Secretary of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary talks to UMKC

U-News Staff

The students of The World(s) of Alfred Hitchcock’s film class are used to suspense, but usually only through what they watch. This weekend’s class was told on Saturday to return promptly after lunch because there would be a secret, mystery guest awaiting them. Some thought it was a ploy to get the students to complete the course evaluations, but as the department had brought an Oscar award-winning composer a few weeks before, no one could be sure. They did not expect to talk to Barbara Schneider, former secretary for Mr. Hitchcock himself.

For three months, the film studies students have watched Hitchcock’s creations of mystery, tension and suspense. Now they got to hear what he was like as a person. The grandmotherly woman didn’t seem like the sort who would come from the director’s twisted tales, but then nothing is as it seems in his films.

A student in the class, Tanner Boman, told his grandmother about the class and she dropped the bomb.

“She told me, ‘You are going to die, but I know someone who knew Hitchcock,’” he said.
As this was the last weekend the class was going to meet, he knew he had to work fast. He did a bit of digging to make sure his grandmother’s friend didn’t just meet Hitchcock once, and when he found out that she not only was the personal secretary of the great British director, but also lived locally, he sent out a request and she got back to him just in time.

“She sent me an email saying she could come to class,” Boman said. “It all worked out perfectly.”

Schneider spoke to the class for an hour, explaining some of the themes and goofs of the movies and what it was like to work with Hitchcock and his wife Alma. She also explained that she got the job almost by accident. She told the class that she grew up in Kansas City and when she graduated she knew she “just wanted to get out of there,” she said ruefully, showing her bemusement at her younger self.

So she headed to the west coast in 1958 and went to an employment agency in Los Angeles. From there, she had three choices.

“Clairol where I could work with hair color all my life, Universal Pictures, or a little known organization out in Silicone Valley working on—of all things—something called the Internet,” she said were her options. “I said ‘I didn’t know anything about that and I don’t want to know anything about that, so I’m going with Universal Pictures.’”

She was hired as a secretary—one of three positions that she said women could get back then with the other two being a nurse or a teacher—and her first job was with Bernard Wolf on a script for The Great King Dies.

“It wasn’t until later and I started doing research on that Internet, that I learned that Bernard Wolf was the personal secretary to Leon Trotsky,” she said.

She did know her next assignment: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series. Her role was to read the story submissions and find ones that would be good for an episode. After that, she continued to work with Hitchcock on his movie project “Psycho.” She saw the behind-the-scenes political issues he faced in making the film, including the fact that Paramount didn’t want to make it, despite owning the rights. Hitchcock bought the rights from them and had to make it on the shoestring budget of $800,000. Even the big stars in the film had to make sacrifices. Janet Leigh, who was at the height of her popularity, agreed to take only half her salary, $25,000, for the sake of the movie, but her new-to-the-industry co-star Anthony Perkins insisted on taking the entire $40,000 of his salary, which Schneider pointed out was the exact amount of money stolen in the movie.

Schneider, unlike the students in the class, got to see the “dailies”—the film from the previous day—and the unedited version of “Psycho.” This included Leigh’s infamous eye twitch when she was supposed to be dead, as well as much more of the flesh that was edited out to be acceptable for the Censor Board. The movie was censored a lot, but it still contained a lot of firsts including: the first time a toilet was shown and flushed on screen, the first time two unmarried people were in the same bed, the first time a major star was killed off in the first 15 minutes, and the first time the word “transvestite” was said on screen.

Because of the star’s early death, Schneider told the class how Hitchcock made the theaters adhere to a strict policy of not allowing latecomers into the film because he didn’t want them to show up having missed Leigh completely. He also used this as a marketing technique to drum up more interest. He had some theaters hire Pinkerton security to keep the crowds orderly and had prominent queues for those who had to wait for the next showing.

“He was one of the greatest marketers in the movie industry,” Schneider said.

By controlling when people were allowed in and where they stood and such, he was creating the illusion of demand. Hitchcock also forced everyone who worked on the picture to sign confidentially agreements so that no one would be able to give away the ending.

This controlling attitude is still well known and has given Hitchcock’s legacy an air of notoriety. He was known to say that actors should be treated like cattle, which caused Carole Lombard to bring three cows to the set. Schneider shared that he was also known to be obsessed with the leading actresses’ undergarments, especially Leigh’s bra in “Psycho,” as it had to be custom made for her rather large figure.

“He once jokingly said about Leigh,” Schneider said, switching to an impersonation of Hitchcock, “‘Well, you know how she got that way don’t you?’ We were all saying, ‘How, Hitch?’ ‘She ate a lot of mashed potatoes.’”

She shared the kinder and jovial side of the director, admitting that he loved gimmicks. She told of his many cameos and his “macabre” British sense of humor. After watching the final version of the film with the rest of the crew, Hitchcock would ask everyone “Well, what do you think?” because he wanted everyone’s input. Despite only being 21, Schneider said she got the courage to say that the end felt a little slow.

“You know at the very end where the psychiatrist is explaining everything?” she said in a re-enactment. “Well, it just seemed to drag because we’ve gone though all this action and screaming and now you bring out this psychiatrist who, in medical terms, explains the whole thing.”

Hitchcock asked others, but they just said it was fantastic as was. However, she did celebrate when critics agreed with her about the end.

After the movie’s release, she was moved to be the secretary to the president of Universal Studios and got to meet all the stars of the day including Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Andy Rooney who could “swear like a sailor and embarrass anyone.” But it seems, despite her brief job with him, Hitchcock remained special to her.

“As you watch the movie tomorrow, just put yourself in the camera,” she said. “Just follow the camera. What is it wanting you to know at this point? That’s Hitch. He was truly directing his audience to the message.”

She admitted this was part of his controlling nature, but also part of his genius. Dr. Thomas Poe, Associate Professor of Film Studies and teacher of the class, seemed to agree about his genius.

“Hitchcock’s films were seen as entertaining but not to be taking seriously,” he said. “Slowly it [his talent] caught on and that is why you can now get college credit for studying Hitchcock. That would surprise people in the 1960s that the director that you would get college credit for studying would be, of all people, Alfred Hitchcock.”

Despite having made around 50 movies, Hitchcock was only nominated for best director five times and he never won. However, Schneider said awards aren’t as important as the respect and understanding classes like The World(s) of Alfred Hitchcock gave to his movies.

“You,” she said, “are what Hitch would recognize as a tribute to his legacy.”

Alfred Hitchcock, despite being dead for 35 years, still seems to ask viewers after each airing, “Well, what do you think?”