Yellow Canary

 

Did Hitchcock find inspiration for Notorious in a modest British wartime thriller?

 

Did he also find a persona for himself in its
Svengali-like director?

 


Yellow Canary is a 1943 black-and-white feature film produced at London's Denham Studios by Herbert Wilcox, a prolific producer/director of the British film industry whose career spanned from the silent era well into the 1960s.  The film, dealing with a female undercover spy who ingratiates herself to a Nazi saboteur and his mother, was moderately successful critically and financially, and then forgotten.  Made primarily for the British domestic market soon after Wilcox's tenure was over at Hollywood's RKO Studios, Yellow Canary is co-authored by RKO staff writer DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote the screenplay for many Val Lewton productions including Cat People.

 

The film is barely mentioned in the published memoirs of either Wilcox or of the film's star, Anna Neagle. 

 

However, in a contemporary viewing, the film poses interesting questions as to the originality and authorship of an Alfred Hitchcock film made three years after Yellow Canary:  Notorious.  Both share similarly strong issues and narrative, plus --in some passages-- almost identical imagery and visual language.  But the questions do not end there, because Herbert Wilcox and his protégée, Anna Neagle, were in many ways the living embodiment of Hitchcock's often-discussed and often-documented psychosexual obsession:  the situation of a film director in possession of a talented blonde actress who was his unique creation on-screen and his private consort off-screen.


Interconnections within the British Film Industry

The lives and careers of Herbert Wilcox and Alfred Hitchcock had intersected many times:  in the silent era, as one of the directors of British International Pictures, Wilcox greenlighted Hitchcock's contract for the (then unheard-of) annual sum of 13,000; in 1929 the two directors were competing to finish the first sound film to be produced in the U.K. (Hitchcock won the race by reshooting and inserting a few sound scenes for a silent film he had just completed); when they both arrived in Hollywood within a few months of each other in 1939, their similar-sounding surnames caused some confusion in the film industry (Wilcox wrote that at a large Hollywood party, a movie star congratulated him on his film The 39 Steps -- actually a Hitchcock film); and during World War II, Hitchcock and Wilcox volunteered their talents on Forever and a Day, a morale-boosting anthology film created by British members of the Hollywood film colony.

 

Herbert Wilcox's Yellow Canary project had, by nature of the insularity of the British film community, many creative links to Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood films.  Miles Malleson, who worked as an actor in The 39 Steps and later in Hitchcock's Stage Fright, received co-billing for the Canary screenplay with Bodeen; another The 39 Steps veteran, actress Lucie Mannheim (secret agent Annabelle Smith in that Hitchcock film), was cast as the Nazi matriarch -- a character whom we shall see has many physical and psychological traits similar to those of Madame Konstantin's matriarch in Notorious; another performer, Nova Pilbeam, Hitchcock's adolescent star of the 1930's (the kidnapped child in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a contender for the lead in Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca) had the role of Anna Neagle's younger sister in Yellow Canary (however, only one of her scenes exists in U.S. release print of the film).

 

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