THE FARMER’S WIFE – 1928 – British International Pictures – ★★
B&W – 129 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Jameson Thomas (Samuel Sweetland), Lilian Hall-Davis (Araminta Dench), Gordon Harker (Churdles Ash), Maud Gill (Thirza Tapper), Olga Slade (Mary Hearn), Louie Pounds (Widow Louisa Windeatt).
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Eden Phillpotts.
Cinematography by Jack Cox
Edited by Alfred Booth
Just another assignment: When Alfred Hitchcock first signed with British International Pictures, he was allowed to make a film of his own choosing, which was an original story called The Ring. After this first success, he was primarily assigned projects by the studio. Although several of his BIP films were forced on him, Hitchcock still found ways to make certain scenes his own.
This movie does not have too many of the signature Hitchcock touches in it. He was assigned a play, and he shot it as such. But of course, he still found a few scenes which he could imbue with his own signature style.
The story, much adapted from the original play, is very straightforward. The film opens with the wedding of farmer Samuel Sweetland’s daughter. Sweetland is a widower, and seeing his daughter married off makes him long for a return to married life.
So Sweetland (played very well by Jameson Thomas, in his only role for Hitchcock) makes a list of the women that he plans to court, for the purpose of proposing marriage.
As Sweetland makes his way down the list, one comic episode follows another as all of the women reject his advances.
The centerpiece of the film is a party at the home of Thirza Tapper. This film has the most comic tone of all of Hitchcock’s silent films. Gorden Harker is fantastic in the role of Churdles Ash, Sweetland’s handyman. He is “loaned” to Ms. Tapper to be her doorman for her party, with comic results.
The tone of this section of the movie is very comic indeed. Being a silent film, everything depends upon the visual. And some of the visual gags are a bit over the top.
There is a bit of lovely location photography, rare in an early Hitchcock film.
The Hitchcock moment: After being rejected by all of his intended wives-to-be, Sweetland returns home dejected. Here is one of the only moments where Hitchcock was able to inject his unique style into the film. And he did so through his favorite technique: the subjective point of view. Mr. Sweetland had earlier sat and gazed at an empty chair, the chair in which his now-dead wife used to sit. He imagined all of his intended brides sitting there. Now, his housekeeper sits in the same chair, and he realizes that she is the woman he has been seeking all along. Even in a “by-the-numbers” movie like this, Hitchcock still found a way to imprint his own personal style on a handful of scenes in the film.
Tragedy strikes for this film’s stars: Hitchcock co-wrote a five-part series that appeared in Film Weekly in 1936. He had a few comments about The Farmer’s Wife. After starting with some praise for Gordon Harker, he shares some tragedies that befell the co-stars.
He (Gordon Harker) is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand…He made a very good job of it. This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it.
The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas. He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players…He left England to take his wife to California. She was very ill. The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure…His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.
Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis. She was an amazing girl. On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness. She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough. Actually, she could have played it with ease. Yet, in private life she was an altogether different person. She possessed a terrific personality, and amazing vivacity. It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.
The “tragic circumstances” to which Hitchcock alludes was the suicide of Hall-Davis on October 25, 1933. She was found with her head in her oven, and a knife in her hand. An inquest determined that she had first slit her throat, then placed her head in the oven. It was the wound to the throat that caused her demise. The inquest ruled the death suicide while of unsound mind.
Performance: I often find it difficult to judge performance in silent films. The film medium was very different then. What I can say is that Jameson Thomas is very commanding in the lead role. He combines moments of tenderness with some lighter comic touches. And Lillian Hall-Davis, who had played a more substantial leading role in The Ring, is very believable in her smaller role here as Araminta. The best role in the film however belongs to Gorden Harker in the role of Churdles Ash. Harker was one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from his silent period, and he steals every scene he is in, just as he did in The Ring.
Source material: The film is is based on a stage play of the same name by Eden Phillpotts, which was first performed to some acclaim in 1916. The play is very different in plotting from the filmed version. Where Hitchcock chose to focus his film exclusively on the titular farmer, the play focuses on his daughters as well. That’s daughters, plural. In the movie Mr. Sweetland has one unnamed daughter who is married off at the very beginning. In the play he has two daughters, Petronell and Sibley. A man named George Smerdon proposes to Petronell. She declines the offer, because she is in love with Richard Coaker. Richard however, is in love with Sibley. Sibley is blinded to this love, because she knows her elder sister has feelings for him.
All of these interwoven strands play out as the Farmer is going down his list of eligible women, just as in the film. And the resolution is the same, only that there are three marriage proposals accepted at the play’s climax; Sibley and Dick Coaker, and Petronell and George Smerdon will join their father and Araminta in matrimony.
I can imagine the play being entertaining on the stage, but it’s a bit difficult to read. The amount of stage direction (particularly in Act II) is overwhelming. Just to provide one example:
MISS TAPPER goes to SIBLEY, thanks her and goes to R. of MRS. TUDOR. DR. RUNDLE joins SIBLEY R.C. SOPHIE gets up and goes to ARAMINTA at table. PETRONELL moves to sofa shakes hands with LOUISA and MRS. SMERDON and sits top end of sofa. MARY moves down to RICHARD’S place on ottoman. MARY tries to talk to GEORGE, but he only has eyes for PETRONELL. RICHARD goes up to R.C. of window and talks to DR. RUNDLE, and SIBLEY, handing her her teacup from small table. DUNNYBRIG gets up and stands R. of ottoman just above and facing the VICAR and HENRY. MRS. RUNDLE rises and goes and stands L. of MRS. TUDOR on the verandah.
Whew! There are many such directions to be found. I’m sure they pulled it off splendidly on the stage, but it’s a bit much to read.
Recurring players: Lillian Hall-Davis had previously played the female lead in The Ring. Gordon Harker, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from the silent period, also appeared in The Ring as Jack’s trainer, and in Champagne as the Father.
Where’s Hitch? There is no Hitchcock cameo in The Farmer’s Wife.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the years. He told Truffaut “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.”
Hitchcock did share one anecdote with Peter Bogdanovich:
…it was a routine job–merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. One day on it, Cox, the photographer, went sick, so I lit the whole day’s work myself. I said, “Right. Let’s go.” Someone said, “You’ve lit it, but you haven’t rehearsed it.” “Oh, I forgot.” So I’d rehearse it and light it, and I kept sending over pieces of film to the lab. I was no idiot. I didn’t think I could do it all that well, and I had the lab hand-test every shot before I’d print it. It turned out all right.
In a November 16, 1927 article in the London Evening News, Hitchcock said “I had to film a little scene in “The Farmer’s Wife” six times the other day because the players took it too slowly to fit in with the mood of the picture.” Unfortunately, he does not state which scene he is talking about.
Definitive edition: I am reluctant to call any of the public domain versions currently available in the US definitive. I currently own the Laserlight DVD, which features a decent print. It has instances where the image goes very dark, particularly in the first ten minutes. This makes it hard to see the image, and nearly impossible to read a title card. Fortunately this clears up soon enough. I have my fingers crossed that the restored BFI print will get a home video release at some point. There are no extra features on this DVD.