The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6, uncredited)
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard (1-6), Leslie Arliss (uncredited)
Based on the play The Farmer’s Wife by Eden Phillpotts, Adelaide Phillpotts
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox
Edited by Alan Booth
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:52) Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber
“The Lord works the same as lightning and don’t give warning when He is going to make sense in a man’s heart.”
It is difficult to determine how much of a following Alfred Hitchcock had at this point in his directorial career. After releasing six films, Hitchcock had directed dramas, a thriller, and a boxing picture. Did audiences wonder what he would come up with next, or did they just go to the movies for a good time, never giving any thought to a picture’s director? I’m inclined to think that if your name wasn’t Chaplin or Griffith, no one cared. Hitchcock’s name would be added to that list soon, but he wasn’t quite there yet.
Perhaps only in looking back would anyone be surprised that Hitchcock’s seventh film would be a romantic comedy. We certainly see elements of rom com throughout his career, but rarely anything as sweetly gentle as The Farmer’s Wife.
The picture begins with tragedy, where we find Tibby Sweetland (Mollie Ellis), wife of Sam Sweetland (Jameson Thomas), on her deathbed. Tibby urges Sweetland to remarry, but her husband is too distraught to think of such things. After his wife leaves this world and his daughter marries, Sweetland is all alone on his farm, except for two servants: the clownish curmudgeon Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) and the housekeeper Araminta “Minta” Dench (Lillian Hall-Davis).
At his daughter’s wedding party, all eyes look on Sweetland, and we know (without Hitchcock having to tell us), that everyone wonders when the farmer is going to remarry. Sweetland soon tasks Minta with helping him prepare a list of hopefuls. When they come up the names of four women (at least three of whom attended the wedding celebration), we know what’s going to happen next: Sweetland will methodically work his way through every name on the list. We also know (and if this is a spoiler, you haven’t watched enough movies) that none of them are going to work, understanding where Sweetland’s only real option lies.
Gordon Harker nearly steals the show as Churdles Ash, Sweetland’s farm hand/handyman. Ash scornfully dispenses such marital advice as, “Holy Matrimony be a proper steamroller for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman.”
As an impromptu butler at a party given by Thirza (one of the women on Sweetland’s list, played by Maud Gill), Ash has trouble holding up his borrowed pants, nearly topples a woman in a wheelchair, and gives the spread of “food” more attention than he does the guests. Yet when he’s not causing havoc, Ash finds creative ways to convince Sweetland that marriage is a bad idea.
Hitchcock takes advantage of a special effect that really wasn’t very new even in 1928: having a character fade into and out of a scene by superimposing them into an empty chair or table. We see this early in the film as Sweetland reminisces over times with his wife sitting across from him in her rocking chair. One by one, Sweetland imagines each of his prospects sitting in that same rocker. The chair becomes a focal point of the film, and Hitchcock uses it as a device without overusing it.
In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966), Hitchcock comments that the play The Farmer’s Wife ran on the London stage for “something like 1,400 performances. (You can find more on the play’s popularity and other adaptions here.) The play works well for an adaptation to silent film, since Hitchcock felt the stage version suffered from too much dialogue. While the film eliminates much of this problem, it creates another: length. Perhaps audiences of the time didn’t care that the bulk of the film focuses on Sweetland working through the list, but modern audiences no doubt tire easily of the device. The first woman on the list should merit the most time, with the remaining three shortened considerably, which would have cut at least 20 minutes from the film.
Truffaut points out that the picture doesn’t really look like a stage production, stating, “The characters never move sideways; they move straight toward the camera, more systematically than in your other pictures. It’s filmed like a thriller.”
Hitchcock responds, “What you mean is that the camera is inside the action…. I don’t remember too much about The Farmer’s Wife, but I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.” (p. 57) Possibly that wish to express himself came about when the chief cameraman became sick and Hitchcock did much of the camerawork himself. “I arranged the lighting, but since I wasn’t too sure of myself, I sent a test over to the lab. While waiting for the results, we would rehearse the scene.” Yet later on in the interview, Hitchcock seems to contradict himself, stating, “I did what I could, but it wasn’t actually very cinematic.” (p. 55)
These interviews with Truffaut occurred in 1962, so perhaps Hitchcock didn’t realize how cinematic The Farmer’s Wife actually is. While still clearly exploring the vastness of cinema, he is already becoming comfortable with choosing the composition of his shots, editing scenes, knowing when and how often to use close-ups, conveying character, and much more. As mentioned above, only the pacing of the story (and this comes primarily in the scenes involving working through the list) presents problems, yet even these can be overlooked. One of the more enjoyable aspects of journeying through Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order is watching him develop his skills and gain mastery over so many elements of film. He may not be a master yet, but he’s making great strides.
Hitchcock said in an interview with Hollywood Reporter (October 11, 1948, reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume I, edited by Sidney Gottlieb) “Style in directing develops slowly and naturally as it does in everything else. In my case there was much dabbling about in so-called versatility before I found my niche. My titles included such varied films as The Lodger, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, The Skin Game, and Waltzes from Vienna. Then I began to get more and more interested in developing a suspense technique. By the time I had made The Secret Agent, Sabotage, and The 39 Steps, I made up my mind to shoot this type of story exclusively.” (p. 115)
Next time: Champagne (1928)