03 October 2008

The Farmer's Wife (1928)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 129 mins.

The Farmer's Wife is a silent comedy from the formative years of Alfred Hitchcock, which I know might seem very interesting, but regrettably it is not.

The plot feels stale and formulaic, even for something from the early days of cinema. After his wife dies, a farmer named Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) begins his search for a new lady of the house. He instructs his loyal maid to Minta (Lillian Hall Davis) to set him up with woman after woman so he may audition and woo them. The maid fulfills her duty to the farmer, but we can see that she secretly loves him.

Hitchcock's name is hardly ever associated with full-blown comedy; witticisms, innuendo, toilet humor, and mockery, yes – but hardly actual comedy. The rare exceptions tend not to be important films in his canon (Mr. & Mrs. Smith from 1941, The Trouble With Harry from 1955). The greatest problem with The Farmer's Wife is that the humor toggles back and forth between good, polished, urbane jokes (" 'Tis almost indecent to see 'em all on one bit of paper," the farmer notes when he examines the maid's list of potential wives) and bad, adolescent jokes (a woman, in slight hysterics, shakes with emotion and causes the plate of gelatin she is holding to wiggle and wobble), falling mostly on the latter to get us through.

There are many worn punch-lines about the rigors of marriage ("The next best thing to no wife be a good one," one character says), none of them particularly good. Some of the humor is only worthy of a chuckle because of the incredulity of the oafish farmer's dialogue. He has plenty of biting things to say, including one scene where he scoffs at a woman who calls herself a "girl." He insists a better description is "full blown and a bit over," which causes her to collapse in hysterics and cry out, "Is this a nightmare?" His response: "Your hat is!"

Well, alright.

Still, The Farmer's Wife is an expressive film in many ways. Hitchcock was still expanding his bag of tricks. Dissolves are particularly important, and Hitchcock uses them quite effectively, such as when his late wife's empty rocking chair becomes theatrically important as the farmer tries to imagine potential wives sitting in it as he sits in his. Hitchcock worked his loyal British-era cinematographer Jack Cox, who commanded the photographer for eight of Hitchcock's films (second only to Robert Birks, who did twelve). The camerawork and editing are not quite as inventive as Easy Virtue from the same year, or even Rich and Strange from 1931, but it also not stagnant in the least. As Cox would show in Hitchcock's next film, The Manxman, he had quite the eye for capturing beautiful pastoral and bucolic imagery.

Like most of his films (but not all) released before The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, The Farmer's Wife is only really for Hitchcock completists, and even then, it's still not the worst of the bunch. It might pique your interest because it's a comedy, but you should prepare yourself for the long haul.


the editor., 03 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
I do consider myself a Hitchcock completist therefore, I (watch) his (Hitch) films whether the film (plot) is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. I must admit your reviews have "piqued" my interest (once again!) in his early work.

Sam Juliano,  10 October, 2008  

I had a tough time getting through this one, and I think your treatment here expresses exactly the feelings I had when I watched it. *for completists only*

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