Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Last week I said some unkind things about Alfred Hitchcock, or rather, I doubted his ability to handle comedy. Almost as soon as I posted that review, I started thinking about his silent comedies and if it was fair to paint him with such a broad brush. Granted, by 1941 the language of filmmaking had expanded to include a vocabulary for comedic editing and directing (for many silent films, that vocabulary consisted of having something funny happen and pointing the camera at it). So I thought it would be good to visit one of Hitchcock’s silent comedies and a movie I barely remember: The Farmer’s Wife (1928).
Hitchcock shot this film at the end of a spectacular run in 1927 (it was released in 1928) that also included Downhill, The Lodger (perhaps his greatest silent triumph) and The Ring. It seems like a strange choice for a silent film adaptation; a sprawling, very talkative comedy of manners about a gentleman farmer who decides to remarry several years after his wife’s death. The play by Eden Phillipotts had debuted in London’s West End to great acclaim with over 1300 performances and multiple touring productions (one starring Laurence Olivier). It was a big, broad comedy that depended on dialogue. Unlike the more atmospheric Who Is He? (that provided the basis for The Lodger) or the melodrama Downhill, The Farmer’s Wife contained memorable lines of dialogue that audiences would expect. Hitchcock would have little to no leeway to change any major aspects of this remarkably successful play.
Really it’s strange that so many silent features were developed from plays. It makes sense once talkies came about, as studios were desperate for written dialogue. Yet the difficulties of translating a wordy 100 page comedy into 116 silent film titles (counted here thanks to this handy website) must have been immense. It shows why many American silent comedies, like the slapstick of Chaplin or the visual inventiveness of Buster Keaton, hold up so much better.
However Hitchcock is up to the challenge, delivering a film that escapes from the confines of the stage whenever possible, starting with exquisite exteriors shot in Devon that give the film a wonderfully bucolic tone. Additionally, Hitchcock goes out of his way to establish the pathos behind farmer Sweetland (Jameson Thomas), as the film opens with the death of his wife then dissolves to several years later as his daughter is preparing for marriage. Amidst the revelry, there are lingering shots of Sweetland gazing at two chairs before a fireplace, visually dramatizing the loss without talking about it. Time and time again Hitchcock would return to showing the audience information through visuals, only resorting to dialogue when absolutely necessary. You get the impression that he would be perfectly happy if films had stayed silent.
Jameson Thomas is at his best in these early parts of the film, where he sells the melancholy of a widow as well as Sweetland’s slow interest in marrying again, including a charming scene where he appraises himself in a mirror. Hitchcock also deftly shows how his housekeeper Minta (the excellent Lillian Hall-Davis) is already ably filling the role of wife as she runs the house, prepares his clothes, takes care of the daughter’s nuptials, and lovingly dotes on him. Through only visual cues, Hitchcock elegantly foreshadows the ending of the film, that Sweetland will come to his senses and realize that the woman he loves is right in front of him all along.
Of course this is 1928, so there’s a lot of sexist shenanigans to be had. Or at least it starts out that way. There’s a humorous and sad scene where Sweetland dictates the names of his prospects to Minta, who criticizes each choice (‘You know, her back view’s not a day over 30.” “Yes, but you have to live with her front view”). There are comments about the appearance, weight, and age of each woman, and it seems like the film is going to be nothing more than jokes about backsides and spinsters.
But as Sweetland dandies himself up and heads out a’courting, The Farmer’s Wife takes a fun turn. In succession, each of the three women that he proposes to turn him down, each for a different reason. The first woman turns him down because she’s too independent for him and the third because he’s too old for her (a joke that pokes fun at the ending of the film, as Minta is clearly many years his junior). The second woman, the wonderfully-named Thirza Tapper (played by Maud Gill who played the role on the stage) also turns Sweetland down, but her reasons for doing so were not readily apparent to me.
Gill plays Tapper as a bundle of nerves, constantly fretting and anxious. In a clever bit of comedy, when Sweetland is talking to Tapper, she’s holding a plate of jello which vibrates along with her nervous reactions. But then it gets confusing. When Sweetland finally proposes, she pulls away from him and says, through intertitles, “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!” and “But I shall never seek the shelter or a man’s arms — not even yours.” I was perplexed. Was this hinting at a lesbian subtext? Or something deeper with her character? It felt absurdly strange.
I watched and rewatched this scene but still couldn’t parse it. So I figured I’d better get a copy of the play itself and see what the original dialogue says. And then a speedbump; I couldn’t find a copy online. Or rather, no text of the play (I could buy a ebook). Yes! In 2016. And yet I was also kind of charmed by this. I did what any librarian’s son would do; I looked it up on the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh website and saw that they had one copy at the main library. So off I went, with my mother’s blessing ringing in my ears.
