Image Source: Moovida DB
Synopsis: Following the death of his wife, Farmer Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is convinced by his loyal housemaid Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis) that he ought to remarry. Making a list of all the eligible bachelorettes in town, Sweetland sets out to invite them one by one to be his bride; unfortunately, the women are not as flattered as he’d imagined they’d be. Will Sweetland ever be able to find a woman suitable enough — and agreeable enough! — to take the mistress’ place?
I very much enjoyed participating in last year’s For the Love of Film blogathon, so no matter the chosen topic, I knew I’d want to do it again this year. However, my discovery that the beneficiary of the proceeds from our fundraiser would be a silent film on which Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director could not have come at a more convenient time. It just so happened that I had just purchased one of those cheapo four-disc, twenty-movie box sets that featured some of Hitchcock’s early works.
I use the word “cheapo” with great affection. As film fans and collectors, many of whom are now on limited budgets thanks to the economy, we often have to make difficult choices. One of the hardest is quality versus quantity. I would love to be able to afford a beautifully-restored Criterion or Kino classic for $30 – but at this point in my life, it’s not doable, so instead I bought a hastily-thrown-together mishmash of Hitchcock movies and “Presents” episodes at my local thrift store for $5. Naturally, the quality does suffer; the unrelated, dirge-like score on the frothy silent comedy Champagne was so atrocious and detrimental to the film that I had to mute the sound and watch the movie in silence. But I have to live within my means. If I want to see and own movies, and also pay my rent, these are the sacrifices I have to make.
The National Film Preservation Foundation imagines a world in which quality versus quantity isn’t a choice we’re forced to make. Their work not only consists of preserving film – they actually want to make it accessible to all people, regardless of economic status. Imagine that! “Films are not truly preserved,” says their website, “until they can be seen again by the public . . . . It is access that completes the preservation process.” As both a film fan and a penny-pincher, this is music to my ears. They’ve already got a variety of preserved films available FREE for streaming in their Screening Room; the hope is that this year’s For the Love of Film blogathon will raise enough funds to make The White Shadow, with glorious new score by Michael Mortilla, part of that collection. It costs more than you think to stream a movie online, and the NFPF wants to do this solely for our benefit as students, scholars and fans. Dropping a little money in their tip jar is the least we can do to thank them.
For this blogathon I have chosen to review the silent comedy The Farmer’s Wife, adapted from the play of the same name by Eden Phillpotts, which Hitchcock directed for British International Pictures in 1928. Let’s get this out of the way first: The Farmer’s Wife is by no means what you’d call a “typical” Hitchcock story. There’s no case of mistaken identity, no charming sociopath, no MacGuffin; the lead female protagonist isn’t even a blonde. Hitchcock himself appears nowhere in the film, a signature element that would not become standard until his first American picture, 1940’s Rebecca. Even if the film is missing that certain edge that makes it undeniably Hitchcockian, this is no amateur effort. What could be just a straight-forward romantic or slapstick comedy becomes a well-rounded and heartfelt story through the use of dynamic camerawork, creative editing techniques, and even subtle hints of sensuality. Even at this early stage in his career, Hitchcock demonstrates an undeniable mastery of the medium, hinting at the unrivaled greatness that was to come.
The Farmer’s Wife feels more character-driven than many of Hitchcock’s later works, which rely a lot more on the atmosphere of the setting and the situations characters are forced into by circumstances outside their control. In fact, the comedy here lies completely in the characters and their interactions with each other. There’s our protagonist, Sweetland the farmer, who thinks any woman should fall on her knees and thank him just for considering her worthy of becoming his wife. Then there are the women he courts, whether they be the hyper-dramatic postmistress who throws a full-on tantrum, or the high-strung neurotic spinster who can’t stop crying long enough to take a breath and explain herself. Throughout it all there is the delightful handyman Churdles Ash (played by Gordon Harker), who frequently steals the show with his salty demeanor and ill-fitting uniform (though his baldcap does get distracting). The film is positively peppered with outrageous characters, and Hitchcock works hard as a director to aid his actors in giving their best over-the-top performances.
One sure sign that Hitchcock by this point was more than comfortable in the director’s chair is his willingness to experiment. For example, the film opens with the farmer’s wife on her deathbed, telling Sweetland that he should remarry and reminding Minta not to forget to air her master’s pants. Afterwards, whereas a lesser director might have just inserted an intertitle telling us how much time had passed, Hitchcock instead uses a montage of Minta repeatedly laying out Sweetland’s britches to dry in order to indicate the progress of time. Later, when Minta and Sweetland are discussing potential candidates for the new mistress of the house, the visage of each potential wife fades into the mistress’ rocking chair and out again as she passes from Sweetland’s mind. These small touches may not be particularly Hitchcockian, but they definitely show a master of his craft at work.
The one element that I can say fits in with Hitchcock’s later overarching themes is the undercurrent of sensuality that runs throughout the film, particularly in Minta’s reactions to Sweetland. There are so many beautiful shots of Minta looking longingly at the farmer, worrying the buttons on her dress as if she’s aching to undo them – to say this is suggestive is an understatement! But Sweetland is no perfect specimen of manhood; if anything he’s just as flawed or perhaps even more so than the women he’s courting. I’m going to spoil you right now by telling you that Sweetland and Minta end up together at the end; it’s a predictable ending that you can see coming a mile away, but the point here is not to surprise the audience. While Minta is portrayed as the “nurturing” type who will love Sweetland despite his chauvinist arrogance (gag me), at least by the time he recognizes that they are meant to be together he has been somewhat humbled by his experiences. Overall Sweetland does show a sweet respect for Minta, so even though one might hope that Sweetland had learned more from his failures with women than it seems he has, in the end one doesn’t worry for Minta too much. Besides, Churdles states along with his blessing that he’s on Minta’s side should any conflict arise. It’s a very touching close to the film, and does help convince the audience that this is no mere convenience of plot: Minta and Sweetland really do belong together.
That isn’t to say the film is flawless. At a bit over two hours, it does drag in places, and some scenes are extended too far, making them feel more like filler. Although Hitchcock’s later films almost always included an element of humor, the comedy here is broader than one would expect from Hitchcock – but of course, it is a silent film: it can only be so subtle. Even still, it’s a wonderfully charming little picture that would be worth watching even if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s involvement; his role as director only serves to add an extra element of interest, and fortunately should make modern audiences more willing to give The Farmer’s Wife a chance. A slightly shortened version is available for streaming here for anyone who’s interested in seeing an early master at work. God bless the Internet, and God bless film preservation!
The Farmer’s Wife (1928) – 4/5 stars