays Herbie Hawkins, a neighbor who is an obsessive crime buff who discusses the architecture of the perfect murder. As the film goes on, secrets are revealed and some go to the grave. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story and is said to be one of Hitchcock’s favorite films he made.

Next came Lifeboat in 1944. This human survival film was adapted from a John Steinbeck novella and is one of three Hitchcock “limited-setting” films with most of the action occurring on a single set. Cronyn portrays Stanley 'Sparks' Garett, a radio operator along with eight other survivors who were involved in a German U-boat battle during WWII. It is one of Hitchcock’s more underrated films, and one of Hume Cronyn’s most dramatic Hitchcock roles, with his brilliant performance, and by nearly drowning on-set during the film’s storm scene.

In the late ‘50s, Hume Cronyn also starred in two episodes of Hitchcock’s Television series, Hitchcock Presents, the episodes “Kill With Kindness” in 1956, and “The Impromptu Murder” in 1958. What many don’t know was that Hitchcock was a fan of his writing and asked him to adapt two screenplays for him. His first adaptation was for the Patrick Hamilton play, Rope, in 1948, and Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn, in 1949. Cronyn attempted one more Hitchcock role in 1971’s Frenzy, but the director declined his request, stating very succinctly that bit-parts wouldn't suit an actor of such magnitude.

Robert Walker (Class of 1939)

Every thriller needs that one villain that hides his wicked ways behind a handsome face and sweet-talking demeanor. And who better to play such a charming chap than Robert Walker. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Robert Walker grew up in a tumultuous household, which led him to find an escape in acting. His aunt offered to pay for his enrollment at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937. He made the move to Hollywood and starred in films early in his career like Bataan and Madame Curie in 1943, See Here, Private Hargrove, in 1944, and its sequel, What Next, Corporal Hargrove the following year. Walker was a handsome chap, and his good looks coupled with an effortlessly charming delivery made him a rising star. His role in Strangers on a Train, in 1951, taps into this highly coveted skill of combining devilish charm with a touch of murderous rage. Criss Cross, my friend...crisscross.

In Strangers on a Train, Robert Walker is cast as a psychotic mother’s boy named Bruno Anthony. While on a train, he strikes up a conversation with tennis pro Guy Haines. Haines is looking to move into a career in politics and is dating a senator’s daughter behind the back of his equally unfaithful wife. Bruno would like to have his father killed but is fearful of the repercussions due to having a motive. Bruno runs by his crafty scheme whereby he and Guy exchange murders - leaving them virtually motive-free if caught. While Guy takes it as a joke, Bruno’s psychosis takes hold and he takes matters into his own hands to follow through. The film was a success and Walker received critical acclaim for his performance in the film. Sadly, Walker's death shortly after the film's release came as a shock to the industry. A remarkable career was suddenly cut short.

Marion Lorne (Class of 1904)

Every psychotic momma’s boy in Hitchcock’s films must have an equally memorable mother. Hitchcock found the perfect actor to play the codependent, smothering mother in Marion Lorne. Born Marion MacDougall in Pennsylvania in 1883, Lorne knew she always wanted to be an actress. She started working on stage in 1905 after leaving The Academy to play stock theater in Connecticut. Her stage career took her to the stages of The Great White Way and across the pond to London. She didn’t make her first film until 1951 with Strangers on a Train. The remainder of her career was filled with small film roles and television work. Her most notable television role was that of the beloved, but all too ditsy, Aunt Clara on the 1960’s classic, Bewitched. She played the role of Aunt Clara until her passing in 1968. She was posthumously awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series that year.

It was her fabulous facial expressions and high regard for decorum that made her perfect for her motherly role in Strangers on a Train. As Walker’s character, Bruno, whines with dissatisfaction when not allowed to indulge in his overprivileged activities, Lorne’s character reassures him like a small child that he will get what he needs, but first, he will need to mind his father’s wishes. His hate for his overbearing father who is ruining his carefree life drives him to do the unthinkable, while his mother turns a blind eye to his bad behavior—too oblivious to admit how dangerous her son really is.

