Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Farmer's Wife (1928) at the BFI with Neil Brand

As a new soccer season gets underway, the Brits begin to obsess about player stats: how many passes,  tackles, “assists” and so on. Statistics of a different kind featured in Charles Barr’s introductory notes* to this screening of the restored The Farmer’s Wife at the BFI.

He points out that some 10% of the shots in this film feature some sort of camera mobility as compared with 2-3% for The Lodger and less than 2% for Hitchcock’s previous film The Ring. Both films have more dramatic impact and better reputations: yet their directorial play-maker was on more cinematically-varied form for this entertaining romantic comedy.

The wedding party
The Farmer’s Wife was based on a very successful play by British novelist, poet and playwright Eden Phillpotts, yet Hitchcock’s production moves the action well beyond the imagined stage. At one point the camera follows Lillian Hall-Davis’ character as she distributes refreshments around a wedding party; it pulls the viewer into the screen and energises what could be formalistic. Great work from cinematographer Jack E. Cox, as well as his multi-tasking director from his own account…

Whilst showing the director’s debt to German cinema in general (and Murnau in particular), it also shows how quickly Hitchcock was beginning to develop his approach in what presents as a confident and well-made commercial feature with enough tricks and turns to still impress.

The restoration – superb as usual – obviously helps and the film looks pretty much as clear as it would have done on first showing. It is suffused with Hitchcock’s earthy humour and comes with a roster of quirky characters who run rings around the main protagonist and still, er, ring true.

So, if The Farmer’s Wife is Hitchcock playing it safe and going for commercial goals, he has a funny way of showing it…. and this is indeed one of the funniest silent films I’ve seen that’s not a straight-ahead comedy (most rom-coms being rather lacking in the “com” part…).

Looking out in hope and back in... despair
Eliot Stannard adapted the play and together with Hitchcock helped speed the story up by stripping down the extraneous elements. Very quickly the location and main characters are established as farmer Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) stares out of his bedroom window into glorious countryside. His countenance shifts as he meets the eyes of his handyman, Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) and the camera cuts to the interior as he walks away from the window towards his bed in which his wife is clearly dying. Surrounded by friends and their staff, she counsels their housekeeper, Araminta Dench (lovely Lillian Hall-Davis) to always air her master’s long-johns… the camera cuts away to reveal said undergarments in a variety of “airing” situations… it’s going to be that kind of film.

Next we’re shown the wedding of Sweetland’s daughter - "Tibby" (Mollie Ellis) – which gives her father pause for thought: is it time for him to re-discover love and to replace the irreplaceable. The wedding banquet is well filmed building on the camera-fluidity and introducing the cast of grotesques who will drive the bulk of the comedic action.

A little list...
Being a practical man, Samuel, draws up a list with the aid of the hyper-organised and endlessly patient, housekeeper – “Minta” (a purely naturalistic performance from Lovely Hall-Davis). He seems to have forgotten the missing ingredient for his quest but comes up with the four singletons of a certain age who broadly meet his criteria.

Jameson Thomas with Louie Pounds and Maud Gill
First up in his quest is the independently-minded Widow Windeatt (Louie Pounds) who whilst being friendly enough feels that she would be too strong willed to be suitable for the proposed merger of interests. As she offers her hand in masculine sympathy, Sweetland is angry enough to take a swipe.

Next is the shrew-like Thirza Tapper (Maud Gill) who tells the farmer that he is the first to pass her “sex test” in proposing marriage even though she has no ambitions in the matrimonial arena (another cold, asexual character?).

But surely, Sweetland can’t fail with the voluble Postmistress Mary Hearn (Olga Slade) who appeared more than friendly at his daughter’s reception. But it’s not to be, he’s far “too old” for her and she proceeds to laugh herself into hysterics, waiving her arms about in a childish frenzy.

Olga Slade then Ruth Maitland
Each time Sweetland returns to discuss his knock-backs with Minta who, it becomes increasingly clear, has feelings for him of her own. Given the alternatives on offer it’s a mystery why the big penny hasn’t dropped, but perhaps he views his housekeeper as out-of-bounds (even one who looks like Lovely Hall-Lovely…).

Sweetland steals himself for one last try with Mercy Bassett the pub landlady (Ruth Maitland) and all seems to be going swimmingly as they chat away plying each other with drinks…

The penny drops
But he returns home carrying another defeat and sits in the parlour opposite the chair his wife used to occupy. He imagines each of the candidates in her place and none can really pass muster… Minta sits down to help think it all through and then the scales are finally lifted from Samuel’s eyes as we knew they always would be…

That’s not quite it but, needless to say Lovely Lovely-Lovely’s acting the moments of Minta’s own realisation are genuinely moving. It’s no surprise that Lillian was Hitchcock’s favourite actress, she is a  graceful wonder who combined expert timing with controlled and nuanced expression: perfect for the medium.

Isn't she?
Jameson Thomas also rips into the role of the widower who finally re-learns how to love and whilst he gets most of the laughs he also manages to convey the conflicted loneliness at the heart of his character.

Needless to say, Gordon Harker is also superb as the grotesquely curdled Churdles Ash – I felt like cheering every time he came on screen.

Hurrah for Harker!
Excellent accompaniment was provided by Neil Brand who’s sure-footed improvisations where also used in last year’s restoration premier. Mr Brand expertly matched Hitchcock’s tone throughout and the central theme helped bring a tear to my eye (along with Ms Hall-Davis) at the end.

No news on a DVD release but surely it’s coming. The version currently available from Studio Canal isn’t too bad, as you can see from some of the screen shots, but the restored version, like all of the others, is the one you simply must see.

*Taken from his book English Hitchcock (1999)

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