Week 6: ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ – 1928

OK, this is the toughest one so far. The Hitchcock/Truffaut book listed the duration of ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ at 67 minutes. The DVD sleeve had it as 98 minutes. It actually lasted a mind-numbing 129 minutes (see misc. notes below) and I can honestly say that I felt each one of them crawling by in a seemingly never ending story that can be summarised as follows: widower farmer courts various local (totally inappropriate) spinsters, before realising (shock) that his housekeeper is perfect all the time. Marries her. Done. 21 words. My God, does this one drag on…

It’s not all bad and I’ll run through the plus points as there are good moments and scenes and performances. But I also have to relate some of the more dire scenes/dialogue/moments in this sometime aberration of a movie.

It’s so blindingly obvious that  Araminta Dench (Lilian Hall-Davis from ‘The Ring’, she seems to have grown a hyphen since 1927) is the perfect woman for Farmer Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) you feel like reaching into the screen and shaking the stupid clod for not realizing. He puts himself, and his audience, through such rampantly pointless scenes of no-potential love that you end up watching the background detail just to get through the whole thing. Araminta, for her part, unrequitedly loves/serves Sweetland and she is the character I felt the most empathy for throughout the film.

As we have come to expect, there is some beautiful photography in the film, country scenery and locations that make you yearn for a pastoral, timeless lifestyle.

This country idyll is slightly undermined by some of the titles which are phrased in what I would called the ‘oo-ar’ vernacular: ‘beer drinking don’t do ‘alf the ‘arm of lovemaking’ etc.

I have to comment on the titles, moreso than any of the previous movies there are some fairly astonishing ones that crop up:

‘Her back view is not a day over 30’ – ‘But you have to live with her front view’
‘I don’t mind they pillowy women…so long as they be pillowy in the right places’
‘A woman that’s a pillow at thirty be often a feather bed at forty!’
‘You’ll only feel the velvet glove and never know I was breaking you in’ (?! I assume this is a horse metaphor…)

And:

‘You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge’

It does all give a sense of humour that helps drive it all along, even though the reappearance of the unfunny Gordon Harker (from ‘The Ring’) puts a damper on proceedings for me, hamming it up as Sweetland’s handyman Churdles Ash (his name is the funniest thing about him).

Apologies, Harker fans. On the plus side, he reminded me of Tom Waits in his professional drunk phase – which can only be a good thing. Churdles does deliver some great lines such as: ‘Holy Matrimony be a proper steam-roller for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman’ but he’s overcooked ultimately.

It’s an episodic movie, Sweetland considering each of the three potential wives and going through the courting process with each, weighing them up like livestock before rejecting each in turn.  Jameson Thomas is very believable in this, as is Hall-Davis and I guess it’s maybe a social etiquette barrier as she is his servant that prevents him from instantly seeing how perfect she is. There’s a lovely moment after the guests leave his daughter’s wedding where he brushes confetti from his shoulder and remembers his own wedding, a great cut (@31’00”) as he turns to look at his own wedding photo, the camera then moving to an empty chair by the fireside…

Hitchcock is experimenting more with long takes and fluid camera work. The marriage of Sweetland’s daughter in the early stages sees the camera moving gracefully through the party in long-ish shots (which he will return to full force, and with mixed success, in the style experiments of ‘Rope’ and ‘Under Capricorn’). There is a nice sequence as Sweetland gets Araminta to list his possible wives (rub it in, why don’t you?) Hitchcock showing the chair by the fire with a dissolve to each of the prospective ladies appearing in it, a neat and succinct way of illustrating his intentions.

There’s a good, and funny, scene as Sweetland schmoozes his third choice (Mary Hearn, played by Olga Slade) at an afternoon tea party. The cottage gets ludicrously filled with people, including an infirm lady in a large wheelchair and four ‘glee’ singers who proceed to perform in the garden. Sweetland makes his intentions clear and there follows an escalating argument between the pair of them that results in an all out slanging match. ‘Is this a nightmare?’ she says, ‘your hat is’ he retorts. It reminded me a little of the crammed cabin scene in Sam Wood’s Marx Brothers’ classic ‘A Night at the Opera’.

On the pudding front, there’s a lovely visual thing with a jelly when Sweetland proposes to his second choice (‘Hang it, Thirza Tapper, I’m asking you to marry me!’) – the dessert wobbling nervously as she trembles before him.

Ms. Tapper needs to get herself a new maid as her current employee leaves everyone’s ice cream next to the fire: ‘How was I to know the ices would melt if I left them near the fire!’. Well…

All in all, even though it dragged, ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ is actually a very sweet film – just too long. Thomas and Hall-Davis are both very good and balance each other well, he with irrational male reckless energy, she patient and caring. I will have to get hold of the 100 minute version as people have noted this licks along at a much better pace. Maybe they lopped out Churdles Ash…

Miscellaneous notes

The 129 minute version I watched is the US release, the UK apparently runs 100 minutes. The sleeve of the DVD I have lists it as a 98 minute version, which is clearly wrong – they may well have sourced the UK version and the 2 minute difference may be a frame rate/conversion thing (from 30fps NTSC to 25fps PAL). There are sequences that look vaguely slo-mo’d throughout the transfer I watched which may also affect the running time. The Truffaut book’s listing of a 67 minute duration must just be a mistake.

There is a nice profile shot of Lilian Hall-Davis right near the end as she beam with happiness and Hitchcock even shoehorns a staircase into the farmhouse, well done!

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