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Synopsis: Mary, a young Irish woman whose parents have passed away, has come to Cornwall to stay with her aunt Patience and Patience's husband Joss Merlyn, who manages a seaside inn. Mary discovers that Joss heads a gang of criminals who use a beacon to lure ships to their doom on the rocks, then slaughter the men on board and seize the valuables. Unbeknownst to all except Joss Merlyn, the mastermind behind the scheme is none other than Sir Humphrey Pengallan, a local magistrate. Pengallan, who has a predilection for beautiful objects, becomes obsessed with Mary and decides he must possess her. But when Mary saves the life of Jem Trehearne, a member of the gang wrongly accused of skimming the loot, and falls in love with him, her own life is suddenly in danger.
Jamaica Inn (1939) was the first of three Daphne Du Maurier adaptations that Alfred Hitchcock directed, which would seem to indicate something of the esteem in which he held the novelist. (The other two films were, of course, Rebecca (1940) and The Birds, 1963.) But in fact it was lead actor Charles Laughton who initially suggested that Hitchcock direct the project. Laughton had just established a production company named Mayflower Films with the famed German producer Erich Pommer, who had relocated to England after the rise of the Nazis. From the very start Jamaica Inn was conceived as a starring vehicle for Laughton, and the presence of a competing creative force in the film perhaps contributed to Hitchcock's general unease about directing it. During this time Hitchcock also read the galleys for the soon-to-be-published Rebecca, which he decided at once to adapt as his first feature in Hollywood.
Daphne Du Maurier's original novel of Jamaica Inn contains many elements from gothic literature, including a bleak, windswept landscape, a mysterious inn, and violent passions, anticipating the author's full embrace of the genre in Rebecca. Hitchcock and his screenwriters made some significant changes to the original story: in the book Mary's love interest Jem was Joss Merlyn's younger brother (!) and the villain was a mad vicar named Davey. Naturally, Laughton had that juicy part in mind for himself. However, since they wanted to achieve the widest possible distribution in the US, they decided to consult with the Production Code Administration during the script development stage. Not surprisingly, the American censors balked at the idea of a clergyman being the villain, so the scriptwriters invented the character of Sir Humphrey Pengallan instead. The script team included: Sidney Gilliat, who had worked with Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes (1938); Joan Harrison, who was one of Hitchcock¿s most trusted assistants--and whom he would bring with him to America; and J. B. Priestley, the respected British playwright and novelist who, among other things, wrote the book Benighted, which James Whale adapted into the campy 1932 horror film The Old Dark House.
The film was Maureen O'Hara's first leading role, though by that time she was already established as a stage actress in Dublin. In her autobiography, entitled 'Tis Herself, O'Hara recalls that she had just completed a screen test that she regarded as a disaster, when she signed up with a major talent agency in London and the agency¿s co-owner, Vere Barker, introduced her to Charles Laughton. The actor invited her to do a cold reading of a script, which she refused to do out of principle. Laughton and Pommer nonetheless obtained her screen tests afterwards. Impressed with how well her eyes photographed, they cast her in a B-musical entitled My Irish Molly (1938). O'Hara's next project was Jamaica Inn, for which she was assigned the leading role opposite Laughton; she again starred opposite Laughton in their next feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
During its original release, Jamaica Inn was usually regarded as more of a Laughton vehicle than a Hitchcock film per se. The critic for Time wrote, "Charles Laughton's impersonation of a Nero-like Cornish squire....was magnificent in the eye-rolling, head-cocking, lip-pursing, massively mincing Laughton style." Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times also praised Maureen O'Hara's "charming naturalness and poise." Indeed, this was the film that established Maureen O'Hara as a star. Incidentally, the film's score was by Eric Fenby, who got his start as an assistant to the composer Frederick Delius; Fenby's memoirs of his years with the irascible Delius were adapted by Ken Russell into the remarkable television film Song of Summer (1968).
Producer: Erich Pommer
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, with additional dialogue by J. B. Priestley; based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Photography: Harry Stradling and Bernard Knowles
Editing: Robert Hamer
Settings: Tom Morahan
Costumes: Molly McArthur
Music: Eric Fenby
Cast: Maureen O'Hara (Mary), Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Marie Ney (Patience), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Peddler), Wylie Watson (Salvation Watkins), Morland Graham (Sea Lawyer Sydney), Edwin Greenwood (Dandy), Mervyn Johns (Thomas), Stephen Haggard (the Boy), Horace Hodges (Butler), Hay Petrie (Groom), Frederick Piper (Pengallan's agent).
by James Steffen