JACKI LYDEN, host:

In the 1920s, while Bonnie and Clyde were still teenagers in that Dallas slum, Noel Coward's creations were flitting through a very different social scene.

There's a new movie version of Coward's Roaring Twenties play "Easy Virtue" in theaters this weekend.

And as NPR's Bob Mondello discovered, this story has some surprising cinematic roots.

BOB MONDELLO: The new film "Easy Virtue" is filled with the sort of chatter and situations for which Noel Coward was famous. Wealthy, sophisticates sipping cocktails and cracking wise about marriage and life and really important things like tennis.

(Soundbite of movie "Easy Virtue")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BRASSINGTON (Actor): (As Phillip Hurst) The Titanic could have hit that. Sarah, you're an embarrassment to the Hurst family name. I'm going to have you killed.

MONDELLO: I'm going to guess that crack was not penned by Noel Coward, but Stephan Elliott's adaptation keeps his basic storyline and the generally light tone.

(Soundbite of movie "Easy Virtue")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEN BARNES (Actor): (As John Whittaker) Nice backhand.

Mr. BRASSINGTON: (As Phillip Hurst) Was that a backhand (unintelligible)?

MONDELLO: Jessica Biel plays Larita - a glamorous American with a scandalous secret she has not confided to her much younger, new husband. This is sensible because he's a bit of a twit, still under the influence of a manipulative mother, who expected him to continue living on the family's country estate, not with a wife in London.

(Soundbite of movie "Easy Virtue")

Ms. KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS (Actress): (As Mrs. Whittaker) So what will John do in the city?

Ms. JESSICA BIEL (Actress): (As Larita Whittaker) Work. It's not uncommon.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Mrs. Whittaker) Oh, John was brought up in the country, Larita. Where will he work?

MONDELLO: Now, with a Noel Coward play, the dialogue and its brittle, upper-crusty delivery count for everything, so it's kind of intriguing that there was a previous film version of "Easy Virtue" and that it was a silent movie.

Coward's play was optioned almost as soon as it hit the London stage in 1925, and a youngster named Alfred Hitchcock, in his 20s at the time, was hired to direct. How does his version compare? Well, for one thing, it's pure melodrama, not comedy.

(Soundbite of movie "Easy Virtue")

MONDELLO: Larita's scandalous past, barely mentioned in the new film or the play, takes up nearly a quarter of the silent picture's running time. Her drunken first husband, adultery, a shooting, a divorce trial, all are laid out in elaborate detail and with touches of the Hitchcock that audiences would later learn to love for his wry sense of humor.

The leading lady is introduced as an onscreen blur, for instance, and only comes into focus when the judge puts on his glasses. Hitchcock, the master craftsman, is already at work.

But consider his dilemma. He's adapting a celebratedly witty piece of writing but can barely use any of Noel Coward's words. Just one verbal joke remains from the original play. On a title card, John's battleaxe of a mother baits Larita with the question: Have you had as many lovers as they say?

Larita, ever classy, replies: Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me. Vintage Noel Coward, that.

Coward was mocking the smugness of the rich folks, and Hitchcock finds lots of ways to get that across, but he treats the story as the melodrama it always was underneath, about a hypocritical family and a lady with a past who knows more about morality than they do.

Because Hitch was not making a comedy, the rhythms he adopts are stately. Almost nothing in his silent version of "Easy Virtue" happens very quickly, but one thing does. If you rent it, keep an eye out during the tennis scene for a slightly bulky gentleman with a walking stick, striding away from the camera and through a gate.

You never see his face, but if you've seen any of Hitchcock's other movies, you'll recognize a very early instance of what was to become a signature moment: a discreet nod to the audience from a cinematic showman who was then an unformed but already very confident 28-year-old.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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