Six weeks along on Weekly Hitch, and we find ourselves – and Hitchcock – at a crossroads, as he undertakes his first comedy, and his first film in a rural setting. It’s 1928’s silent adaptation of the popular stage comedy, The Farmer’s Wife.
Weekly Hitch is a project in which I watch as many of Hitchcock’s films as possible, in chronological order, week by week. It’s like a really nerdy friend sending you letters about movies, except it’s me and all the movies are by one person and it’s on the internet and also you’ve got nothing better to do.
The Farmer’s Wife tells the simple story of a country farmer and his quest to find love. It’s an adaptation of a very popular play, his second film for British International Pictures.
As for the film itself, it opens on a small country farm in Surrey – where Samuel Sweetland (played by veteran actor Jameson Thomas) is about to become a widower.
We discover this by following two ADORABLE puppies into the house from the farm and up to the bedroom where Mrs. Sweetland is passing away under the care of Samuel and the housemaid ‘Minta (played by Lillian Hall-Davis from last week’s The Ring).The dying Mrs. Sweetland reminds Minta to dry her master’s pants (which was important enough to be her dying words I guess) and we then watch the next couple years pass by in a montage of pants drying – in winter by the fire and in spring on the line… classic visual Hitchcock.
Then, about a year or so later, the Sweetland farm is alive again as the daughter of the house is getting married. Samuel sees this occasion as a reminder that man needs woman, and the empty chair by his fireplace leaves him sad and determined to get remarried. But to whom?
Luckily for us three local spinsters happen to be around the wedding festivities and we meet them in turn:
There’s the strong and independent (and I suspect possibly just not ‘interested in men’) Louisa Windeatt. We also meet the nervous and proper Thirza Tapper, who is so delicate she looks like a stiff breeze would blow her over. And finally there’s postmistress Mary Hearn, who is younger but not exactly clever or sensible at all.
Along with all these ladies we meet Sweetland’s servant Ash (played with much mugging hilarity by Gordon Harker, also from The Ring). Ash is strongly of the opinion that no man should bother getting married, and he makes his thoughts well known to Minta.
Sweetland makes a list of all the available women (binders of women!), and in spit of Minta not being pleased with any of the choices, he promptly sets off to propose marriage to Louisa Windeatt – this being the English countryside, things are done quickly you see.
But to Sweetland’s shock, Louisa turns him down! She tells him that she’s just too independent for him (Louisa’s a horse-riding, fox-hunting, tweed kind of lady) and Sweetland leaves in a huff.
The cranky farmer heads back home and takes his mood out on his staff, before next setting his sights on the delicate Thirza Tapper.
Thirza, you see, had invited Sweetland to a party at her house on the weekend, and was borrowing the drunkard Ash to be her footman. So Sweetland decides to show up early and make his overtures. But upon his arrival, Thirza rejects Sweetland on the basis that she doesn’t need a man! Twice turned down, Sweetland has to then endure the party, furious.
Meanwhile, the servant Ash is struggling to keep his borrowed uniform pants from falling down as he introduces all the guests. It’s pretty slapsticky.
Next Sweetland tries Mary Hearn, who happens to be at the same party – but Mary turns Sweetland down because he’s too old! In turn, Sweetland insults her, and she goes into a complete fit, throwing a tantrum that looks like a full-on conniption. Seriously crazy.
But in the interim, his trusty maid Minta has come to love the man, and wants him to be happy. And, after running through every woman in town, Samuel sees her as well, and decides to propose. And Minta accepts!
Minta goes and puts on the dress that his dead wife bought her for a party once (little creepy, but okay) and has a really nice She’s All That moment when the household staff and neighbours see her as a new lady.
It’s a happy ending for all.
Now then, how was Hitchcock’s first comedy, I’m sure you’re wondering. And, my being here to answer all your questions, I’ll tell you:
It was very sweet and pleasant and amusing and warm-hearted… but, in truth, it’s only barely a Hitchcock film.
The Farmer’s Wife was an insanely popular play in the teens and 20’s by Eden Phillpotts. In 1926 (when Laurence Olivier took over the lead role) the play had already had 1,300 performances. It was pretty much a phenomenon – like Mama Mia, or Les Mis. And so, in adapting the play for the stage Hitchcock and his constant companion of the early years, writer Eliot Stannard, has a very tough task.
Essentially the film had to be everything the audience knew from the play, but with more to look at; More close-ups, more outdoor things, new angles and all the best lines included for comedy. It is a movie designed not for the filmmaker, or the audience – but for the audience’s expectations. This is not the kind of film that Hitch would have enjoyed making.
And yet, it’s really very good.
The filmmaking is of such a high quality – tracking shots, outdoor journeys, beautiful framing… and the story, because it was so well trodden – in the best way – it just works. It’s a classic comedy premise, and all the performances and the film itself work to present the material in the very best light.