Thelma Ritter (Class of 1922)

Keeping in line with Hitchcock’s love of strong female characters, we take a look at the supporting characters that add texture through voice, face, movement, and a little comic relief to some very thrilling situations. That is where our feisty but lovable alumna, Thelma Ritter, joins us. Born in Brooklyn in 1902, her career took her all over the industry, and she is best known for the comedic relief in many of her films. Often portraying working-class characters, letting her thick New York accent ring loud and proud. She got her start early, starring in school plays and then later joining stock companies while she attended the Academy. After a hiatus to raise her children, Ritter returned to acting at the age of 42. Her film debut came in a small role in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947 and her career took off from there. She was nominated six times for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and was the recipient of a Tony Award. While she rarely got top billing in films, being labeled a “star supporting player”, it was her comedic timing and full dedication to her character that enabled her to steal any scene she was in. One such film was Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Rear Window was released in theaters in 1954 to rave reviews. Starring James Stewart and fellow Alumna Grace Kelly, it follows the story of a professional photographer, L.B. Jefferies, who breaks his leg while covering an auto race. The film is one of four out of Hitchcock’s “Peak Period” where all films were critical successes and displayed Hitchcock’s filmmaking power. Ritter went on to also star in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled “The Babysitter” in 1956.

Hitchcock indeed had a penchant for blondes in his films, but he also went to great lengths to ensure his supporting female characters were fleshed out. The wardrobe, hair, and the perfect look were important components in his character creation. Expressive faces that showed the true weight of the moment were just as important as being a pretty face. These next two alumni prove that acting isn’t for The Birds.

Released in 1963, The Birds is a horror-thriller that is loosely based on the novella by Daphne du Maurier that follows a series of bizarre and violent bird attacks on the small California town of Bodega Bay. The presence of the birds is unknown, but as the days go by, their attacks become more murderous. Tippi Hedren portrays Melanie Daniels who follows her new crush, Mitch Brenner, portrayed by Rod Taylor to the small town after seeing him in San Francisco. Is it her presence in the small town that has caused the birds to react, or is it something even more primal? Nature just might be having the last laugh.

Ruth McDevitt

Ruth McDevitt was born in Coldwater, Michigan in 1895. She studied at The Academy in the late 1920s but decided to put acting aside after she got married in 1928. After her husband died in 1934, she made a return to the stage. She has 16 Broadway credits, had many radio roles, and had over 100 screen credits, with a majority of them in television. She also starred alongside Lucile Ball in 1974’s Mame.

Ruth portrays Mrs. MacGruder the bird shop owner in the opening of the film when Melanie meets Mitch. Melanie pretends to be Mrs. MacGruder’s assistant while learning more about her crush, Mitch. Her bubbly demeanor and constant look of wonder add a light mood to the film. Ruth went on to star in two more Hitchcock projects: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, in the episode “The Cadaver" in 1963, and The Gentlemen Caller in 1964.

Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1921. After she graduated from The Academy, she toured with the Barter Theatre of Virginia with another newcomer, Ernest Borgnine, who coincidentally also served as the bus driver for their troupe. She also studied with Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse. In The Birds, Wilson portrays the Innkeeper’s wife, Helen Carter in Bodega Bay and it is clear from her first scene why she was chosen for the role. Her career has been defined by her beautiful, highly expressive face. Wilson enjoyed the diversity of being a character actress and was often more recognizable by face than by name. In a tense scene at the diner in town, Melanie is confronted by a member of the community. The woman is clearly in shock and accuses Melanie of being the cause of this deadly bird attack. As the camera moves down the hall serving as Melanie’s perspective, Wilson’s character huddles in a hallway with the other townspeople seeking shelter. The look of fear and pure judgment fill her face. The audience can feel her disdain for Melanie with just the look in her eyes.

