February 23, 2018
The Farmer’s Wife – UK, 1928
There is a term that’s often used when referring to films by great directors whose quality does not match that of his or her more well-known films – lesser. The term is practically an apology, the equivalent of telling viewers in advance not to expect greatness, yet also justifying a positive rating for a movie that, were it made by a lesser-known director, would receive a rating that was at least half a star less. To this classification of the works of great directors, I would like to add one more – lazy. Lazy should be applied to a director whose film contains nothing that resembles the director’s more respected work – no intricate camera angles, no clever use of lights and shadows, no shots that create intrigue or empathy in the audience. In other words, it applies to a film in which one could reasonably believe that the director just said action, cut, and print without so much as a second thought, a la Ed Wood. Sadly, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife is such a film.
To be fair to Hitchcock, I highly doubt that he personally elected to shot the film. Technically his eighth film, it was made at a time when his work included murder mysteries, films that reflect upon the status of women in society, and cutthroat competition among performers. Only one of these topics is now associated with Hitchcock’s more famous films. In fact, the only later film from the same genre as The Farmer’s Wife is 1955’s The Trouble With Harry, a film which spoofs many of what were then thought of as Hitchcock standards. I liked that film. I cannot say the same for The Farmer’s Wife.
The film’s central character is Samual Sweetland (Jameson Thomas), and it begins with the death of his wife. Her last words are these: “And don’t forget to air Master’s pants, Minta.” Hitchcock then shows us several shots of men’s pants being aired on clothes lines, as if to show us just how dutiful the family maid is. The film then jumps ahead in time to the day of the farmer’s daughter’s wedding, and there’s a sweetness to these scenes. Father and daughter exchange glances that convey the mixed emotions of the day, and a moment in which the new bride is alone with her groom is one of the most delightful I’ve seen in some time. Soon the newlyweds depart to start their new life together, and the father begins the next chapter of his life as a widower living in an empty next.
Thus far, the film is somewhat watchable, hurt only by the all too frequent presence of Mr. Ash (Gordon Harker), Mr. Sweetland’s handyman, a character that is intended to be comic relief but comes across instead of incredibly annoying. Mr. Ash is what Ebenezer Scrooge would look like had he not been born wealthy – abrupt, rarely smiling, complaining about his work, drinking on the job. How he remains employed is anyone’s guess.
After the wedding, the film becomes almost unwatchable. Mr. Sweetland decides it is time to remarry, so he calls in his housekeeper, Minta, played by Lillian Hall-Davis, and asks her to help him come up with a list of potential candidates. Mr. Sweetland then sets out to propose to the one at the top of the list. Now, whenever a character in a movie makes a list or has more than one stop to make, it’s not hard to guess what will transpire. For example, if you have three planets to visit, it’s a good guess that the first two visited are not the ones humans can live on. If a man has a list of ex-girlfriends that could have sent him a letter telling him he has a son, you can bet that the first few people he visits will not be the one he’s looking for. Here, Mr. Sweetland has four names, so it’s not hard to predict that at least the first three will reject him.
There’s another problem. The first half of the film establishes a legitimate connection between Mr. Sweetland and Minta. Sure, he’s the employer, and her the employee, but the way she goes about her job and the interest she has in ensuring her boss’s personal happiness make it abundantly clear that she is a far better match that any character Mr. Sweetland could propose to. Therefore, there is only one logical choice for him to make, and it isn’t to marry a character that audiences have yet to be introduced to. And then there’s the character of Mr. Sweetland himself. The man is all over the place emotionally. He’s the sympathetic widower in the beginning, the hopeless romantic in the middle, and then the angry spurned lover toward the end. And when I say angry, I mean it. His response to being rejected is to insult and berate the women for having the audacity not to want him. He calls one woman a “fat hen” and when another rhetorically asks if this is a nightmare during one of his fits of anger, he responds, “Your hat is!” Laughing yet?
For a film like this to work, each woman – and each subsequent rejection – must teach Mr. Sweetland something about love and compatibility. He must come to see that finding a wife should not be the ultimate goal, that there is something much more important to base a marriage on than availability and attraction. However, Mr. Sweetland learns no such lesson. Instead, the film becomes a tedious series of proposals, rejections, and insults, with no reward for the audience or realization on the character’s part. I grew increasingly disinterested as the film went along. Perhaps more egregious, I stopped pulling for him to succeed. He became just another jerk who thinks he’s God’s gift to women.
If there is a saving grace for The Farmer’s Wife, it is the thankless work of Thomas and Hall-Davies. They embody the characters they’re asked to play. Thomas looks stoic in good times and wounded in bad ones, and Hall-Davies has the right look and demeanor for the head of the household and a potential love interest. They’re talented enough to make a mediocre film more than watchable. Alas, The Farmer’s Wife does not even rise to the level of that subpar moniker. It is dull, overly long, and frustrating paced, and the Hitchcock we know and love from later films is nowhere to be found. It’s extremely lazy Hitchcock. (on DVD)
1 and a half stars