THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928): “There’s something magical in the married state.”

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.

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas, who both suffered personal tragedies.

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.

 

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THE RING (1927): “I shall always be ready to fight for my wife against any man”

THE RING (1927) – Brithering1tish International Pictures – Rating:  ★★★

B&W (silent) – 90 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Carl Brisson (“One Round Jack” Sander), Lillian Hall-    Davis (Mabel), Ian Hunter (Bob Corby), Forrester Harvery (James Ware), Harry  Terry (Showman), Gordon Harker (Jack’s Trainer), Clare Greet (Fortune Teller).

Written by Alfred Hitchcock

Photographed by John Cox

Produced by John Maxwell

 

In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock signed with the newly-formed British International Pictures, becoming the highest paid director in England in the process.  Over the course of the next six years, Hitchcock would be involved with 11 different movies at British International, a period that bridged the end of the silent film era and the first years of sound films.   His output was uneven, and his relationship with studio head John Maxwell was occasionally rocky.   There are only two films from this period that are considered “classics” in the Hitchcock canon:  Blackmail  (Britain’s first movie with sound) and Murder!  The Ring, Hitchcock’s first movie for British International (the first movie ever released by the studio, for that matter) is also quite good, with an engaging story line,  groundbreaking visuals and flashes of humor.

Trivia buffs might be interested to know that this is the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work as a director for which he also received a writing credit; “WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK” reads a title card at the beginning.  The story is a classic love triangle, certainly not the kind of story that is generally associated with Hitchcock.  The film’s title, The Ring, refers to the boxing ring, as both male leads are boxers.  But it can also refers to a wedding ring, as well as a serpentine bracelet which features heavily in the plot.

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The movie opens with Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) working as a ticket girl at a carnival attraction, where her boyfriend is an amateur boxer.  The boxer (played by Danish actor Carl Brisson), is known as “One Round Jack” because nobody makes it to the second round with him.  Until a man named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up and soundly beats him.  It turns out that Corby is the heavyweight champion of Australia.  Corby invites Jack to be his sparring partner, ostensibly to help him, but in reality to be closer to his girlfriend.  Corby gives Mabel a bracelet, in the shape of a serpent, which becomes the symbol of infidelity.   Mabel marries Jack anyway, even though she clearly has feelings for Corby.

The wedding sequence shows all of the carnival performers entering the church;  we see the Siamese twins, the dwarf and giant, in a comic scene which clearly prefigures a similar sequence in Hitchcock’s later film Saboteur.  Hitchcock loved images of the incongruous, which he indulged in frequently in his British period.  After the wedding, the movie shows Jack becoming a better boxer, getting bigger matches, while all the while his new wife Mabel gets closer to Bob Corby.  Eventually Jack confronts Mabel about her infidelity and she leaves.  Of course the movie will end with the two men settling their differences in the boxing ring, and of course Mabel will realize that Corby is a cad and return to her husband’s side.

The silent film aspect:   Most modern-day film goers have never seen a silent film;  even many fans of Hitchcock have probably not delved into his early silent period.  It certainly is a different experience, but in the case of Hitchcock the adjustment is not too difficult.  Throughout his career, Hitchcock was always a believer in telling a story through visual means;  he never forgot the things he learned in the silent era.  If you watch this movie, you will notice there are not a lot of title cards.  This is because the visuals clearly tell us what is happening on screen.

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John Cox, cameraman:  In the late 1920’s, there were not a lot of “special effects” techniques available to filmmakers, particularly in post filming.  So Hitchcock wanted to find a cameraman who was adept at filming effects “in camera”, as it was often done then.  He found just the man he was looking for in John Cox (or Jack Cox, or J.J. Cox, as he was also credited on some films).   Cox would end up acting as Hitchcock’s cameraman/cinematographer on a dozen movies, including every film he directed at British International.  They would also reunite one last time on Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece The Lady Vanishes.   From a technical standpoint, this is the most important collaborative partnership in Hitchcock’s entire British period.   (And also mirrors Hitchcock’s later partnership with American cinematographer Bob Burks, who would also work with Hitchcock on 12 movies.)

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In the image above, you can see how Cox was able to superimpose the image of Ian Hunter’s head onto the punching bag.  Even a seemingly simple shot like this took some doing in the 1920’s.   But Cox’s (and Hitchcock’s) innovations went far beyond this.  Later in the film there is a party sequence, in which the party goers  become out of control.  Hitchcock wanted to recreate the feel of the drunken revelry for his movie goers.  So into a montage of people singing and dancing are intercut images like this one to the right:  an eerily elongated piano, with a spinning turntable superimposed upon it.  Nothing quite like this had ever been seen in British cinema.

But perhaps the most important effect technique that Hitchcock wished to employ in this movie, (and would use again in a few later films) is called the Schufftan process.

Schufftan process:  This process is named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan, who first used the process on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis.  The process involves placing a mirror at an angle in front of the camera, with a painted or photographed image to the side, which will be reflected in the mirror, and captured on camera.  Then, scraping away part of the reflective mirror, leaving only clear glass, and filming live action through the newly scraped area.  The two images (the live portion filmed through the clear glass, and the reflected painted portion) will then appear to be one image.  Hitchcock wished to use this technique in the movie’s final sequence:  the boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall.   (Hitchcock staged scenes from three of his movies in the Albert Hall:  this one, and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.)   The following diagram shows how the Schufftan process worked.

Schuefftan-process

 

Performance:  All of the performances in this movie are solid.  There is perhaps no real “standout” performance but everyone holds their own.  Gordon Harker plays his role as Jack’s trainer for great comedic effect.  And Carl Brisson is very solid as the male lead.  He has to generate sympathy from the audience for the story to succeed, and he does so, admirably.

Recurring players:  Carl Brisson would later star in The Manxman.  Lillian Hall-Davis also appeared in The Farmer’s Wife.  Ian Hunter was in both Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Forrester Harvey would later appear in Rebecca.  Harry Terry was in The Manxman.  Gordon Harker was in The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne.  Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses in his British period, also appeared in Number 13, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Tom Helmore would later appear in The Secret Agent, and would also play the role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo.  

Where’s Hitch?   There is no credible evidence to suggest that Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in this movie.

What Hitch said:  When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said of this movie “…that was really an interesting movie.  You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture.  There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause.  It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”

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A shot from the climactic fight sequence, which employs the Schufftan process. Most of the spectators are a painted image.

Definitive edition:  There are numerous versions of this movie available on DVD in various box sets and “collections”, but the best print available is to be found on the three disc Alfred Hitchcock Box Set from Lions Gate Studios.  This set contains 5 of Hitchcock’s films from the British International Pictures period.  This print is far from pristine, but keeping in mind that the movie is almost 90 years old, it is definitely watchable, and relatively clean.  There are no extra features on this disc at all.