“He’ll be the next to wed now his daughter’s marryin’, says the handyman (Gordon Harker) after Farmer Sweetland’s wife dies. “Why not? There’s something magical in the married state. . . it have a beautiful side, Churdles Ash,” answers Minta, the housekeeper (Lillian Hall-Davis). From a popular play, by Eden Phillpotts, Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife is a broad comedy, with elements of the grotesque, about just this: a middle aged English country farmer whose wife has recently died decides upon the marriage of his daughter to seek another wife for himself. This may not seem at all a Hitchcockian theme, and the new direction may owe something to the director’s having recently (with The Ring) joined the new production studio British International Pictures, moving from Gainsborough. But if we look at “Hitchcock’s basic plot formations” as listed by Robin Wood, 1. the falsely accused man, 2. the guilty woman, 3. the psychopath, 4. espionage & political intrigue, 5. marriage, there marriage is, number five.
When Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) has his housekeeper draw up a list of eligible women in the neighborhood for him and observe the wistful expression on her face we already know what’s gong to happen. The handsome, noble Lillian Hall-Davis who plays Minta — and was a big star (she died, tragically, at only 35) – is clearly the right choice living unnoticed right under the farmer’s nose. The four women he proposes to, which he does with very little manners, are all in one way or another obviously unsuitable, even grotesques. The first is Widow Windeatt (Louie Pounds), a fox hunting woman, who says a flat no and tells Sweetland she’s far too independent for him. The second is Thirza Tapper (Maud Gill), a pinched and rather strange old maid who almost goes into shock when Farmer Sweetland presents his blunt proposal, and says she will never marry any man. The third is the chubby, giggly postmistress Mary Hearn (Olga Slade), who goes into a kind of fit at the old maid’s party, wildly waggling her arms, after her saying she’s too young for him causes the farmer to insult her. Indeed she’s clearly deluded: she’s too chubby and too old to call herself a “girl” as she does. Later she and Thirza have a change of heart, or at least she does.
Thirza’s bustling party provides a central sequence with much comic stage business from various guests, especially the very broad slapstick from Gordon Harker, as Chrudle Ash, the handyman, the grumpy, lazy, eccentric old man recruited against his will by Thirza to serve as a kind of butler at her party. (Harker played the dour trainer in The Ring.) When this is over Farmer Sweetland has nearly given up and has had his self esteem sorely tried. Each time, by the way, it has been Minta who has dressed the farmer in his dressy coat to go out proposing. And as the farmer, Jameson Thomas strikes a fascinating balance. When the women he proposes to turn him down and he flies into a rage, he is comical and grotesque; but at other times he looks quite distinguished, quite the sort of successful farmer a young woman of a certain status like Minta might indeed be very proud to marry.
Almost despairing after striking out three times, Sweetland nonetheless heads down on his horse to visit the last on his list, Marcy Bassett (Ruth Maitland), who runs the village public house. This enables Hitchcock to present a rich scene of the upper class side of country life: a fox hunt is being organized, with all the local gentry in hunting dress mounted on fine horses and a great mob of excited hounds in front; Widow Windeat is indeed glimpsed among the mounted fox hunters. It’s a beautiful, classic scene, a snapshot of the dreamiest human and natural aspects of the English countryside, and it “places” the rest of the action socially. Around and in the pub a small crowd is gathered, observing or drawn by the fox hunt but not of it. Inside, Sweetland is at once in a close friendly chat with Marcy Bassett, who seems on very familiar terms with him. No doubt she’s on very friendly terms with nearly everybody. But obviously she pushes away the farmer’s efforts to flatter and pay court to her. And indeed, how could this woman who is the center of village activity give it up to go and run Farmer Sweetland’s farm? No need for dialogue here: it’s just not going to happen. Of course the farmer is back at home shortly.
Hitchcock uses several photographic devices. To show a deranged person he uses swirling, overlapping images of faces (as did in The Ring.) In the scene where Sweetland finally proposes to Minta, the camera focuses as it has earlier on the empty chair before the hearth that was once occupied by the farmer’s wife. We see each of the list of proposed brides palely appear in the chair — and then Minta. After all the bustle, comedy, and grotesquerie, Hitchcock handles the proposal scene between Thomas and Hall-Davis in a completely different style, unmistakable yet somehow also delicate, showing the gradual understanding, acceptance, and joy of both parties in a satisfying way. The Farmer’s Wife may be a conventional and not particularly Hitchcockian film, but it’s lively, entertaining storytelling, and again the director shows his remarkable talents and some of his interests. Several of the proposal scenes are full of psychological oddity, even surreal elements. Thirza’s party, the fox hunting scene, and the pub again, as in The Ring, show an extremely rich and assured handling of crowded action.
The Farmer’s Wife BFI restoration was reassembled from the best sections of two preservation intermediates. The result looks fine, richer in visual detail, particularly in blacks (a little too strong to the point of blocking out detail in some early reels), than the earliest Hitchcock silents. The BFI restoration is supplied with a conventional piano background.
Reviewed as part of the US premiere of The Hitchcock 9 BFI-restored silent films by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, shown at the Castro Theatre June 14-16, 2013.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Jameson Thomas, Lillian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker
Runtime: 129 min