Rich and Strange is a second-rate movie, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. We expect more from Hitchcock, so we feel let down when we watch one of his inferior films. Because the movie fails to fully engross us, keeping us completely within the movie as it were, we are freed up to reflect upon the subject matter outside the movie. That is to say, we find ourselves thinking about life.
Fred is disgruntled. He is tired of his job, the routine of domesticity, and the kind of entertainment afforded them by the radio and the movies. Emily, his wife, appears to be satisfied with their situation, but he is frustrated that he cannot provide for her properly. But mostly, he wants the “good things of life.” There is a painting of a ship that he points to, indicating that he wants adventure. He is irritated that Emily seems so content, thinking she ought to want more. In his exasperation, he flings something at their cat to get him off the table. Finally, he concludes, “I think the best place for us is a gas oven.” If this movie had been made in the aftermath of World War II, that would have been much too heavy a line, but as it was made in 1931, Fred presumably is only suggesting that they would be better off if they committed suicide by sticking their heads in a gas oven. Needless to say, Emily is appalled, noting that they have a plenty of food and a roof over their heads. And needless to say, Fred is not impressed.
A common plot point in a fairy tale is for someone to get his wish, only for things to go terribly wrong. Presumably, the point is to make us content with our lot. In any event, as in a fairy tale, a letter arrives from Fred’s uncle, who has decided to give Fred an advance on his inheritance so that he can travel and enjoy life to the full. They set sail from England, heading first to France before eventually ending up in the Far East.
On board the ship, Fred gets seasick, leaving Emily enough free time to make friends with Commander Gordon, with whom she soon falls in love, though hesitantly. Fred finally recovers, meets a princess, with whom he soon falls in love without any hesitation whatsoever. He is so obvious about it that Emily forms an even stronger attachment to Gordon.
At this point, a word seems necessary about the movie’s philosophy of love. Emily asks Gordon if he has ever been in love, and he replies, “No, I can’t say that I have.” Gordon is played by Percy Marmont, an actor who was about thirty-eight years old at the time, so we can figure that Gordon is supposed to be a man in his thirties as well. The idea that a man could reach that age never having been in love is preposterous. So, we have to assume that what most of us would call “love,” this movie would dismiss as puppy love, infatuation, or simply lust. In other words, this movie has an idealistic notion of love, from which vantage point it is assumed that the only way for a man to still be a bachelor in his thirties would be if either he had never truly been in love, or if his true love was unrequited, something he never completely got over.
At the same time, Emily espouses a grim view of love. She says that because she loves Fred, she wants him to think well of her, but because he is so clever, he frequently makes her feel foolish. In other words, he belittles her with his “cleverness.” She goes on to say that love makes people timid. They are frightened when they are happy and sadder when they are sad. Everything is multiplied by two, such as sickness and death. That’s why she is so happy with Gordon, she says, because he is not clever, and if he were to tire of talking to her and excuse himself, it would not be a big deal. They agree that it is lucky they are not in love. But then she concludes that love is a wonderful thing. In other words, love justifies all the misery it puts people through, which is an essential feature of this movie’s sentimental notions of love.
Things eventually reach the point where Fred and the princess are going to run off together, and Emily is going to leave Fred and marry Gordon. But Gordon makes the mistake of telling Emily how much he despises Fred, that he is a sham, just a “great baby masquerading as a big, strong man.” He then goes on to mention that the “princess” is actually an adventuress who wants Fred only for his money. That brings out Emily’s pity. She leaves Gordon to go back to Fred, noting at one point that a wife is more than half a mother to her husband.
When she gets back to their room, she finds Fred and the princess making arrangements to leave. Speaking sotto voce, the princess tells Emily she was a fool not to go with Gordon, for then both women would have benefited, after which she leaves, ostensibly to let Fred and Emily speak to each other alone. Now, Gordon may have made a mistake bad mouthing Fred to Emily, but she turns around and not only tells Fred what Gordon said, but that she realized he was telling the truth, so that’s why she came back to him. When she repeats to Fred that Gordon said he was a sham and a bluff, Fred says he ought to smash him. But Emily says that Gordon wouldn’t be afraid of him because he knows that Fred is a coward. The reason she came back, she says, is that she now realizes that all along she had dressed up his faults as virtues, and that he would be lost without her. Well, Fred would have to be the cowardly worm Emily says he is in order for him to remain married to her after she said all that.
Meanwhile, the princess takes off with £1,000 pounds of Fred’s money (about $77,000 today). Almost broke, they catch a cheap ship to get back home, but it almost sinks and they are abandoned. But a Chinese junk comes along, the crew of which are intent on salvage. Fred and Emily board the ship. One of the crew gets tangled up in the lines, struggles, and then drowns. The rest of the crew simply watch, with no one making a move to help him. Back in those days, it was believed that people in the Orient were indifferent to the suffering of others, and this movie reflects that notion.
While Fred and Emily are on the Chinese junk, a woman has a baby. From the way they look at each other, there seems to be the suggestion that Fred and Emily are inspired to have a baby themselves, now that they are reconciled. Back home, Fred wonders whether they can get a “pram” (baby carriage) up the stairs, and Emily responds that they are going to have to get a bigger place anyway, presumably because they will need an extra bedroom. So, it looks as though the baby is a done deal.
But I could not help wondering, “Whose baby is it?” The movie is not explicit about how far these two went with their philandering, although one gets the sense that Fred and the “princess” went all the way, while Emily and Gordon never went beyond kissing. But with these old movies, so much is left to the imagination that it is hard to tell.
Then again, even if we assume that Emily and Gordon did not have sex, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fred to start wondering whose baby it is.
And in any event, if Fred gets so irritated with their cat, what is he going to be like when the squalling baby arrives?
Are we really supposed to regard this as a happy ending?