THE FARMER’S WIFE B
Great Britain (129 mi) 1928 d: Alfred Hitchcock
While The Pleasure Garden (1926) dances around it, this film takes the subject of marriage head-on, opening in an idyllic pastoral landscape that immediately recalls The Trouble With Harry (1955), a somewhat morbid screwball comedy that is one of Hitchcock’s funniest films, and one of the director’s own personal favorites. This early silent film is more obscure, but is one of the director’s earliest attempts at comedy, and is interestingly filmed within the first years of his own marriage, so perhaps one can gage Hitchcock’s initial ideas on marriage from viewing this film, which is essentially a comedy on rural country manners, adapted from Eden Phillpot’s novel, Widecombe Fair, which had already been a wildly popular, long-running hit play in London, which explores what life is like in the 1920’s among the wealthy rural class, where all the households are run by servants, and the male owners of the estate are called “masters.” Based on the folksy eccentricities of country life, this is a character driven comedy that relies heavily upon dialogue to establish personality and much of the humor, so there is heavy use of intertitles continually interrupting and altering the rhythm of the film, an obstacle the movie never really overcomes and something that would never be a problem in a live theatrical performance. One device Hitchcock uses is to allow the camera to linger on his subjects, adding context to their characters, where we do get a good degree of interior development, especially near the end, but all the jokes come from dialogue, much of it written in slang. This film, along with CHAMPAGNE (1928), are among the few times Hitchcock actually engages in pure slapstick, where there are frenzied moments of anarchy when all mayhem breaks out.
This film is unique for *not* having the usual Hitchcock elements, existing outside the typical realm of his works, but the director had a macabre sense of humor and must have found something here he liked. After his wife passes away, Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is a middle-aged farmer (who we never see do a single second of work in the entire film, perhaps the ultimate irony) in Devon whose life gets lonelier after marrying off his daughter, who then moves away, leaving a void to fill. Sweetland’s listless, perpetually grumpy handyman, Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) provides the comic relief and literally steals the show with his inclination to get away with doing as little as possible, always moving in slow motion as if he has to be pushed to move at all, but he’s never hesitant to offer his views, “He'll be the next to wed now his daughter's marryin’.” “Why not? There's something magical in the married state…it have a beautiful side, Churdles Ash," answers Minta, short for Araminta, the loyal housekeeper played by Lilian Hall-Davis, the reliably upbeat, generous to a fault, and warmhearted woman who actually runs the place. Ash has an altogether differing view, and once Sweetland decides it’s time to start looking for a wife, he finds it disheartening, claiming “beer drinking don’t do ‘alf the ‘arm of love making,” describing marriage as “the proper steamroller for flattening the hope out of man and the joy out of a woman.” Welcome to marital bliss—well at least no one gets murdered in this one. Right then and there Sweetland and Minta decide to draw up a list of eligible women in the countryside, where they’re asked to consider the “possibles and the impossibles,” as Sweetland imagines the “possibles” sitting in his wife’s empty chair sitting across from his next to the fireplace. Minta rightly questions some of the choices, as in her eyes they do not exactly seem like a match made in heaven, but this allows plenty of lowbrow comedy. “Her backview looks like that of a thirty-year old,” Sweetland says about one potential candidate, “Yes, but you have to live with her frontview,” replies Minta candidly.
In something of a riff on Buster Keaton’s SEVEN CHANCES (1925), one of Keaton’s most hilarious films where he discovers he must find a bride before 7 pm that same day or lose $7 million dollars, Sweetland similarly takes his four chances with a certain arrogant expectation, comparing it to foxes hunting hens or lambs being led to slaughter, believing he’s quite a catch, thinking even if they’re not that interested in being the farmer’s lady, they’d at least be interested in being the lady of the farm. To his surprise, when he goes courting them in order, there’s a reason these women are not married and he’s about to find out firsthand, checking off the local spinster’s names on the list one by one. With each rejection, he loses his temper and all evidence of any self-respect, refusing to ever come up the widower Louisa Windeatt’s (Louise Pounds) hill anymore, while the slight, thin-as-a-pretzel Thirza Tapper (Maud Gill) is hosting a tasteful tea party, but when Sweetland corners her, she swoons from the mere thought of the idea, where they have to fan her with air as if she is suffering from heatstroke, while the smilingly obese Mary Hearn (Olga Slade) goes apoplectic after having to endure a series of insults in response to her outright rejection, winding up in a fit of uncontrollable hysterics that can’t be stopped. The last on the list is a saloon bartender Mary Bassett (Ruth Maitland), who’d prefer being one of the boys in the bar to a wife, where the barroom conversation takes place during a full blown fox hunt. Silent film plays best to visual sight gags and slapstick comedy, where here Sweetland and Minta play it straight while everyone else around them exaggerates into somewhat buffoonish caricatures, giving over-the-top performances often resulting in utter chaos. It was only later in sound films that Hitchcock would drop this style in favor of the witty banter of his better known, stylishly sophisticated comedies, where no one was more suave and debonaire than Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941) or NOTORIOUS (1946). After the proposal debacle, when Sweetland’s spirits are at their lowest ebb, it’s Minta who attempts to keep his spirits up, once more using the empty chair device, where in his head each of the list of brides appears in the chair, and finally he sees Minta, who is seen standing around the chair nervously fidgeting with the buttons on her dress, where only then, like a moment of enlightenment, does the farmer realize what’s been standing right in front of him all along, as she is the perfect choice to fill the empty spot. A film without any tension or suspense, where the end comes as no surprise, where it’s a conventionally made movie, but the performances are superb, as are the memorable characters and comic wit displayed throughout, making this one of Hitchcock’s happier films.
A note on Lilian Hall-Davis who provides such remarkable warmth and appeal as Minta, who for a time was considered Hitchcock’s “favorite actress,” having earlier worked with Hitchcock in THE RING (1927), her career stalled with the transition to sound and she never recovered, suffering from severe depression until tragically in 1933, at the age of 35, she committed suicide by turning on a gas oven and cutting her own throat.