By 1933 Alfred Hitchcock's career had reached a lull. He was in his early thirties and had already gained a huge reputation during the 1920s as a director of exceptional talent and originality with films such as The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929). But the commercial failure of Rich and Strange (1931), a short contract with Alexander Korda that had come to nothing, and uncertainly over which direction to follow professionally, resulted in his being without work. Thus when independent producer Tom Arnold approached him to film the successful stage musical Waltzes From Vienna, Hitchcock accepted, apparently intrigued by the notion of working on a musical. When Esmond was engaged to repeat his original stage part on screen alongside Jessie Matthews, the most popular female film star in Britain at the time, he felt his real chance in the cinema had well and truly arrived.
With Jessie Matthews in Waltzes From Vienna (1933). It is a little known fact that johann Strauss Junior found inspiration for The Blue Danube whilst working in a bakery - hence the hat!
Picture courtesy of The British Film Institute
Hitchcock's initial enthusiasm was no doubt genuine and his idea of turning the rather serious, romantic story of the play into a musical comedy script was, to Esmond's mind, inspired. But the process of turning the script into a film soon made Hitchcock realise that, as he later admitted, "…this really wasn't my sort of thing". Halfway through the filming he had lost interest altogether and accepted that he had made a mistake. At the end of a hard day's filming at the Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd's Bush, he announced to a large crowd of extras: "I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do." He later described this as the lowest ebb of his career. Although this attitude may not have been apparent in the film, it was nevertheless a disappointment both critically and financially.
Esmond regarded his performance in Waltzes From Vienna as "poor" and he believed that the film should have been much more lively and amusing than it turned out. He felt that the reason for these failures was primarily Hitchcock's crude sarcasm and notorious penchant for practical jokes which, although amusing at the time, did much to unsettle the cast members. He nicknamed Esmond "Quota Queen" and sent him up mercilessly during rehearsals. "I was continuously on the qui vive for some elaborate leg pull at my expense, which automatically produced a feeling of nervousness, and I soon developed a hopeless inferiority complex under his direction."
The cover of Picture Show magazine, May 1934,
featuring Esmond and Jessie Matthews.
Other members of the cast received similar treatment, including Fay Compton, Edmund Gwenn and Frank Vosper. Others fared worse than Esmond who recalled that in the middle of a tense scene Hitch once shouted: "A deplorable exhibition! Cut out all this Elephant and Castle stuff, you old bag, and ACT!" Hitchcock disliked Jessie Matthews from the beginning, possibly resentful of her high salary and star status. Esmond was painfully aware that his co-star was unhappy during filming, and with good reason. Hitchcock reduced her part in size to the extent that it was small for someone of her reputation; he moved the camera away from her whenever possible and constantly interrupted her during rehearsals and takes, reducing her to a highly nervous state. In her autobiography Matthews wrote: "I felt unnerved when he tried to me get to adopt a mincing operetta style. He was out of his depths and he showed that he knew it by ordering me around . . . I thought the film was perfectly dreadful."
In the Spring of 1933, whilst Esmond was busy working on Waltzes From Vienna, Fran found out that she was pregnant and that her baby would be due towards the end of the year. On 3rd December their daughter, Rosalind Marie Knight, was born. Shortly afterwards, an article in Picture Show magazine observed that Rosalind's blue eyes were an exact replica of her father's.
A proud father - Esmond holding Rosalind in the garden of Uncle Chas's
home, Park Point, near Sevenoaks. On the right is Philip Glasier, a
protégé of Chas's who went on to become a professional falconer.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight
By now the Knights had moved to the St John's Wood area of London and it was there, at 12 St John's Wood Terrace, that Rosalind spent her childhood. She was named after the heroine of Shakespeare's As You Like It which was the favourite play of both parents. Ever in demand now, Esmond was at the Savoy Hotel the day after Rosalind was born to discuss his part in another musical comedy being produced the following Spring at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, The Three Sisters, written by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern.
Oscar Hammerstein (left) and Jerome Kern (right), whose fine score
could not save The Three Sisters in which Esmond was given the bird.
One problem may have been that audiences thought they were going
to see a musical version of the Chekhov play of the same name!
The man in the middle is Florenz Ziegfeld.