This wasn’t technically Wilson’s first film with Hitchcock. Her first film was an uncredited role as a partygoer in Notorious. Wilson’s visage can easily project the essence of pretentiousness, elitism, and judgment. It came almost naturally with her intense gaze and laser-beam-focused eyes. She played the bubbly socialite mother of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and later starred with Lilly Tomlin as the brown-nosing assistant, Roz in 9 to 5. She worked with Tomlin again as the no-nonsense Dr. Ruth Ruth in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and a devious criminal, Abigail Craven posing as Dr. Pinder-Schloss in 1991’s The Addams Family.

Robert Cummings (Specialized Training)

Robert Cummings was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1910. His father, Dr. Charles Clarence Cummings founded the Jasper County Tuberculosis Hospital in Webb City, Missouri, and his mother was an ordained minister of the Science of Mind. He has a notoriously famous cousin and Godfather, Orville Wright who taught him to fly while he was attending high school. He took his first solo flight on March 3, 1927. Flying would remain a big part of Cummings life, both in function and as material for his acting projects.

Cummings had begun to attend college at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but after a year had to drop out due to his family’s huge financial loss during the stock market crash of 1929. Hearing that The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City was paying its male actors $14 a week, Cummings changed his fate and headed to New York. While he only stayed one season at The Academy, it made a huge impact on him and helped to jumpstart him into a remarkable career. He was quoted as saying regarding his time at The Academy that he learned the “Three basic principles of acting. The first – never anticipate; second – take pride in my profession. And third – trust in God. And that last is said in reverence.”

Early in his career, Cummings had difficulties landing roles. He moved to England briefly to get work but struggled there as well. With a history of resourceful family members, Cummings created a plan to gain the attention of Broadway producers. He staged a fake photograph of him as a fictional British actor, under the name Blade Stanhope Conway and sent it to every producer he could. His ruse worked, and he began to land stage roles and worked in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1934. He used the name Bruce Hutchens, developed a thick Texas accent, and sold himself as a rich Texan turned actor in Hollywood. They bought it, and soon the film roles came.

He starred in films such as Private Affairs and Spring Parade in 1940, and comedies The Devil and Miss Jones and Moon Over Miami in 1941. While his career was beginning to take off, World War II hit. In December of 1941, Cummings joined the Civil Air Patrol as the first commanding officer of Squadron 918-4, which was made up of civilian pilots and aviation experts. He used his private aircraft to aid in various missions along the coast, often aiding in search and rescue and surveillance. While Cummings was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the male lead, he knew that Cumming’s youth and good looks, and his experience in the military made him the next best thing for his 1942 film, Saboteur.

Cummings portrays Barry Kane, an aircraft worker who is falsely accused of espionage. He knows he is being framed, but must flee capture to clear his name. During his journey to reveal the truth, he meets a young woman named Patricia Martin, portrayed by Priscilla Lane, who journeys with him to catch the real saboteurs and stop them from their destructive plans. Hitchcock was happy to have young stars like Cummings and Lane working on the project. He felt their intelligence and sensitivity to his direction is what lent to the success of the film. Their interaction with one another was natural and engaging with Hitchcock stating, “I wanted the boy and girl in Saboteur to suggest the thrilling importance of unimportant people, to forget they were movie stars, to remember only that they were free and in terrible danger.”

Cummings would also star in Forever and A Day in 1943. The wartime film was to have Hitchcock direct a portion of the film, but due to scheduling conflicts, the film was assigned a new director. Hitchcock did provide some scripting for the project and did so without credit.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Cummings would work again with Hitchcock. This time in the murder-mystery thriller, Dial M for Murder. Filmed in England, Cummings plays American Crime-Fiction writer, Mark Halliday who is having an affair with socialite, Margot. Her husband, a retired tennis pro, is aware of her infidelity and plots to murder her to inherit her fortune. Dial M For Murder was a huge box office success, and produced incredible performances from Cummings and fellow alumna Grace Kelly.

Cummings continued to work steadily in films and TV for the next three decades. His last lead roles on film were in the early ‘70s and over the next 10 years he guest-starred in many popular TV shows such as Love American Style, Three on a Date, and The Love Boat. Robert Cummings had a very successful career that gave him five Primetime Emmy Award Nominations, and one win for Best Actor in a Single Performance in 1955 as Juror #8 in CBS’s Studio One.

