Every now and then you have to take a break from paranoid thrillers, high society fables, and sports melodramas. Every now and then…you’ve gotta laugh.
That’s right, there’s been elements of humor in Hitchcock films before but here we have his first outright comedy. Is it successful in its own right or should he instead go back to making wrong man thrillers? Today we’ll see a glimpse at where the Master of Suspense’s career could’ve gone if he felt like having a laugh instead of a fright.
The feature we’re discussing today is 1928’s The Farmer’s Wife, written by Eliot Stannard based on the play The Farmer’s Wife by Eden and Adelaide Phillpotts.
- Jameson Thomas as Samuel Sweetland, a farmer who’s looking to get hitched.
- Lillian Hall-Davis as Araminta Dench, the farmer’s housekeeper.
- Gordon Harker as Churdles Ash. And yes, I’ll repeat that again. Churdles Ash. And once more for good measure…Churdles Ash. Definitely in the running for best Hitchcock character name so far. In this movie, Churdles is the farmer’s handyman.
The movie opens on a bucolic setting: the titular farmer’s farm. And on this farm we get two adorable cocker spaniels, who lead us into the farmer’s house.
I’ll take this as an opportunity to state that the best part of this movie is whenever Hitchock works with real animals. As a viewer, it’s a nice peek into an earlier time and although the people 100 years ago look and behave a lot differently, the animals will always be the same. But it’s not just dogs that we get to see.
Of course, we’re on a farm, so there’s cows, horses and geese. In one sequence, a horse goes into a house and isn’t that funny because a horse shouldn’t be in a house. The most bravura sequence though, is when a group of townspeople go on a hunt in the woods and take along approximately 5,000 hunting dogs. It’s something you’d never see in a movie made now, what with animal welfare restrictions and all, but it is amazing to see so many dogs packed in the frame.
Back to the two adorable cocker spaniels. They’re giving the audience sad puppy dog eyes because the house is in a state of despair. The Farmer’s wife is on her deathbed and gives the audience the worst last words I’ve ever heard: “…and don’t forget to air your Master’s pants, ‘Minta.” *cough, cough…expire
Araminta, or ‘Minta, for short, then gently lays down the Farmer’s Wife and the screen irises to black for the end of The Farmer’s Wife. Just kidding, the story’s just getting started because it’s not actually about that farmer’s wife. It’s about his hypothetical future wife.
Some time later, his daughter gets married and leaves him as an empty nester with nothing to do with his time. If only he had something, anything to give his life purpose…like farming. You know, communing with animals, spending time in the fields, enjoying God’s natural beauty. No, no, no, he doesn’t want any of that. It is odd that for a movie about a farmer we never see him express any interest in farming. If this was the only movie you had to go on for what a farmer was, you’d probably think all they did was wear nice clothes and go to fancy parties all the time.
But this farmer needs companionship, someone to share his remaining days with…you know, besides his housekeeper, handyman, farmhands, and countless animals. He’s lonely, can you blame him? So he sets his eyes on the unsuspecting women of the town. Not just one woman, you might be asking? Nope, all of them.
It’s at this point that you could read into the plot as an exceedingly dark comedy about a deranged man who stalks multiple women and, instead of trying to court them in any way, immediately proposes marriage. I’ll give the play the benefit of the doubt that maybe with more time and dialogue, it makes sense that the farmer would quickly propose to an assortment of women with seemingly nothing in common but as a silent film, it reads as the actions of a psychotic man.
Which brings us to…Bachelorette #1: Louisa Windeatt. Louisa’s a widow so technically not a bachelorette but don’t hold that against her!
Likes: Horseback-riding through the countryside, A Relaxing Glass of Sherry, A Nicely Polished Shoe, A Well-Brushed Mustache, A Fresh Flower in a Lapel
Dislikes: Being compared to animals, specifically a “lamb to the slaughter” or a “fat hen”
The farmer’s courtship of Louisa is brief as she politely turns him down saying that she’s far too independent to marry him. He reassures her that she’ll “only feel the velvet glove and never know he was breaking her in” and in response she laughs in his face and throws him out. Not a great start, Farmer!
