The Farmer's Wife (1928)
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Rare, if not clairvoyant, is the filmgoer who could sit through The Farmer's Wife (1928) not knowing the names connected to it and correctly guess that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. None of the Hitchcock stylistic trademarks are in it. Nor does it ever approach the psychic darkness that was to become meat and drink to Hitchcock. Of course, Hitchcock hadn't become Alfred Hitchcock yet. In this fifth of nine silent features he directed, he took whatever work he could get and his work here was to bring to the screen Eden Phillpotts' enormously popular pastoral stage comedy laced with homespun wisdom. It opened in 1916 in Birmingham and was a hit. English audiences savaged by World War I embraced its Eden-like evocation of a farming village filled with, as Louis B. Mayer so eloquently put it, nice people with nice problems.
The play transferred successfully to London in 1924, and in 1926 Laurence Olivier played the leading role on tour in it. Hitchcock and his leading actors all were Londoners, but they captured the play's warm, idealized evocation of Devon's lush fields and leisurely tempos. There isn't an original bone in its body, but give it a chance and it'll sneak up on you and charm and disarm you with its essential sweetness. Later, it could seldom be said of Hitchcock that his films liked all the characters in them. But The Farmer's Wife does, even the silly ones. Leading the parade here is the titular farmer, prosperous and a widower. Jameson Thomas is the farmer named Samuel Sweetland. He sits well on a horse, cuts a still manly figure in his tweeds, and believes that finding a new wife will merely be a matter of approaching the woman of his choice and telling her she's the lucky winner - of him.
Naturally, it doesn't quite work out that way, even with the help of his true-blue housemaid, Lillian Hall-Davis' Minta, who's more connected to the here and now than he is and helps him draw up a list of prospects once a decent amount of time has elapsed and he's reminded that his late, loving wife urged him on her deathbed to remarry, especially with his grown daughter newly married and gone to set up her own household. And so Hitchcock does what the stage version couldn't do, namely show us the rolling hills of Devon and Surrey as Samuel calls on his neighbor, a widow who inherited a farm as substantial as his. So lacking in social graces is the farmer, and so obliviously condescending, however, on the topic of marriage, that the widow can't keep a straight face during his proposal, which suggests a man going to market to select a chicken for his Sunday dinner. She laughs in his face. He of course takes instant umbrage and rides away much more resolutely than he rode in.
The second candidate is a different type entirely. Whereas the widow was robust and confident in her self-sufficiency, and loath to give up her independence, number two is a genteel woman of enough means to own her own servant-staffed house, but she's a nervous, twittering, skittish spinster who can't bear the idea of sex. The town's social fabric almost collapses entirely during a tea party she holds, during which gales of chaos howl through her dainty world. This is the place to mention the farmer's curmudgeonly handyman, with the wonderful name of Churdles Ash, wonderful because he's as much a churl as he is a curmudgeon, and in the time-honored tradition of servants delivers mildly subversive asides on the foibles of their masters, such as, "To see an old man in love be worse than seeing him with the whooping cough." Churdles starts to wreck the tea party and the farmer finishes it.
The comic climax is unleashed when Mr. Ash is borrowed by the spinster to add a little cachet to the occasion by exchanging his greasy cap for braided livery in which he's supposed to announce the guests and help serve sandwiches and tea. Because the livery is several sizes too big for him, the poor dolt spends the afternoon holding up his pants with one hand and maladroitly dishing out the refreshments while murdering the guests' entrances. Then the farmer takes over. Having been turned down twice, he gets the plump, lively young postmistress alone when the others go out to the garden, but is jolted into anger when she laughs at his proposal, saying he's too old for her. He snaps back with a cutting remark about her weight, upon which the postmistress goes into hysterics. So much for gentility.
Dejected after a fourth turndown, against the background of a fox hunt, he returns home, heavy of spirit, and complains to the housemaid, who immediately suggests drawing up a new list. It's at this point that a dim little bulb lights up over the head of the man who wears cluelessness like a halo. The fact that he's been humbled, and Minta's gentleness and grace, make what should be an unbearably predictable denouement glow with warmth as you recall that the farmer was never a monster, only a fool. Until then. The narrative runs its course, which seems a bit too long, especially when Gordon Harker's Mr. Ash diminishes his skilled comedic playing by being allowed to mug a few times too many. By the same token, Hall-Davis reminds us how effective underpaying can be. Her Minta mostly stays in the background, and doesn't say much, but we're always aware, as the farmer largely isn't, of the fact that her presence makes things better, more manageable. Besides, she loves the guy.
It's easy to see why Hall-Davis was a popular silent film actress, having made 44 films between 1917 and 1931. Unlike many of her stage counterparts trying to transition to the screen, she was aware that less is more, especially when it comes to emoting. She had a sad end, though. In 1933, convinced her film career was finished, she committed suicide. Thomas fared a little better, although not much. Dissatisfied with the narrower range of opportunities in British film, he immigrated to Hollywood and worked steadily, but died of tuberculosis, aged 50, in Sierra Madre, California. Harker's scenery-chewing Churdles Ash remained an audience favorite, appearing in 68 films between 1921 and 1959, including three Hitchcock silents. The credits for which you do a double take belong to Louie Pounds, whose independent widow is effortlessly played with confidence, authority and humor. It's her only screen credit, though. She and four musical siblings regularly warbled Gilbert and Sullivan roles for the D'Oyly Carte company at the Savoy Theatre. In any case, everyone's well-employed here. And in 1929, with Blackmail, Hitchcock did become Hitchcock and never looked back.
By Jay Carr