The Main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is everything you want a library to be. It’s attached to what was originally built as the Carnegie Institute, a sprawling campus that housed one of Andrew Carnegie’s famous “Free to the People” libraries as well as a museum, ballroom, music hall, and institute (which was instrumental in the initial archaeological digs for dinosaurs, hence the name ‘Diplodocus Carnegii’). Today the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History occupy one wing, while through a separate entrance is the massive library. The first floor is remarkably up to date with modern touches of glass and wifi everywhere, but follow the well-worn marble stairs up to the second floor and you’re in a grand reading room with vaulted, painted ceilings and green table lamps.
The book I was looking for had an old reference code that mentioned the third floor, which I had never heard of. I went up to the reference desk and was greeting by a Friendly Librarian from Central Casting, a lovely woman who led me to an elevator and deep into the old stacks from when the library still used the dewey decimal system before realizing their collection was too large for this system. After switching to the Library of Congress system, many of the old books were still tagged and housed upstairs, which is where we went. I love antiquarian stuff, and my mother instilled in me a great love of books and libraries.
Finally, all the way on the bottom shelf of an third floor stack that looks out into the Carnegie Museum dinosaur wing, we found it. The Farmer’s Wife by Eden Phillipotts. I dug into the old copy of the play, and it seems slightly clearer that she’s grateful to him for proposing to an old spinster and she’s flattered that she’d think of him (this, I believe, is the “sex challenge”). She adds “I have long ago decided not to marry…I have my work before me — a thousand things— The Mother’s League— and the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — and the South African Drug Fund — and, and my villa residence, and so on.” So while a modern viewer might be tempted to ascribe some kind of sapphic subtext to this line, it seems unlikely. Rather, Tapper is the caricature of the spinster reform worker, a cousin of the suffragette perhaps, and still a somewhat mean-spirited stock character.
In doing my research I also realized that Hitchcock didn’t need to flesh out these distinctions. This play was an enormous success and audiences were undoubtedly familiar with the plot. Hitchcock needed only to communicate the gist of the scene and audiences would get it.
In watching a silent film from a modern perspective, it’s often hard to tell if an actor is overacting or simply doing what expected of them, especially in a comedy. Gill and the third woman are both almost unbearably over-the-top to the modern eye, yet I would wager that their performances were judged to be the funniest, best parts of the film in 1928. Thomas as Sweetland is excellent at the pathos, yet the scenes where he must express apoplexy that none of these women will have him is not only sexist but downright frightening. His anger at being spurned feels too real and not comic, at least to a modern eye.
For many of the scenes Hitchcock does as he claimed to François Truffaut: simply sets the camera up and stands back. This approach becomes apparent in some interminable party scenes where guests bicker over food and a drawn-out ending that postpones the final reveal of Minta as a bride to give most of the supporting cast a curtain call. Yet his elegance is on display too; using the dead wife’s chair by the fireplace as a visual device, Hitchcock shows Sweetland imagining each potential wife sitting in it through a serious of technically ambitious dissolves, then hinting at the outcome when Minta casually sits in the seat to talk. And the extraordinary location shots are among the most beautiful in Hitchcock’s early period; in fact they’re some of his finest compositions in a long body of work.
Trying to put myself in the mindset of an audience member in 1928, the worst I can say is that the film could be fifteen to twenty minutes shorter; two hours plus is a long time for a dialogue-driven silent comedy. Yet the crack supporting cast makes most of these scenes palatable, and the subtle subversion of the sexist premise make it a charming, delightful little film. So far it’s the best comedy from his early years, certainly better than Mr. & Mrs. Smith. More and more I’m realizing how dialogue is just a means to an end for Hitchcock. When it’s good, he can use it to elevate a situation and a film into something great. Yet virtually all of his films contain memorable moments that either have no dialogue or don’t depend on it for their success. Hitchcock never stopped thinking in purely visual and cinematic terms, and the best and worst of his movies reflect this. In The Farmer’s Wife he used strong visuals and orchestrated visual comedy to gloss over the story’s dependence on dialogue. For Mr. & Mrs. Smith, he wasn’t able to shape the film to his demands, and was stuck with dialogue, and only dialogue, to carry the film. He’s not someone like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose All About Eve is the polar opposite: a 100% dialogue & character-driven film with few memorable visuals.
So even in a trifle like The Farmer’s Wife, you can find elements of Hitchcock. His timidity and confusion around women, his love of the pastoral English countryside, his embrace and nurturing of scene-stealing character actors, and his unfailing visual command. It’s a charming little movie.