Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Farmer's Wife

Take the plot of this film in one sentence and you will see how predictable it is:

A farmer becomes a widower and after wedding off his daughter (at the reception of which he realizes how lonely he is) he calls on his capable, dutiful and attractive head servant to help him make a list of prospective women to woo, each of them being either mannish, frigid, obese and/or wearers of hats that have too many flowers or scary feathers spilling off them.

Say that was not enough to tell you where the film is going, let's drop another hint: throughout the farmer's ordeals with rejection from these eccentric ladies he comes to sit dejectedly again and again in his chair by the hearth, across from which sits another chair, the chair his deceased wife used to sit in; and sitting in it now and helping the farmer with his ordeals and coming up with new prospective names is the capable, dutiful and attractive head servant.

But of course long before this moment we already know. We know within the first fifteen minutes - or even before that.

Then what is it that makes one want to watch the film to its end? This phenomenon in which a film transcends its own predictability, and does so without defying expectations, I touched upon in a previous post a while back. That post actually anticipated this present review, which I've only worked myself to finishing now.

The Farmer's Wife is a surprisingly endearing romantic comedy from Alfred Hitchcock. This is his only slapstick film that is a comedy through and through, and that isn't based in black humour - like The Trouble with Harry, though it abounds in double entendres and innuendoes. There is no other film in Hitchcock's oeuvre like this film; it stands alone, almost like a mysterious island that he never touched again - though there are techniques, motifs, visual structure and themes here that are recognizable throughout all his films.

But one can put it this way: if Hitchcock's silent era is removed even from his early period, then The Farmer's Wife, though a silent film, is removed even from his silent era. It's almost as if Hitchcock did this film just to prove that he could make a comedy, and a good one, then left it at that.

Through visual motif that outweighs the plot, the film speaks a word about marriage, and those things that are concomitant with it: death, loss, loneliness; and of course those other highly resonant things: kitchen tables laden with food, laundry drying by a fire, two chairs by a hearth.

A Hitchcock film is a rare one that doesn't make reference to marriage - usually in dread belief in its objective making of a man and a woman one flesh. He had a highly sensitive feeling for these things concerning marriage; not a perfect feeling, or an always moral feeling, but one that definitely was not indifferent to it.

The Farmer's Wife starts off with a short death bed scene. It is adroitly and swiftly handled; Hitchcock channels, with a few cuts, all the attending emotion of loss at the death of this farmer's wife.

We get the usual pastoral pictures of the farm. The handyman, Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker), who turns out to be the comedic foil, enters the house. Two beagles follow him up the stairs. We don't follow the handyman to the upstairs room, but the two beagles stop at the top stair, resting both their heads on the floor.

Then the handyman comes back down the stairs, goes back out into the daylight, where he looks up at the top open window whence a man is looking down. The man in the window sadly and slowly shakes his head at the handyman below who is frowning, and he turns away, presumably to do some farm work.

The man in the window goes back to what's taking place in the room, and then there's the cut: we get the very still and composed shot of the head servant and a couple others around a bed and a woman in the bed.

The structure after this scene basically runs: the farmer gives a wedding for his daughter. The wedding we don't see, but only the distant bell swinging in a distant church spire and the joyful expression of the head servant in the kitchen, which informs us that the wedding ceremony has been completed. The ensuing wedding feast, which we do see, provides the frame for the farmer's deep loneliness in his widowhood; it gives us also the three prospective women, all in attendance at the feast, that the farmer decides to woo.

Next is the "courtships". Courtship is inaccurate since the farmer doesn't waste his time but simply states, after some rather saucy innuendoes ("I be coming up here like a fox to snatch away one of your fat hens!"), that "I be marrying again."

Suffice it to say, the three "wooings" provide the comedic heart of the film. After all those have failed, there is a peculiar fourth; a sort of last resort; a very beefy barmaid who at one point grabs the farmer by his arms and shakes him so violently that he is reduced to something like an over-boiled asparagus. (By the way, Jameson Thomas who plays the widower farmer, Samuel Sweetland, is expressively brilliant in this film)

But we don't see the result of this fourth "wooing" played out. Not yet. Hitchcock does something much more interesting and structural.

