The Farmer’s Wife

In the late 1920s, having just wedded Alma Reville, marriage was clearly at the forefront of Alfred Hitchcock’s mind as he adapted this play be Eden Phillpotts about a farmer who, after the passing of his wife and the marriage of his daughter, seeks to find a new wife within the small group of eligible women within his village. Farmer Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is by and large a good man, though he has difficulty in expressing himself, often fails to see what is directly in front of him and has a heightened ego. Still, he means well. After his wife’s death, in which her last words are reminding the maid (Lillian Hall-Davis, returning from The Ring) to air out her master’s pants, Minta the maid takes over all of the wife’s duties as well as her own. Once the farmer’s daughter has been given away, Minta is given one more job to do, help Sweetland find a wife, so the two of them sit down and make a list of the four potential candidates.

This being a comedy, things inevitably do not go to plan, mainly due to Sweetland’s pomposity and the various faults of the women. It probably didn’t help that his first proposal attempt involved calling his prospective fiance a fat hen, and that he announces that he is getting married, before actually asking if she is OK with the situation. The script is full of mild – and not so mild – put downs, largely aimed at the women (“Her back view’s not a day over 30.” “But you have to live with her front view.” “I don’t mind pillowy women, so long as they be pillowy in the right places.”). Elsewhere, the film featured possibly my favourite title card from a silent film ever, with the completely unexpected line “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge,” made all the more hilarious by the frail, demure woman who utters it.

As the farmer, Jameson Thomas has mastered the art of looking flustered with wide-eyed rage and exasperation, although at times I felt he was just as likely to strangle some of the women as propose to them, not helped by his Snidely Whiplash moustache and sneer. I can’t help thinking the women who turned him down were lucky not to wake up tied to the train tracks. I felt the film seemed to lose it’s way a little later on, and the ending is clearly signposted within the first 15 minutes, but is done so sweetly that you really don’t mind, and the overall theme of the plot reminded me of Keaton’s Seven Chances, which similarly involves a largely unsuccessful attempt at finding a wife, but for different reasons entirely. The handyman, Mr. Ash (Gordon Harker) gets the short end of the stick comedically, having to endure a series of pratfalls, mostly involving oversized trousers, but this doesn’t detract from the film too much. These may have been an attempt to distance the film from the largely dialogue-based play, as is the case with a climactic fox hunt that would have been almost impossible to perform on a stage.

This was far more enjoyable, and funnier, than I was expecting. If you don’t mind silent comedies, and I’m learning that I don’t, then this isn’t a must-see, but is enjoyable if you can find it.

Choose film 7/10

The Ring (1927)

Although this wasn’t Hitchcock’s first film (he made at least five before this one, although at least one of those in deemed ‘lost’ [1926’s The Mountain Eagle] and another two unfinished [Number 13 and Always Tell Your Wife, from 1922 and 1923 respectively]) The Ring is the earliest one I can get my hands on at present, so my travels through the history of Hitch will have to begin here. Telling the story of an amateur boxer working at a carnival who gets a shot at the big time after he is scouted by a renowned heavyweight, The Ring almost knocked me out for being a Hitchcock film about one of the least Hitchcockian subjects, sport.
Carl Brisson is Jack ‘One Round’ Sander, who makes his living by challenging regular schmoes to a boxing match at a carnival. His fiance (Lillian Hall-Davis) chews gums as she works the ticket counter, and his friends are his assistants and announcer. One night, after dispatching the usual rag-tag band of hopefuls fairly promptly – one of whom defeats himself as he enters the ring – Jack meets his match against Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), who unbeknownst to Jack is an Australian heavyweight champion, and has already been making moves on his girl. After the fight, Bob claims his reward (a grand total of £2.00), and tells Jack he plans to give him his chance with the professionals. Bob and Jack’s fiance, and eventually his wife, become much closer as Jack becomes more successful, which leads to a love triangle developing between the three, coming to a head when Jack and Bob fight on another at the end of the film.

Had I not known this was a Hitchcock film, I would have been very surprised to discover the fact. Other than themes of deception and suspicion, this does not seem to fit within the rest of his work. Even the leading female is a brunette! Now I’m sure that Hitchcock obviously didn’t start out as a master film-maker – truly brilliant debut films are few and far between – but I had hoped for more than this, as this film is at best just mediocre. The plot is nothing special, and feels dragged out even at less than 90 minutes, and when you consider that the last 10+ minutes of this are a boxing match that feels like it lasts at least an hour, then the pacing is really quite a problem.

Hitchcock’s infamous mysogany and sexism is evident in places. Though she is essentially the third lead, Hall-Davis’ character is only ever referred to as ‘The Girl,’ even though her character has is called Millie. In both the opening credits and her introductory title card she is given that fairly vague, nondescript title. There is some interesting camerawork, especially early on in the initial fight, with the camera remaining stationery, pointed at Jack’s opponent’s corner of the ring, as the would-be fighter heads off screen to fight, only to be thrown back a second later, dishevelled and clearly defeated. However other than this and some occasional semi-dream sequences and video distortion to emulate rage, drunkeness and being knocked out, there isn’t much to take note of.

The title of ‘The Ring‘ most obviously refers to the boxing ring within which a fair amount of the film takes place, however it also refers to the wedding ring (this is possibly the first cinematic incarnation of a best man losing the ring), a bangle given to Millie by Bob, a forune-teller’s ring of cards and the circular nature of the plot, as the final scenes are very similar to the opening one, with Millie watching on as the two men fight it out. By the end, they are no longer just fighting for money and a title, but for honour, pride and the hand of the woman they both love.

I had one major gripe with the film. Throughout the story we are shown countless posters advertising boxing matches, upon which are the names of dozens of boxers. Yet of them all, Jack is the only one with a nickname. (Although at one point someone dates the movie a tad by referring to a boxer in a less than affectionate racial slur that I don’t care to repeat.) Surely at least one of the others would have a stage name, for the sake of realism? Also, look out for one of Bob’s assistants, who looks spot on like Jack Nance in Eraserhead.

Before watching this, I’d yet to see a Hitchcock film I hadn’t at least liked. I hope dearly that his learning curve was steep, and he got better very quickly.

Choose life 4/10