Alfred HitchcockLillian Hall-DavisGordon HarkerGibb McLaughlin
The Farmer's Wife
Medium: film
Year: 1928
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Eden Phillpotts, Eliot Stannard
Keywords: silent
Country: UK
Actor: Jameson Thomas, Lillian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker, Gibb McLaughlin, Maud Gill, Louie Pounds, Olga Slade, Ruth Maitland, Antonia Brough, Haward Watts, Mollie Ellis
Format: 96 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 16 October 2012
No, not Three Blind Mice. It's a Hitchcock silent movie, very obviously based on a stage play. Hitch manages to make it look like a movie, but at the end of the day it might as well all have been set all in Samuel Sweetland's front room. Excellent in parts, but it drags.
Plot summary... Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is a widower who wants to remarry. We see his late wife's deathbed and her final words to his housekeeper (Lillian Hall-Davis). Everyone feels sad, even the dogs. (It didn't occur to me that that's what they were pantomiming, but in hindsight I could see it.) Anyway, our hero has a good position (farmer with farm), an impeccable name and a number of friendly, unattached ladies living nearby with whom he'd be happy to settle down.
Unfortunately he's an overbearing cock. His idea of a marriage proposal is to start with "I'm marrying again!" and only then go through the formalities with his presumed bride-to-be. "You're the first to know your good luck, my dear." Amazingly enough, this doesn't always produce the expected results.
Peculiarly, the best thing about this silent film is its dialogue. Those are explosive intertitles. The original play was by a British novelist, poet and playwright called Eden Phillpotts and the guy had a wicked turn of phrase. There are enough innocent-looking double entrendres, for instance, to make me suspect that no, it wasn't just my dirty mind. Thomas's wife's last words to his housekeeper are, "And don't forget to air your master's pants." A dried-up old spinster invites Thomas over to "a little affair I'm having." However on top of that, there's also:
(a) Thomas's unromantic ways, even when proposing marriage. "There's a female or two be floating around my mind like the smell of a Sunday dinner." "Have you got the face to call yourself a girl? The trouble with you is, you are too fond of dressing your mutton lamb fashion."
(b) a handyman (Gordon Harker) who's the social equivalent of Bubonic Plague and takes a dim view of his master's ambitions. "Holy Matrimony be a proper steam roller for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman." "They do say that the next best thing to no wife be a good one."
(c) a housekeeper (Hall-Davis) who's more intelligent, attractive and sensible than all the other women in the cast put together and is also rather fond of Thomas, but wouldn't dream of pushing herself forward. If the master wants to draw up a list of marriage prospects and solicit her opinions on them, then she'll help him to the best of her ability. Her frankness makes this funny. "But you have to live with her front view." "A woman that's a pillow at thirty be often a feather bed at forty."
I don't think the film quite works. It's a bit of a haul getting through its 96 minutes (or 129, according to the imdb). Thomas's character is entertaining enough, but I didn't really care about him or his mission to get married. However it made me laugh a lot, probably more than many comedies I like a lot better. There are plenty of comic set-pieces and some excellent bits of visual business. It's not a knockabout silent comedy, mind you. It doesn't have action sequences. However Gordon Harker creates one of the funniest movie characters I've seen in a while, with his childlike grumpiness and his peculiar method of tea-drinking. There's inappropriate sandwich consumption and an illustration of the downside of being a doctor.
It's quite a feminist movie, setting up this monster of chauvinism in order to kick his legs out from under him and knock a bit of humility into his thick head. This is deceptively well done and I was quite impressed with Thomas's character's development. This of course requires a number of female characters, which of course need to be undesirable in various forms but are still all going to give Thomas a nasty surprise. There's Louie Pounds, whose hobbies include fox-hunting and could probably wrestle bears. ("You know her back view's not a day over thirty," says Thomas at one point, who needs his eyes tested.) Maud Gill is a maiden aunt who has the Wicked Witch of the West as her housekeeper. Olga Slade is fat and simpering.
The heroine of course is Lillian Hall-Davis, a silent film star considered by Hitchcock at one point to be his "favourite actress". He'd previously cast her in The Ring. Unfortunately her career didn't survive the arrival of talkies and she ended up committing suicide in 1933.
The ending is surprisingly sweet. You'll have seen the inevitable coming almost since the opening credits, but it's still lovely. Thomas has been knocked off his high horse and now you'd actually marry him, whereas earlier in the film you wouldn't have dreamed of it. Hall-Davis nearly spoils the moment with a Silent Ham Gesture on "you want me?", but it's still amazing that this film can make you so happy to see a good woman accepting the hand of a previously unconscionable man.
There's a 1941 film based on the same stage play, incidentally. I can imagine a talkie version working better, but unfortunately the 1941 film looks relatively obscure.
The film looks good. There's beautiful countryside and horseriding. The cast are overacting a bit (e.g. Harker's Muppet face with that tea cup), but the tone is naturalistic and their performances still stand up very well today. There's lots of fun acting here, but I particularly loved Harker. The comedy often made me laugh, while unlike a lot of films from that era, the 1928 chauvinism it's skewering has dated in a way that makes the film better. I'm sure Thomas would have been a buffoon to an audience of any era, but today his attitudes will have you roaring. This makes his repeated downfalls even more entertaining.
For me, it just lacked momentum. I didn't care much. It felt longer than its running time. There's still a lot of good in it, though.
"You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge."