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Week 6: The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

farmerswifetitle.jpg“. . . and don’t forget to air your Master’s pants, ‘Minta.”
“Beer drinking don’t do ‘alf the ‘arm of love-making.”
“There’s a female or two be floating around my mind like the smell of a Sunday dinner.”
“A woman that’s a pillow at thirty be often a feather bed at forty!”
“Hang it, Thirza Tapper, I’m asking you to marry me!
“What be women made of nowadays?”
“They do say the next best thing to no wife be a good one. He has come out on top at last.”

The Farmer’s Wife

After The Ring Hitchcock inexplicably returned to the stage for his next story, a film based on Eden Phillpot’s romantic comedy The Farmer’s Wife (adapted once more by Eliot Stannard). It was not a genre Hitchcock visited often. However, this (his second film for British International Pictures) is one of the more purely entertaining films of Hitchcock’s silent period, a tale of farcical courtship with strong pastoral elements. During the shooting of this rather cheery adaptation Alma became pregnant with the couple’s only child, Patricia.

sweetland.jpgFeeling lonely after the death of his wife and the marriage of his daughter, farmer Samuel Sweetland enlists his pretty young housekeeper, ‘Minta (short for “Araminta”), to brainstorm a list of women he might convince to marry him. Stubborn, hot-tempered, proud and given to employing unfortunate barnyard analogies when he should be whispering sweet nothings, Samuel encounters unexpected (and, for us, hilarious) resistance as he works his way from name to name. Unfortunately for this film’s raison d’être, it should only take the audience five minutes (if that long) to realize that the perfect candidate has been right under the farmer’s nose the whole time.

The Farmer’s Wife truly is an odd mix of Hitchcock’s trademark economic storytelling and significant stretches that add little or nothing to the ongoing action. The result is unusually long for a Hitchcock film (and a comedy, for that matter). At 129 minutes, it is easily 20 minutes longer than any of his other British films, and one of the longest he ever made. Watching it, although it drags less than one might expect of such a lengthy silent film, it is easy to see where the story could have been told just as effectively with a good 40 minutes or more left out. Nevertheless, there are a variety of elements at work here that mesh together very well.

minta.jpgThe film has probably the strongest ensemble cast that Hitchcock had yet assembled. Lillian Hall-Davis fills the role of the sweet, practical housekeeper, a far better fit than in the poorly-written female lead of The Ring. Gordon Harker (of the priceless facial expressions) returned to work with Hitchcock, as well. He plays essentially the same character here as in The Ring, a sour-faced farmhand named Churdles Ash, to equally great effect. Jameson Thomas is perfectly cast aschurdles.jpg Sweetland, bringing just the right balance of sympathetic vulnerability and easily-wounded pride to the role. He is never unlikable, even when he is behaving badly, and delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen in a silent film. In addition to Sweetland’s four prospective brides, each a little odder than the last, there is a rich supporting cast of eccentric country caricatures that lend a concrete sense of community to anchor the proceedings.

together.jpgCommunity plays a major role in the film; all of the most important scenes take place within the context of a social gathering. The wedding celebration near the beginning introduces all of the major characters and sets the stage for the tea party, which is the central scene in the movie. There are the social calls, a foxhunt, a rowdy gathering in the local pub, and so on. The film immediately communicates a charming rural atmosphere where everyone knows everyone and everyone belongs. This tight-knit atmosphere emphasizes Sweetland’s loneliness without a partner, perhaps even indicating that he is not a complete person without a “better half.” Incidentally, even barriers between social classes are thin and extremely mobile here. At the tea party, for instance, the first guest to arrive enthusiastically shakes Churdles’ hand, greeting him as a friend and equal even though Churdles is “the help.” (Churdles response is to shake his head grimly and say, “I ain’t the party, George.”)

cutedogs.jpgSpeaking of rural, the camera shoots the gorgeous (even in black and white) English countryside with an almost Romantic reverence for the setting. The Farmer’s Wife was shot on location in Devonshire, and there are some truly fantastic landscapes in the film. There is obviously a great deal of respect and admiration for the simple lives of these country people. Naturally, animals feature prominently in this setting as well, at least on the periphery. Two adorable spaniels wander through the scene during the opening shots, tracking through the farmyard, into the house and up the stairs before settling together at the the top and staring dolefully at the door of the dying woman’s room. The foxhunt scene involves a truly impressive number of dogs and horses (quite the extravagance to shoot, considering the almost incidental nature of its appearance in the film).