It was a little surprising, actually – to find Hitchcock’s style and filmmaking technique at such a high level in this movie. It feels like a movie 10 years down the road. The Farmer’s Wife is so well shot – the camera free and capable, that the only thing holding it back is the lack of sound.
And yet, it’s exactly this lack of sound that was the reason the film could look and feel so polished. But we’ll talk about that in a couple weeks.
My only true problem with the film is that the version I saw was 2 hours and 10 minutes long. It’s practically an epic, and yet not all that much goes on. Hitch was once quoted as saying that the length of a film should be precisely timed to the endurance of the human bladder – but with this one, he seems to have forgotten that. Or, possibly, the requirements of satisfying the stage play outweighed the need for brevity. Either way, if Hitch had cut thirty minutes out, the movie would have been perfection.
But make no mistake, the film still sparkles and Lillian Hall-Davis especially, is wonderful as the thoughtful and long-suffering maid who becomes the lady of the house. It’s all around lovely, and shows a much softer and kinder side of Hitchcock than we’ve yet known.
The Farmer’s Wife, in keeping with the break-neck rate at which Hitchcock was making pictures in these days, started production in the fall of 1927 – not long after editing had wrapped on The Ring.
It would be Hitch’s second film for British International, and seems to have been an assignment from producer John Maxwell. Hitchcock’s contract stipulated that he make four movies a year for the producer, and with such a high demand on his time the development and discovery of material was left largely to others, but especially to Walter Mycroft, whom Maxwell had put in charge of finding and preparing projects. The script was written by Stannard with his usual flair for consolidation and adaptation.
Aside from the possible illness of cameraman Jack Cox and a visit from the Prime Minister’s wife, it doesn’t really seem like much of interest or anything terribly noteworthy happened during the shooting. However, what filming The Farmer’s Wife did do for Hitchcock was open his eyes up to the countryside and the England that lay outside London. So much so that he and Alma bought a country house immediately after filming, not too far from the landscape in this movie.
Production began in the Surrey and Devon countryside – where the scope and scale of the open territory must have seemed very exciting to Hitch. There’s a definite sense in the outdoor scenes that his camera is happy to be there. This would have been the first of Hitch’s pictures to take place in the country and he seems to have embraced the setting with open arms. That’s part of what makes the film so charming, is just Hitchcock’s interest in the activities and lives of the people he films – something which would grow and carry on throughout his career.
As far as films of the time go, it’s quite interesting, because while we often see what rich city-people were doing in the 20’s, or what the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey might have been up to, this film gives a seemingly honest look at fairly wealthy country folk. These people all have servants and property and money, and the customs and activities of their day-to-day become a pretty fascinating study in culture.
It’s also a great study in how far silent films had come technically. As I said earlier – this movie looks amazing! It’s nearly shocking how modern and active this picture is. The cinematic vibrancy, even with so simple a story, seems to just burst off the screen. And while sound would eventually push filmmaking back several steps (as we’ll see when we discuss Blackmail) this movie represents a great example of how far forward productions had come.
One last thing to note is how the film did in release. Both critics and audiences seemed to really enjoy the picture, it made a profit and while some thought that the more physical comedy was a bit over the top – there was no denying that Hitch had made a very sweet and warm-hearted film. Something that would, unfortunately become increasingly unusual as time went on.
Comedy, for Hitchcock, would always be a part of his work – but only on four occasions would Hitch make comedy the complete focus of a picture; The Farmer’s Wife, his next picture Champagne, 1955’s The Trouble With Harry, and 1941’s Mr. And Mrs. Smith. And of the four, this week’s movie is definitely his warmest and most un-Hitchcockian.
And, while The Farmer’s Wife, may not bear many of the Hitchcock trademarks, it still seems to have had an imprint on his future – and especially on The Trouble With Harry.
Hitchcock would never truly be a “rural director” – his eye and his upbringing kept him focussed on the hectic concrete rush of the city, and as Hitch was always a man in pursuit of past success – he stayed where murder and suspicion were most common. And yet, there were times, in the years to come where Hitch found a value is stepping outside of the city and putting himself in an unusual location. And I think the success and fond memories of making The Farmer’s Wife may have helped with that.
Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Birds, Lifeboat, The Trouble With Harry, these classic films all involved Hitch stepping away from his usual settings – and especially in the case of Harry, the comedy of rural life seems to be something that brought Hitch to vivid life.
So, while The Farmer’s Wife, may not be a classic Hitchcock film – nor iconic in terms of his future style, I think it had a large impact on Hitch as a man – who would come to spend nearly every weekend at his country home, and who would always remember the value and challenge afforded by turning your eye away from the familiar.
Next week we’ll look at the the bubbly side of things with Hitchcock’s ode to a beverage – 1928’s Champagne.