If you’re having trouble with the title of this post, I suggest you sing it aloud.
Our subject is Hitchcock’s THE FARMER’S WIFE, a theatrical adaptation not much to his liking. A farmer and widower resolves to remarry, and approaches four unsuitable candidates for the position of wife, with putatively hilarious consequences. In the end, he recognises that the perfect spouse was under his nose the whole time, in the form of his devoted housekeeper.
In approaching this one, I began to concoct a scheme for rating its interest, since it was soon clear it wasn’t going to be funny enough to enjoy just as a comedy. The interest breaks down into several categories.
1) Laughs. There are only a few. Although Gordon Harker, in a prominent supporting role as “Churdles Ash”, handyman, is a fine grotesque, and watching him try to push a bath-chair while his trousers are falling down is sort of fascinating, it’s the marital candidates who score those few actual snorts of humour the film generates. Olga Slade, as the fat postmistress who just sort of grins idiotically at everything until the farmer’s badly expressed proposal sends her into a distressing fit of hysterics/epilepsy/something, is very good value indeed. (See top of page for onset of fit.)
And Maud Gill has the look of a myopic tortoise in the throes of electro-galvanism, which is entertaining in itself. Hardcore Hitchcockians will recall that, before deploying the first exponential zoom to simulate the hero’s high anxiety in VERTIGO, the Master of S. attempted to use it in REBECCA, to simulate the feeling of the world receding around you, which you tend to get just before you faint. (I’ve never actually fainted, but I’ve had this feeling, most recently during an unexpected cutaway to Nicole Kidman and her forehead during the Oscars two years ago.) The shot was abandoned in REBECCA when Hitch and cameraman George Barnes couldn’t get it to work. In THE FARMER’S WIFE, rather brilliantly, Maud Gill achieves a similar effect simply by backing slowly into the scenery.
Her servant is also quite funny. She freaks out at the farmer’s intense stare, and later appears sobbing with a dripping tray of melted ices. I don’t usually find people crying funny (I’m too soft-hearted), but the combination of weeping with dribbly tray was somehow poetically humorous.
2) Wrongness. In an indifferent comedy, the stuff that sticks out as weird or inappropriate can make all the difference. When a supporting player crosses the line from “comic caricature” to “Dr Seuss flesh-cartoon”, we know we’ve intruded on strange and disturbing terrain. The man-oid pictured below doesn’t belong in any place where the sane gather, and will probably haunt my subconscious until such time as somebody invents a squeegee for cleaning nightmares.
The fact that the farmer is arrogant and downright offensive in his approaches to the women he wants to marry (he’s somewhat humbled at the end, but not for long) is another factor that fills the dead spots between rib-tickling with a welcome bit of skin-crawling. I didn’t really want him to find a wife, though.
3) Technique. Hitch admitted to Truffaut that, although he didn’t think T.F.M. was much good, it had at least been filmed from inside the action. Hitchcock’s use of P.O.V. is effective in itself (the shots of the dead wife’s empty chair are poignant, and when edited into place next to reaction shots of the stoic farmer, the old Kuleshov effect kicks in and we can see all sorts of emotion in his face) although it does nothing for the comedy. If you’re wondering whether it was inevitable that Hitch would gravitate to thrillers, his sympathy for this kind of technique might be an early indication of YES.
In one scene, the camera adopts the POV of a little boy confronted with a table of food, and lunges at the sweet stuff with a very fast tracking shot indeed. Hitchcock no doubt related to the lad’s food-lust. Effects like this are all the more impressive considering that Hitch’s cameraman became ill and A.H. ended up shooting a good portion of the film himself. It’s uniformly well-lit (with very nice fireside scenes), well-composed and well-operated (in early scenes, the camera has to swing about to follow the perpetually bustling housekeeper, played by Lillian Hall-Davis, who’s much more effective here than in THE RING.
4) Narrative. In adapting the play, Hitch makes a fairly major blunder, of the kind he was later to avoid. In order to illustrate the widower’s situation, and dramatise his desire for a new wife, Hitch and regular scenarist Eliot Stannard open with the some scenic views, proceed to the wife’s death, and thence to the daughter’s wedding, which plants the idea of matrimony in the protag’s noggin. This one-the-face-of-it reasonable strategy has the undesirable effect of delaying the plot’s arrival until the end of act one. In effect, we’re meeting the characters outside of the drama and comedy, in a passive and uninteresting state, and watching lengthy scenes in which all the personae can do is gossip about the sort of plot they might be getting in half an hour or so. It nearly sinks the film completely.
In later years, Hitch decried the practice of “opening out” plays, and he’s broadly right — certainly what he’s done here causes an unacceptable delay in the story. But early Hitch is striking for its structural looseness and even sloppiness (EASY VIRTUE follows the same plan as TFW, so that the real story doesn’t begin until halfway through, when it’s already been pre-empted by the more melodramatic conclusion of the first half). This free-and-easy approach accounts for some of the energy, helter -skelter charm and unpredictability of the early talking thrillers, where it really is one damn thing after another (is there any particular reason why NO. 17 must end with a bus chase?) — I’m going to have to see how I feel about that when I revisit those films…