Grace Kelly (Class of 1949)

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Kelly was a member of a highly motivated and successful family. She started her career modeling and in small acting roles. After successful stage roles, she moved to live TV performances, until her big-screen debuts in Fourteen Hours and High Noon, with Gary Cooper. Kelly’s intense beauty, blonde hair, and sparkle drew in Hollywood, and one director, in particular, found her to be a source of great inspiration. Hitchcock often referred to Grace Kelly as his muse. She would go on to star in three of Hitchcock’s films, all of which were box office successes and considered to be some of his best films made.

Sharing the screen with our recently discussed alumnus, Robert Cummings, Kelly’s first film with Hitchcock was Dial M for Murder. Kelly’s character Margot is an adulterous socialite whose marriage to her husband, retired English tennis pro, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) has become cold, and she is heavily involved in a long-standing affair with American crime-fiction writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). As the two continue to hide their love affair, they are blissfully unaware that Margot’s husband Tony knows of her infidelity. He plans to murder Margot and reap the rewards of her vast fortune. When she thwarts Tony’s plan and kills her assassin in self-defense, Tony tries to pin his death on Margot. With the help of her lover and the local police captain, Margot manages to prevail. It was in this film that audiences were able to see the full range of Kelly’s abilities.

From “Dial M," Kelly moved into Hitchcock’s next thriller, Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart, Raymond Burr, and fellow alumnae, Thelma Ritter. Rear Window is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films ever made, is ranked #42 on AFI’s 100 Years...100 Movies, and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Kelly’s character, Lisa Carol Fremont, was the perfect supportive girlfriend; her beauty was the perfect respite from Stewart’s character’s pain and isolation. The combination of the stellar cast and their perfect timing, Hitchcock’s signature functions of minimal set usage, stylized close-ups, and natural soundtrack are why this film has stood the test of time. Kelly and Hitchcock were proving to be a combination made in cinematic heaven, leading to the next adventure of mystery and intrigue with, To Catch A Thief.

Set in the stunning French Riviera of the 1950s, To Catch A Thief stars Kelly alongside Hollywood mega-star, Cary Grant. Grant plays a retired jewelry thief named John Robie who becomes the main suspect in a series of recent robberies in the area. As he tries to identify the true thief, John meets a young American heiress (Kelly) named Frances. As the investigation of John intensifies, Frances learns his true identity and the two begin to fall for one another. They encounter multiple plot twists and turns and eventually reveal the true identity of the thief. While the film drew mixed reviews from critics, the film was a moderate financial success. The age difference between Grant and Kelly was quite considerable, but their seamless chemistry and timing made them the perfect pairing for the film. What it lacked in Hitchcock’s signature suspense, it gained in its accessibility to a broader audience.

Grace Kelly offered Hitchcock a leading lady that had no other motive than to exist in the world. Her visage was one of subtle femininity; natural and unforced, which was a contrast to many of the female stars of the time who focused more on the voluptuous and hypersexual image. She was never one to succumb to the “studio look”, and like her counterpart, Audrey Hepburn, she insisted that she not change her looks to suit others’ needs. The movie-going world would have to accept her for who she was...and they did. From her perfect posture and dancer-like movement to her ability to portray real and unforced emotion.

There is no denying that Hitchcock is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Nominated for and winning numerous awards, making some of the Industry’s most highly coveted “Best Of” lists, the BAFTA Fellowship in 1971 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1979, and being knighted the same year are just some of the proof of this greatness. This legacy of genius would not have been possible without students from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts; their acting chops and charisma brought life and meaning to his masterful filmmaking. Hitchcock is proof that suspense and thriller films only need ingenuity and skilled imagination to take flight–and a few Academy alumni thrown into the mix.

With only brief edits from August Sorenson, this article was written almost entirely by Freelance Writer Carin Misterly.


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