Next he moves on to…Bachelorette #2: Thirza Tapper.
Thirza’s an entertainer who’s a vibrant center of this rural community.
Likes: Freshly-sliced bread, a wobbly plate of jelly, and throwing a party for the whole town.
Dislikes: Having someone arrive too early to your party. Having to rush through your makeup because someone arrived way too early to your party. Someone carelessly knocking over things in your house AND they’ve arrived entirely too early to your party.
The Farmer proposes marriage to Thirza right before a big shindig at her own house. She refuses him and he proceeds to yell at her until she’s on the brink of tears. Another bad move, Farmer!
Next up is…Bachelorette #3: Mary Hearn. Mary is the youngest lady on this list by a country mile and also happens to be the town’s postmistress.
Likes: Glee-singers in a nice garden, ripe fruit, and floral headwear.
Dislikes: Being dragged away from a party by an older man. Being proposed marriage by that older man. And, once you’ve refused him, being yelled at by that same older man.
I’ll be honest here. The Farmer’s Wife is indeed supposed to be a comedy but, in 2023, one of the very few times I laughed was Mary’s reaction to the Farmer’s proposal. She shakes her fists at him like she’s preparing for a fight and then sits in a chair and goes insane. The party runs inside and gathers around her and the whole time she’s shaking her fists and stamping her feet like a possessed demon. It’s wonderful over-the-top acting for a silent film and definitely the funniest thing in a Hitchcock movie so far in my viewing of his silent filmography.
And last but certainly not least…Bachelorette #4: Mercy Bassett. Mercy is a cantankerous bartender who’s a whirlwind behind the bar and a tempest in a teapot.
Likes: A nice draft of beer, a shot of whiskey, men who sidle up to the bar for a good laugh.
Dislikes: Not being asked a direct question.
It’s a little unclear whether or not the Farmer actually proposes marriage to Mercy. They definitely have a good conversation but that might actually be a result of the Farmer not proposing.
So is that that? If the Farmer has four definitive strikes in a row does that mean he’s out?
After going to the bar, he makes his way home to an empathetic ‘Minta. He imagines all his would-be brides as holograms before his maid sits down in his wife’s old rocking chair and he looks at her. You know, reeeally looks at her… Much to his surprise, he notices her beauty for the first time and, unexpectedly, we get Bachelorette #5! Araminta Dench.
Likes: The idea of marrying the man you’ve cooked, cleaned, and otherwise taken care of for all of your adult life.
Dislikes: Probably cooking, cleaning and otherwise taking care of rich farmers.
Power dynamics aside, ‘Minta’s into the arrangement and, before you can herd a million beagles, the pair are married, leaving all the other bachelorettes jealous. Too bad, ladies, you snooze, you lose!
And that’s the theme of the movie. You’ve gotta say yes to the first old creep who comes up to you with an off-the-cuff marriage proposal. Not a great foundation for a movie (even a comedy), but it sounds like Hitchcock knew what he was working on.
In the wonderful book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director talks about on-set difficulties:
“When the chief cameraman got sick, I handled the camera myself. 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. I did what I could, but it wasn’t actually very cinematic.”
It’s a little harsh, but I’m generally inclined to agree. The Farmer’s Wife is a lighter affair than Hitchock’s previous efforts, but there was still room here for visual storytelling that’s simply missing. It’s a repetitive story focused on one guy trying to latch on to the first woman who will say yes and he eventually chooses…his maid.
Overall, this seems like a chance for Hitchcock to try something new and diversify his talents, but it’s clear to me that his interest just doesn’t lie in quaint small-town romantic comedies. Anyway, congrats to you and your new wife, Farmer. I bet she’s already thinking about how she’s spending your money when you’re gone.
On the next revolution of the Sarris Wheel, we’ll be drinking in the Roaring Twenties, so carefully remove some foil and pop that cork because we’re going to have some Champagne.
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Until next time…the Sarris Wheel spins on!