The farmer comes back home, and as he nears the open bottom window of his house he stops to listen to the handyman giving one of his rants to Minta, the head servant. The handyman goes on about how he can’t stand to see his master become so wretched, coming back each time like a dog with his tale between his legs, and so on.

Now, the farmer comes into the house with a beaming blissful smile on his face. Why, we are not really sure. Did he really meet with success with the beefy barmaid or is he just trying to defy Churdle's expectations and prove him wrong, if only for appearances?

Minta seems devastated as she backs behind the rocking chair and grapples and fondles the back and front of the chair with her hands.

But after the handyman leaves to do some work, disappointed that the farmer is going to be enslaved yet again, the farmer sits in his chair by the hearth - and he completely deflates. He has met with failure again.

Now Minta, being encouraged, starts coming up with new names, whether sincerely or not we don’t know, while the farmer scratches out all the names of the women that he had written on a pad of paper, and from whom he got rejected. He sits back in his chair and gazes into the empty chair across from him. Now comes the masterstroke.

Hitchcock overlays living images of the three once-prospective women on top of the empty rocking chair, like ghosts. Each one fades into the chair, shaking their heads, laughing in mockery, or however they acted when the farmer asked them for marriage. One after the other, as one fades out another fades in to take the other's place. Then after the third one fades out, we see the fourth one, the beefy barmaid, fade into the chair; and we see her as she acted when she was rejecting the farmer's proposal; the rejection which we never got to see. Genius.

Then comes the next masterstroke. When the beefy barmaid begins to fade out, just as her image is about to vanish completely, Minta, the head servant, in the flesh, real and present Minta, sits in the chair, still thinking distantly about some other names for the farmer.

And after a few gazing, half-comprehending beats, the farmer's eyebrows lift higher than Vincent Price's.

And then what happens next…well, I don't want to spoil the movie for you.


I checked at youtube without hope to see if the film is on there, and - would you believe it - somebody posted it! For some reason though the music is completely different from the version I saw on dvd. The music on the youtube version is unfortunately rather boring. The music on the version I saw was amusing and was made fit to the scenes.



Enbrethiliel said...


With a few time stamps, this would count as a live blog!

It sounds like a great movie. Yes, the ending is very obvious from the start, but the journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point B sounds magical nonetheless.

Which was, of course, your whole point in that previous post you were kind enough to link again. =)

Paul Stilwell said...

Hey! Your right! I was hesitant about how much present tense description there is in this post, but somehow silent films lend themselves to "live blog" format, especially a film simple at heart, like this one.

Yes, the magic of going from Plot Point A to Plot Point B; that seems to be where a great part of the power of film lies doesn't it?

Now, having that magic in tandem with the unexpected, then you really have something.

Enbrethiliel said...


In formal writing, the rule is to use the present tense when narrating or describing what happens in a story, so don't worry about that!

I'd add that the magic of going from Plot Point A to Plot Point B (and all the way to Plot Point Z!) is also very much a genre thing. Each year, hundreds of new Romance novels get published, all of which are pretty predictable as far as endings as major plot points go, and people still gobble them up voraciously. Among real Romance enthusiasts, you'll find talk of "Comfort Reads": books which may not be especially challenging or ground-breaking or even well-written, but which the reader likes to return to over and over again.

So maybe the magic of the unexpected can only happen once? (Sed contra: Well, okay, G.K. Chesterton did say that you can look at something 999 times and never see it, then look at it on the thousandth try and finally know what it is.)

Paul Stilwell said...

One of my favourite Chesterton quotes.

I think of The Princess Bride. Recently I watched it (for the gagillionth time) and lo and behold, there were jokes I had not picked up on before, or something which I was familiar with suddenly was funny for the first time.