Alfred Hitchcock Meets “The Farmer’s Wife”

21 02 2010

“When the chief cameraman got sick, I handled the camera myself. I arranged the lighting . . . I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock returned to the British stage with “The Farmer’s Wife,” his first picture of 1928, and after watching it, the reason it prodded him further along in working in cinematic terms may be that it is a rather talky movie, even for a silent. Featuring Lillian Hall-Davis, who also starred in “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” is a sweet, if predictable, adaptation of a stage play about a widower who seeks a new spouse.

The picture starts as farmer Samuel Sweetland’s wife lay dying; soon after, we see his young daughter getting married, and Sweetland realizes that it’s time he took a new wife. He consults with his young, lovely housemaid, played by Lillian Hall-Davis, making a list of local, available women who suit his fancy. The list appears again and again through the film as Sweetland goes from one woman to the next, proposing marriage and being turned down. Of course, he isn’t the most articulate or romantic person, and so his proposals are, shall we say, lacking in finesse. Still, each woman rejects him for different reasons; one says she’s too independent, one says he’s too old, etc.

Finally, just as he’s about to give up on women entirely, he realizes that his maid has been pining for him all along, and that she is the woman for him. The audience had to have seen that coming; his and her rocking chairs sit by Sweetland’s fireplace, and in some of their conversations the maid even sits in the late wife’s chair.

Although this isn’t a particularly great film, it does boast the presence of Gordon Harker, previously seen as the slow-witted trainer in “The Ring.” Here, he’s the aptly named Churdles Ash, a farmhand who disdains marriage and women in general. He’s pressed into service at one point at a party, where he must announce guests as they arrive while holding up his too-loose pants. Ash says he’s ashamed of his master’s behavior, and when Sweetland finally proposes to the maid, Ash promises to help her tame the farmer.

“The Farmer’s Wife” is a fairly straightforward period piece, a romantic comedy that is filmed simply and with confidence, but with little of the inventiveness that would mark Hitch’s better efforts. One of the stronger sequences, at the beginning, attempts to show the passage of time in an odd way: In her dying breath, Sweetland’s wife mutters something to the maid about remembering to “air your master’s pants.” This is followed by a montage of pants being washed and hung out to dry, washing and hung out to dry, over and over. Not exactly Hitch’s most evocative moment.

Fortunately, the movie has adorable dogs, and lots of them! Hitch loved dogs, and here there are dogs on the farm as well as swarms of beagles at the start of  a fox hunt.

Next time, we’ll look at “Easy Virtue,” Hitch’s second picture of 1928, based on a play by Noel Coward – and featuring Hitch’s first cameo appearance since “The Lodger.”

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8 12 2010
A Hitchcock Rarity: “Elstree Calling” « Hitchcock and Me

[…] Harker, who had only recently appeared in Hitchcock’s films “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and […]

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