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The story opens with the farmer’s wife lying on her deathbed, immediately introducing the central problem of the plot and establishing the major characters, ‘Minta and Sweetland. However, instead of a funeral, as one might expect, the deathbed scene immediately precedes a wedding. There isn’t even so much as a shot of a coffin being lowered into the ground. The Farmer’s Wife has little time for sorrow. Applegarth Farm is in an uproar as ‘Minta flies around the house in a whirlwind of preparations. After everyone finally leaves for the church, she continues to prepare the wedding feast in the kitchen while Churdles regales her with his dour views on marriage and love in general. (“Holy Matrimony be a proper steam roller for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman.”)

Soon, ‘Minta looks up from her preparations in the kitchen, we see a shot of the church bell swinging back and forth in the steeple, then back to ‘Minta. In a sound film, we would simply have heard the tolling of the bell signaling the end of the ceremony, as she does. Hitchcock often employed these 3-shot sequences to convey something to the audience: first a close-up of a character’s face reacting to something, then a shot of what they are reacting to, followed by another shot of the reaction. In a discussion on the techniques of film editing, Hitchcock noted that the key to these sequences is the image inserted in that middle shot. The example he uses is the nature of an old man’s smile framing a shot of a cute baby playing with its mother in the park or one of a cute girl sunbathing in a bikini. The former is benign; the latter, creepy. In The Farmer’s Wife, however (and in other silent films like The Lodger), Hitchcock employs this technique primarily as a substitute for sound.

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The wedding party soon returns for the meal and we are introduced to most of the locals. In a fantastically-filmed sequence, a tracking shot follows one hapless guest as he backs away from an extremely-talkative elderly gentleman, seeking desperately to join one of the small knots of conversation around him while feigning interest in whatever the other man is saying. Finally, he manages to dive into a small group and the old man wanders off in search of fresh prey. Another conversation sets up the later scene at the tea party, when a guest reminds Sweetland that he has promised to be at her “little affair” and asks that he loan her Churdles Ash to announce the guests (she’ll provide the get-up). Churdles signals his objection frantically from behind her back, but Sweetland ignores him and agrees.

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Finally, everyone leaves and Sweetland wanders contemplatively around the large, empty room. The wedding confetti on his lapel, his own wedding picture on the wall, and his wife’s empty chair by the hearth inspire him to call ‘Minta out to discuss his prospects for remarrying. Though it may seem odd to make special note of the dialogue in a silent film, the ensuing conversation is extremely funny as Sweetland and ‘Minta go back and forth on the pros and cons of the various “possibles and impossibles” (see above for some examples). As he considers each candidate, he pictures her sitting in the empty chair across from him, and we have the remainder of the movie laid out like sermon points in a church bulletin.

candidate1.jpgcandidate2.jpgcandidate3.jpg

Sweetland manages to flub each proposal in epic fashion, thanks in part on his use of unfortunate barnyard analogies like “I come over . . . to pick up a big fat hen.” Despite his complete lack of tact, most of the women let him down pretty gently . . . not that it matters. The poor guy doesn’t handle rejection well, and generally rages around the room a bit, throwing out general verbal abuse before storming away. After being turned down by the Widow Windeatt, an independent woman who runs her own farm up the hill, he remembers Thirza Tapper’s tea party. Full of enthusiasm, he shows up at her house a full 40 minutes early with a basket of plums, hoping to pitch his woo before the other guests arrived.

thirza1.jpgUnfortunately, Thirza is still getting ready, and she is suddenly trapped in her bathroom with no way to get to the clothing in the bedroom except by crossing the head of the stairs while Sweetland waits impatiently below. She is thrown into complete disarray when she attempts to sneak across, wrapped tightly in a dressing gown, only to get it caught in the bathroom door. Sweetland doesn’t seem to noticethirza2.jpg anything amiss, but the good lady is mortified. After she has dressed and come down, Sweetland attempts to lay out his proposal, but is continually interrupted by the servants and his own clumsy fidgeting. When he finally does get it out, Thirza happens to be holding a plate of some sort of gelatin dessert, which begins to quiver violently as she has a sudden attack of nerves. Ultimately, she turns him down too, and he exits in a huff.

