Alfred Hitchcock may still reign as the master of suspense some thirty-three years after his death, but many of his most ominous moments and movies were punctuated and accentuated by a nearly irrepressible sense of humor. Hitchcock’s wry wit comes across clearly in the personal introductions he made for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series (1955-65) as well as the famous cameo appearances he made in his own films. If you’ve got ten minutes to spare, the magic of YouTube allows you to watch every one of these cameos, starting with 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of London Fog.
The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto runs a Hitchcock festival every year or two, and this past weekend they did showings of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his earlier 1934 film. The 1956 version stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, and is an excellent example of Hitchcock’s fondness for sprinkling humor on even the most macabre of situations — in this case, the possible death of a child. (I allude to events in this movie but don’t spell out the plot, even though it has been over half a century since its release!)
The film set-up is light-hearted, as Hitchcock offers up a variation of the All-American family that could work within the wholesome confines of a family sitcom of that era. To put this in context, Leave It To Beaver started its run the following year, in 1957. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife Jo (Day) are similar to Beaver’s June and Ward Cleaver, both of them kind and upstanding, raising a boy who makes innocent remarks designed to elicit chuckles in his elders.
HANK: If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails….We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman.
The film commences with several ethnic stereotypes designed to coax chuckles from the audience as Hitchcock sets the scene. There’s the Muslim couple upset when Hank inadvertently rips off the woman’s veil. There’s simultaneous laughter at local customs and the clumsiness of the American tourist as Stewart struggles to eat using only three fingers of his right hand.
Representative of the role of humor in general, rather than falling short of the required seriousness, Doris Day’s penchant for comedy and music make her character Jo all the more compelling. Just before the situation darkens, Ben and Jo stroll through the Marrakech marketplace, making jokes about how their trip has been paid for by Ben’s medical practice.
JO: You know what I was just thinking? You know what’s paying for these three days in Marrakech?
BEN: Yeah, me.
JO: Mrs. Campbell’s gall stones.