December 1925 was a busy month for June. A fixture of the West End stage since childhood, her surname, Tripp, had been excised by the impresario Charles B Cochran because it “sounds a bit comical for a dancer”. She spent the days rehearsing for a musical, Kid Boots, the evenings starring in another, Mercenary Mary, and then would “rush to the studio at midnight”, to act in a horse-racing short film opposite the fading American film star Carlyle Blackwell. The studio was at Poole Street, Islington, in north London, built five years earlier by Paramount but now rented out, most often to a British company, Gainsborough, run by Michael Balcon.
The short, Riding for a King, starred the celebrated jockey Steve Donoghue and had its premiere in January 1926, with June in attendance. Two days later, she collapsed during a performance of Mercenary Mary and shortly after underwent an appendectomy. Daily Express readers subsequently learned that she would “not be able to dance for six months”. By February, she was recuperating on the Riviera. It was there that she received a telegram from her old friend Ivor Novello, who offered film work. “No dancing required. You will act beautifully and we shall have fun.”
Novello was Britain’s preeminent male star. The Rat, Gainsborough’s film of a play he had co-written for himself, had just been released, and now Balcon had him lined up for the lead in a murder mystery, The Lodger. June was to play Daisy, the landlord and landlady’s daughter who falls in love with a man who may or may not be Jack the Ripper. It was her first significant film role.
If Novello’s telegram named the film’s director, it could not have meant much to June, since neither of his two films had yet been released. On her arrival at Poole Street she encountered “a short, corpulent man named Alfred Hitchcock”, as she wrote in her 1960 memoir The Glass Ladder. He had started his career at the studio when it was still Paramount’s, and would in future describe himself as “American trained”. After the Americans left he was hired by the nascent Gainsborough, and worked his way up to the director’s chair by the time he was 25. His first two films, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, were made in Bavaria and northern Italy. Coming home after finishing the latter, late in 1925, Hitchcock had proposed to his assistant director Alma Reville, and she, too seasick to speak, had made “an affirmative gesture”.
The Lodger, his third film but “the first true Hitchcock movie” as he put it to François Truffaut, was derived from a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, as well as a comic stage adaptation, Who is He?, that he had seen as a teenager. The morning after production began in February 1926, with a night shoot on the Victoria Embankment, it was reported that Gainsborough had bought Poole Street outright. What was not reported, though, was that this was another aspect of June’s contribution to The Lodger, through her secret romance with the racing-car driver Woolf “Babe” Barnato. When they met, June was unaware just how rich, and how married, Babe was. His father Barney, “a poor Jewish lad who, born in London’s ghetto”, as June later put it, had gone out to South Africa in the 1870s, made millions in diamonds, then gone mysteriously overboard on a voyage back from the Cape in 1897. At one point he had been up there with Cecil Rhodes.
As it happened, June’s Riding for a King co-star Carlyle Blackwell was a beneficiary of the same legacy, through his (initially bigamous) marriage to Babe’s sister, Leah. One source says it explicitly, but it was the Barnato fortune that paid for Gainsborough’s studio. British films were at a low ebb in the mid-1920s, kept off the screen by the all-conquering Americans; to compete with the new empire, Gainsborough drew on inherited wealth accumulated under the old one. In return for the Barnato’s money, their two partners, June and Blackwell, were given roles. June had barely been in a film before, and every previous Gainsborough film had had a US female lead. Blackwell was given a job on the board and is credited as producer on The Lodger. The Barnatos enabled Gainsborough to survive the American onslaught: a month after The Lodger was released in February 1927, the government brought in the famous Cinematographic Films Act, designed to protect the British studios by establishing a quota.
Naturally enough, June appeared in reports from the set of The Lodger that appeared in the press in early 1926. In one, by the Daily Mail’s Iris Barry, she emerged from her dressing room “to discuss the merits of an intensely golden wig she must wear”. In another, the Evening News printed a photo of the director playfully threatening her with a poker, along with a vivid portrait of “the autocrat of the studio” at work.
June herself provided an account of Hitchcock’s methods in The Glass Ladder, which was published before his notorious mistreatment of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds came to light. In one scene, she writes: “All I had to do was carry an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs, but by the time Hitch was satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by lights and shadows, I must have made the trek 20 times, the tray seeming to grow heavier every passing minute. During that exhausting hour and a half, I felt a strange sickening pain somewhere in the region of my appendix scar, but forbore to complain or ask for a rest, because delicate actresses are a bore and a nuisance, and in any case, this scene ended my work on the film.” Within weeks June was at death’s door. After a second operation, she had to deny rumours “that she would probably dance no more”. In July 1926, she went to recuperate in Dorset, where she was photographed with Babe in the Daily Sketch – one of the few occasions their relationship was even hinted at in public. Only the very end of the shot is in the film.
What happened to The Lodger in the summer of 1926 has become one of the founding myths of Hitchcock’s early career: supposedly, it was rejected by its distributor (like Hitchcock’s two previous films) and the director’s career was in trouble until the Observer’s film reviewer Ivor Montagu was brought in to re-edit it, leading to the film’s triumphant first screening in September of that year (and the subsequent release of The Mountain Eagle, Hitchcock’s previous film). This is exaggerated; what really happened was less of an underdog story. None of Hitchcock’s films were shelved, and the extent of Montagu’s intervention has been inflated. If there was tension between Hitchcock and Gainsborough, it is more likely to have been because Hitchcock was poached by a rival studio very soon after The Lodger was shot.
It was June’s career that was in the balance. She had sailed to Rio with Babe, briefly her fiance, where she was offered and had to decline a new stage musical, Sunny, opening that autumn: “The trouble lay in my right side where muscles had been cut or damaged during the last operation.” But by December, back in London, she was dancing again. Within a couple of years she was on Broadway, taking the lead in what was meant to be a smash hit, Polly, opposite future Hitchcock star Cary Grant (then still billed as Archie Leach). By then she was free of Babe, and after Polly flopped June entered into what she herself characterised as a Rebecca-esque marriage to an aristocrat, one Lord Inverclyde, who kept her out of showbusiness. After their divorce, she returned to the West End limelight, but never made a film as significant as The Lodger. Might things have been different if Hitchcock hadn’t almost killed her?
• The First True Hitchcock by Henry K Miller is published in the US on 25 January and in the UK and elsewhere on 23 February