Hitchcock’s Black Comedy: “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, & Jerry Mathers

Well, I wasn’t tall or thin or ethereal, so he wasn’t going to grab at me. So, I became his eating buddy. I gained about 15 lbs. during filming, and the studio got concerned. -Shirley MacLaine on her experience w/ Hitchcock

There is a dead man in a meadow in the hills above a small Vermont town. Capt. Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), comes across the body, and believes he accidentally shot him dead while hunting rabbits. Capt. Wiles wants to hide the body instead of going to the authorities. Capt. Wiles sees several other people stumble across Harry, most of whom don’t seem to know him or notice that he’s dead! A middle-aged woman, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), sees Capt. Wiles moving the body; she vows to keep it secret. A young single mother, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine- her first movie after working as a chorus girl), does know Harry and seems happy that he’s dead. Her son, Arnie (Jerry Mathers), saw the body first. This is a time when 6 or 7 y.o. kids played alone outdoors! Later, struggling artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe- long before Dynasty) comes along and starts sketching near the body; Capt. Wiles confides in him.

Capt. Wiles: [after Dr. Greenbow trips over the body] Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.

This movie was Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s experiment to see how audiences would react to a movie w/o famous stars. He thought that sometimes big names hindered the flow and style of the story. He also wanted to test how American audiences would react to a subtle brand of humor than usual. Although a perverse sense of humor permeates all of his movies, this was only Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s second outright comedy. American audiences of the ’50s were perhaps uncomfortable w/ black comedy, so this was a box-office failure upon initial release. It ran for a long time in England, France, and Italy.

I just saw this movie for the first time after reading a few rave reviews on a Facebook group. Fans esp. seemed to like the scenery; though filming was done on location in New England, most of the scenes set in the forest were shot on a Paramount soundstage. The musical score is playful, funny, and quirky, adding much to the story. Lyn Murray, who worked on To Catch a Thief (1955), suggested Bernard Herrmann for this film. Thus began a long professional relationship between two innovative creatives; Herrmann composed the music for seven of Hitch’s movies.

[1] Part of the joke is that “nothing happens.” Hitchcock’s “anti-Hitchcock” film defies expectations for action, shock, mayhem, suspense, spectacular climaxes on national monuments, etc. Instead, it’s a New England cross-stitch of lovingly detailed writing, acting, photography, directing and editing.

[2] No Hitchcock film divides viewers more than this one. Some consider the film a masterpiece of understated black comedy; others deem it a plot less, pointless time-waster. …I’d say The Trouble With Harry is a great film that was probably a good two decades ahead of its time. The performances are wonderfully outrageous, especially the elders (Gwenn and Natwick) who give perceptive comic turns that actors nowadays just don’t seem to have the range to do. Forsythe and MacLaine are delightful too

[3] A light film for Hitchcock, but it does contain the transference of guilt theme, and the guilt bounces all over our main players. A small gem of a film that often gets overlooked, watch this one and you’ll be charmed by the trouble that Harry causes.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

2 thoughts on “Hitchcock’s Black Comedy: “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, & Jerry Mathers

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