As I recently remarked in a comment on another intriguing entry in the Relative Esoterica journal, I live in a house that is filled with art—with etchings, drawings, paintings and pottery. Yet I still lower a blind on it all and turn down the lights each night to screen copies of moving pictures, few of which would seem relevant to the cinemagoers of today. I have been just as slow or reluctant to relate to the art on the walls and shelves that surround me, not having been actively involved in selecting it. There are pieces I pass without perceiving, unmindful of their cultural significance, indifferent to their monetary value. Others I insist on declaring mute, being that they seem incapable of speaking to me without denouncing me as an ignorant trespasser. There are those I am fond of and care to wonder about, that I permit to involve me in musings and study. Well, I needn’t tell you what art can do to you if you let it.
Quite by design, then, there is a general disconnect between the Hollywood images flickering on our screen and the Welsh landscapes, still lives, and portraits bordering or facing that square of blank canvas set up and aside for my cinematic getaways—my “blind” spot, you might say. Sometimes, though, the still images in our collection begin to mirror those we set in motion. That is just what happened last night during a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen (1932).
By the director’s own admission, Seventeen is somewhat of a “disaster.” It is one of those old dark house thrillers in the short-lived but lively manner of Earl Derr Biggers’s aforementioned Seven Keys to Baldpate, a theatrical heritage Hitchcock acknowledged only to blast it in a fast and furious finale set on a runaway train. As in many of those Cat and Canary affairs, you struggle to keep track of who’s who, aware that the identities of the two-dimensional characters are interchangeable, or chameleonic, at best. The biggest surprise in this at times frantic picture is none that Hitchcock and his team could have anticipated. Trapped within Number Seventeen is a girl whose age has not quite reached said number. Ann Casson! my partner exclaimed, the name having appeared in the credits. And there she was, whoever she was, playing a handcuffed damsel hanging from a broken railing of the winding staircase in that old, dark house (as pictured above).
Now, who exactly is Ann Casson (1915-1990)? Trust me, I did not have as much as an inkling. She is, to begin with, the daughter of Dame Sybil Thorndike, the noted British stage and screen actress with whom Casson, as Phaedra, toured in Hippolytus by Euripides; during the Second World War, the actress also toured Wales, my present home. By that time, she had given up on a career in motion pictures. She had appeared in a small number of films in the early 1930s, making her debut in an adaptation of Galsworthy’s Escape (1930) under the direction of Basil Dean (whose Sing as We Go we had already decided on watching tonight). To me, though, Casson is now “that girl in the picture.” Not Number Seventeen, mind you, but one of the images in our collection.
The picture in question is a portrait by Christopher Perkins (1891-1968), a British artist <a href=" http://www.art-newzealand.com/Issues1to40/perkins.htm
” target=”_blank”>best known in New Zealand, where he lived, painted, and taught during the early 1930s. The drawing is not dated, but, judging from the dress and hair style of the sitter, must have been executed some time between Perkins’s return to England in 1934 and the outbreak of the Second World War. It came into our home some six decades later, a purchase from a dealer who acquired it from the descendants of the artist. If it hadn’t been for Number Seventeen, I would not have gone on this trip of discovery and returned with a sense of relationship. Like Hitchcock’s model train, my mind went off the track, carrying me where I hadn’t thought of ever going. We did not have a strong attachment to this modest drawing; but now I am determined to hang on to it, if only as another reminder of the thrills of research, the art of making other lives relevant to our own . . .
In this spirit of connecting I would like to acknowledge the generosity of Reg Adkins (of ElementalTruths.com), who took the time to review broadcastellan on Blogexplosion, and of the Blogged.com team, who have done the same for their site. Long accustomed to the blindness of strangers, I no longer aspire to mattering or making sense to others—but it is gratifying to learn that our voices from the niche have the potential to echo beyond the hollow we dig for ourselves.