Alfred Hitchcock works his magic in the arena of romantic comedy with 1928’s The Farmer’s Wife. This silent film has a lot going for it and is a truly enjoyable experience. It features some hilarious performances, including the hysterical Gordon Harker as the farmhand Churdles Ash, and some slapstick comedy that Michael Richards must’ve seen before figuring out his Kramer character.
The Farmer’s Wife comes based on the play of the same name by Eden Phillpotts. It deals in 1920s upper society, focusing at least somewhat on the contrast between the help and the wealthy farmer. There are all sorts of social excursions, like a wedding party and tea time at a highfalutin homestead, and there is some nice “voluptuous” scenery to help plant us root down in the pastoral period.
Jameson Thomas stars as Mr. Sweetland, a farmer whose wife has just passed away. She entreats the housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) to “air out” her husband’s pants, a way of ensuring that Mr. Sweetland is taken care of after his wife’s passing. Mr. Sweetland’s daughter (Mollie Ellis) is eventually married off, so the farmer’s wheels start turning. He wants to remarry.
This sets a plan in motion that involves Araminta drawing up a list of potential wives and Mr. Sweetland clumsily skulking after each of them. It also draws in Ash, Sweetland’s farmhand, as a necessary comic presence. He doesn’t trust the institution of marriage, but he doesn’t deter his boss from going after his dreams. When Mr. Sweetland burns through his list, he discovers that true love may have been right in front of him all along.
Ken Mogg’s remarkable book on Hitchcock rightly explores the connections between The Farmer’s Wife and the architecture of an Agatha Christie mystery. The film “has the loose-seeming shape of a typical Christie detective story, with its alarums and excursions and final disclosure.” Indeed, this is the case. There are numerous set-ups and revelations to be made and it almost feels like Hitch is having a round of practice for what’s to come.
In this sense, The Farmer’s Wife proves anatomically instructive. Its way of tinkering with key revelations, most of which the audience can see coming from a mile away, gives Hitchcock the opportunity to explore different ways of arranging stories and, better still, different ways of deploying his characters.
On its own, this is still a really enjoyable movie. Harker is comic gold, with his mannerisms and surliness almost impossibly funny. The much-discussed sequence in which he assumes the role of announcing guests at Thirza Tapper’s (Maud Gill) party is worth checking out. His physical comedy and glib fashion of introducing guests ought to be a blueprint for deflating any narcissistic balloon.
Thomas is no slouch, although his comedic presence comes mostly from zeroed-in shots of his face and impenetrable moustache. His wretched approach to courting is awkward, especially when he renders one potential mate into fits and has her asking if this is some sort of nightmare. And his eventual realization is one of grinning and guffawing, a self-satisfying but no less satisfying affection.
Taken on its own, The Farmer’s Wife is a droll romantically-inclined motion picture with a stellar performance from Harker. Taken as part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it helps establish a larger structural sense that he would toy with to greater effect in better pictures. It’s a bit long and somewhat loquacious for a silent feature, but this flick is still well worth checking out.