party1.jpgHe is still hanging around outside, however, when guests start to arrive, and the arrival of his third option, Postmistress Mary Hearne, lures him back in. At the party, Churdles is none too pleased with his duties, not least because the uniform Thirza has him dressed in is far too big and he is forced to hold his pants up with one hand at all times. As each guest arrives, he pokes his head out of the parlor, shuts the door in their faces, jerks a thumb over one shoulder and calls out the names, then lets them in. Everyone who is anyone seems to be at this gathering. A woman with several children sits as close as possible to the food table and seems poised to drink the lion’s share of the available tea supplies while she pesters the long-suffering village doctor for free medical advice. The parson arrives with his mother, who is seated in a large bath chair, and Churdles struggles gainfully to muscle the unwieldy thing down the stairs and into the already crowded room without dumping the old lady on the floor.

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Eventually a group of glee singers appears and everyone wanders out into the garden. Sweetland lures Mary back inside and goes about his now well-practiced routine of awkwardly proposing. She laughs at him outright and he lets loose an impressive stream of insults in her direction which sends her into hysterics and draws everyone back inside. Thirza, overwhelmed by the disastrous outcome of her party, faints right into Churdles, who for a moment can’t seem to decide whether he should let her drop to the ground, or his pants. Thirza’s emotional maid, not to be outdone, pitches a fit, and the whole room dissolves into chaos.

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foxhunt1.jpgThe tea party is the comedic climax of the film, and at this point things should move swiftly to a satisfactory resolution, but there is still a third of the movie left. Upon overhearing Churdles tell ‘Minta how ashamed he is of his master’s behavior, Sweetland resolves to move on to the final name on his list: Mercy Bassett, barmaid at the village pub. Sweetland added her to his list “for luck,” and she is a character we haven’t run into thus far. This whole sequence feels like an afterthought all the way around. When he arrives in town, a large foxhunt is about to begin and his courtship is inter-cut with shots of the ongoing chase (clever, that). Dejected after the final rejection (which happens off-screen), Sweetland returns home to ponder everything that has happened. Once again he imagines each of the women he has courted sitting acrossfoxhunt2.jpg from him in his wife’s old chair, but this time, when they all disappear, he sees ‘Minta sitting right in front of him. It hits him like a thunderbolt that she was the one all along (finally). He hasn’t failed to learn a few lessons from the other women, and his proposal to ‘Minta is characterized by an uncharacteristic tone of humility.

duh.jpgHe sends her upstairs to put on a nice dress and several people just happen to show up (on her way, ‘Minta runs into Churdles, who is shocked by the news). Mary Hearne, upon hearing from Thirza Tapper that she wasn’t the only one Sweetland proposed to, changes her mind and comes to accept with Thirza in tow. The garrulous old man from the beginning arrives with a perfect candidate in mind. Sweetland shushes them all and invites them to sit down for a drink with his new intended. When ‘Minta appears, the postmistress goes into hysterics again and everyone shares a toast in honor of the bride-to-be.

wha.jpgThis synopsis is overlong, but so is the movie itself. It should be apparent that, while it possesses an undeniable charm, there is simply not enough substance to justify the runtime. Note that the events of the preceding two paragraphs take a full forty minutes to play out. With a tighter control on the length, this could be a recognizably great silent effort. As it stands, it is still a fine piece of work (if trivial) and worth seeing. This is Hitchcock finding ways to translate a dialogue-heavy stage play into a story that relies entirely on visuals without losing entertainment value, something he had largely failed to do with his previous adaptations for Gainsborough. Comedy is far more congenial than melodrama to a setting that is pruned of dialogue and to appreciation by audiences of both current and future generations.

cheers.jpgThe camerawork in The Farmer’s Wife is noticeably more mobile and free than in Hitchcock’s earlier films. Cameras during this period were still quite bulky, and many of the techniques and equipment that allowed certain types of shots had not yet been developed. However, Hitchcock was always pushing to be on the cutting edge of what could be accomplished technically with camera movement and positioning. One can see shots from interesting angles beginning even with his first films, but these still remain almost entirely static. In The Farmer’s Wife we begin to see some of the first hints of a more kinetic energy to the filming: some tracking, panning, zooming in and out. There isn’t a lot of it, but it’s there.

Next Week: Hitchcock breaks out the bubbly

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~ by Jared on February 6, 2008.

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