The show opened on 9th April 1934, but despite a musical score which the Drury Lane orchestra regarded as the finest they had ever played (including the song I Won't Dance which found fame when reused years later) and an impressive stage production, the show was a flop. And for Esmond there was the particular embarrassment of being given the bird for the first time in his career. In the final act of the show, his character, an irresponsible gypsy, is reunited with the woman he has betrayed to find that he is the father of her child. What had been a most poignant moment during rehearsals was welcomed by a live audience with derisive laughter and catcalls. "It was a horrible experience, and the effect of that great and cruel shout of derision made me feel much as I imagine a gladiator must have felt when the crowd roared their disapproval of a clumsy sword-thrust!"
Right - Esmond as Tony Mardon in the comedy Dandy Dick,
standing between Mignon O'Doherty and Will Hay.
Although enjoyable in itself and an opportunity to work with a man he had admired on stage in music halls on a number of occasions, this was not the direction he had intended his screen career to lead him. Depressed, and soon to embark on another musical venture in London's West End, he escaped for a while to Scotland with a friend, Bruce Seton, where he stayed in a haunted castle, roamed the Highlands wearing a borrowed kilt and "did a little gentle poaching here and there".
Suitably refreshed, Esmond returned to London for rehearsals for Streamline, a C.B. Cochran review with music by Vivian Ellis, words by A.P. Herbert and a cast that included Florence Desmond and Naunton Wayne. From there he travelled to Manchester for the three-week preliminary run and, after a marathon dress rehearsal that lasted through the night from 6pm to 8am the next morning, the show proved to be a huge success there.
On holiday in Scotland between filming Dandy Dick with Will Hay and appearing on stage in Streamline in Manchester and the West End, summer 1934. The kilt was borrowed from a shop in Inverary.
He became good friends with Florence Desmond and her fiancé, Tom Campbell Black, a well known pilot. One of the highlights was a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience which in the review became Turbot and Vulligan's Perseverance! This was one of the numbers recorded by the cast at the Opera House, Manchester, on 13th September 1934, with Esmond playing the part of Lord Rudolph, and subsequently released by Columbia Records with C.B. Cochran himself introducing each item. Other songs on the recording featuring Esmond are I Will, The First Waltz, You Turned For Head and Kiss Me Dear (all with Meg Lemmonier). Copies of the recording are not quite as rare as one might imagine as it was re-released in 1978 by the World Record Club. Two weeks after the recording, on 28th September 1934, Streamline eventually opened in London at the Palace Theatre and was equally well received. The show was a huge success, running for 178 performances, and towards the end the cast was joined by a 19 year-old harmonica virtuoso, Larry Adler.
After such a long run, Esmond was keen to work on projects of a more serious nature and, despite a generous salary, was relieved when Streamline came to an end. The feeling was enhanced when he was able to play in Hamlet at the Sadlers Wells Theatre, albeit briefly. Fortunately Irving Asher at Warner Brothers soon found him two suitable vehicles in close succession, both made at Teddington Studios where Warners were now based. Firstly he worked again for Michael Powell alongside a 19 year-old Margaret Lockwood (pictured right) in another Powell "quota quickie" - Someday. It was a remake of a successful silent film,Young Nowheres, and tells the story of a lift-boy (played by Esmond) who treats his girlfriend (Margaret) to dinner in the flat of one of his tenants while he is away. The owner returns early, is none too pleased to find them there and subsequently they all end up in a police court. The film wasn't a huge success and Monthly Film Review in their July 1935 issue felt that "Esmond Knight does not appear too happy as Curly but Margaret Lockwood is quite successful as Emily".
Then Esmond starred (i.e. name above the title) in a film called Crime Unlimited, directed by an American, Ralph Ince, who had been sent over from the USA by Warners to try and boost the quality of quota films being made in the UK. This time Esmond's co-star was Lilli Palmer who had recently arrived in Britain, having left Germany in the wake of Hitler becoming Chancellor in January 1933. The film had a clever plot and contains some fascinating close up shots of Esmond miming directly to camera. He plays Peter Borden, an undercover policeman who infiltrates a ruthless gang of criminals and ingeniously provides Scotland Yard with updates of his progress by mouthing from his bedroom window so that a deaf man in the building opposite can lip-read his messages.
The cast of Streamline performing Perseverance at the Palace Theatre, 1934.
As he was playing Lord Rudolph, one of identical twins, Esmond is presumably
one of the two characters with moustaches!