I have limited knowledge of Hitchcock’s career in the silent era. I had an impression that Hitchcock worked only on thrillers or dark comedies. But many of his films before the sound era were light comedies or social dramas, as Hitchcock was assigned films through his contract with studios. I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on Good Evening: An Alfred Hitchcock Podcast where the hosts go through his work in order of release. They had me on to talk 1928’s The Farmer’s Wife, an interesting but rather light Hitchcock comedy.
Hitchcock’s film is based on the popular play The Farmer’s Wife, by Eden Phillpotts. The recently widowed farmer Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is feeling lonely in his house after his daughter is married, with only the sweet housekeeper Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis) and the jovial groundskeeper Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) with him. Samuel makes a list of potential brides and goes to meet them. Rejecting them for various reasons—one is too independent, another too nervous—Samuel feels the pursuit is hopeless. Little does he know, Minta secretly pines for him.
I’m not a fan of silent cinema. I struggled to get through The Farmer’s Wife, even more than I struggled through The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. While the latter film is a seminal work for the British director, The Farmer’s Wife is a lesser film. I can see why the play was a big hit (running about 1,400 performances, according to Hitchcock). The film has a pleasant story, with colorful characters and comical situations. I would have enjoyed the play more, I think. Without hearing the characters deliver their lines, it looks like a bunch of clowning around for nothing. A romantic farce like this needs to feel larger than life. A live production would allow for the heightened theatricality to be more acceptable. The Farmer’s Wife is not engaging as a whole, despite a few solid moments.
The few times The Farmer’s Wife really comes alive are interesting. Hitchcock uses a montage to suggest the passing of time, which consists of Minta putting the farmer’s laundry outside. There are several funny scenes, such as when the servants eat the food meant for guests, or Gordon Harker’s various antics as the groundskeeper. Hitchcock stated that he was influenced by D.W. Griffith, and moved the camera around within the set and inside the action. That technique contrasted the norm, with the camera placed as if it were an audience in a theater. Hitchcock worked as the cameraman himself, when his cinematographer got sick. He also handled the lighting. The Farmer’s Wife is more cinematic than most play adaptations of the era.
Even so, the film is quite dated. Some of the dialogue is sexist, treating women as objects for companionship. There isn’t much indication that Samuel is looking for love, but just wants to fill his house. When he meets with the potential wives, he gets angry at them for not being what he wants them to be. Again, I wonder if this would work better on stage because live theater can allow for more over-the-top behavior. But reading men talk about women in such a way is harder to swallow in a silent movie interstitial.
The Farmer’s Wife works as a light, forgettable rom-com. If you like Hitchcock enough to go through his studio-assigned, early films, it’s worth a watch to see the director work in a genre he isn’t known for. Though it’s dated, overlong at 129 minutes, and predictable, the film has some merit. The performances are pretty good, especially Lillian Hall-Davis. Some of the comedy works well enough, and the ending is genuinely moving. I think it’s safe to say, however, that I probably won’t watch this movie again.
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