Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

by Brent Reid
  • The Master’s uproarious first comedy is stuffed with oddballs and eccentrics
  • It’s full of good old-fashioned English humour, from gentle to earthy and bawdy
  • With slapstick and even subtle smut, fans of Carry On films definitely need apply
  • It’s one of Hitchcock’s most accessible early works, brimful of fun and pure joy
  • The setting is as English as they come, but its timeless themes are universal
  • Finally listed: every official, restored release on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas in The Farmer's Wife (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Spoiler alert! Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas find their happy ending in The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

There’s plenty in The Farmer’s Wife for the scholars and film studies chin-strokers to analyse, but make no mistake: it chiefly offers uncomplicated humour in spades, Some of it is even bawdy, but always perfectly judged and delivered. One of my favourite Hitchcock silents and a safe bet for any audience.

This rural romantic comedy is basically about, well, the titular farmer’s search for his titular wife. I dislike spoilers intensely, but various publicity materials make it quite clear she was right under his nose all along. Don’t worry though: here it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. The film starts off in very sombre mood but gradually descends into uproarious farce, before reaching the inevitable conclusion. It was based on a long-running 1916 play of the same name (FadedPage), which prolific but possibly perverse author Eden Phillpotts spun off from the setting of his own 1913 novel, Widecombe Fair (Internet Archive). The novel was in turn based on a popular, eponymous folk song. After many years touring the provinces, the play premièred in London in 1924, when it likely first showed up on Hitch’s radar. Screenplay co-writer Eliot Stannard simultaneously penned a separate screenplay, based directly on the novel. This was filmed and released later the same year, as Widecombe Fair. Thankfully, most of that film’s original negative survives, along with various complete nitrate pre-print materials, and it can be seen on the BFI Player, for comparison with its offspring. The play was adapted for BBC Radio in 1934, followed by a 1941 film remake (unreleased but safely archived), and two further TV versions in 1955 and 1959.

Article on the play by Ivor Brown, Radio Times (p.370, Vol. 42, No. 541, 9.2.1934); cover with London cast

L-R: Jameson Thomas, Maud Gill, Antonia Brough and Gordon Harker in The Farmer's Wife (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

L-R: Jameson Thomas, Maud Gill, Antonia Brough and Gordon Harker

Hitch’s take on The Farmer’s Wife is proof, if ever proof were needed, of Norma Desmond’s assertion that silents didn’t need dialogue, as they had faces then. However, these aren’t necessarily very pretty ones, to put it mildly. But they sure are interesting. They hardly qualify as stock pantomime types though; rather, you get the impression – intended, I’m sure – that Hitch and his crew simply rounded up a gaggle of unsuspecting locals from some typical West Country village and set to work. It’s a welcome antidote to the airbrushed, uncanny valley effect projected by so many modern Hollywood-type visages. Chief among those present here is Hitch regular Gordon Harker, gurning for all he’s worth as surly handyman-cum-cod-philosopher Churdles Ash and effortlessly running away with every scene he’s in.

Rejected early titles reportedly include: The Wedding Ring, The Asking Game, Hitched and Strange, The Best Man Who Knew Too Much, Mr. & Mrs. Sweetland, Widow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Wedding Dress Train, To Catch a Wife, The Trouble with Marry, The Wrong Woman.

Tall, svelte leading man Jameson Thomas, as blinkered Farmer Sweetland, is wearing some subtle padding here and has his his sideburns coloured grey to help give him the appearance of a fairly stocky, middle-aged son of the soil. As with artificially aged John Laurie in The 39 Steps, Thomas looks well beyond the actual 39 years he was at the time of shooting but by his next film, Tesha (1928), was back to his usual lanky form and naturally dark hair. Tesha, by the way, is an incredibly well acted, sensitive and very moving film dealing with the twin themes of infertility and infidelity. It was originally released as a silent but re-released a couple of years later as a sound film with music, effects and, in the final scenes, synchronised dialogue. It’s currently unavailable, but the BFI has a cache of fine quality film materials including both original negatives; I urge you to see it if you ever hear of a rare screening.

It’s also well worth seeing Thomas in Blighty (1927), set on the WWI home front. It’s currently only available to UK viewers via BFI Player or for free at any BFI Mediatheque. Perhaps his other most significant screen role was playing suave club owner Valentine Wilmot in German film writer-director E. A. Dupont’s brilliant, groundbreaking Piccadilly (1929). The following year, Thomas led the surprisingly sexy and violent UK crime thriller Night Birds, an early multiple-language version film. I’ve never seen him turn in anything less than a stellar performance and think he deserved to be a much bigger star. He had leading and lesser roles in a panoply of UK and US films before his tragic, untimely demise at the age of 50 from TB.

Piccadilly: all releases

Lillian Hall-Davis, who also starred in Blighty, was now onto her third film with Hitchcock as four years earlier she also featured in The Passionate Adventure, which is extant and available for viewing. In fact, her performance in that film, directed by Graham Cutts, so impressed the director-in-training that he earmarked her for his own future works. Here, she co-stars as constant, loyal Araminta, fresh off her diametrically opposed, adulterous role in The Ring. Sadly, her life ended in tragedy at the age of only 35, leaving behind a husband and young son. Maud Gill, as resolute spinster Thirza Tapper and Olga Slade as postmistress Mary Hearn, were the only actors to reprise their roles from the London stage play. Much like The Manxman, the film has many outdoor scenes and is replete with exquisitely shot views of the surrounding countryside; you can virtually smell the farmyard and the Dartmoor heather. Said scenery made a welcome reprise in the 1941 remake, captured beautifully by Claude Friese-Greene, son of famous film pioneer William. It was directed by Norman Lee and Leslie Arliss, both of whom also collaborated on the screenplay with J.E. Hunter. Sadly, it’s unavailable on home video, as with a couple of other full length productions for UK TV in 1955 and 1958.

Group photo of The Farmer's Wife (1928) cast and crew on set

Cast and crew on set

The Farmer’s Wife was the first of of the Hitchcock 9 to be restored, transferred at 21fps (112min). Here’s a fascinating piece about the reconstruction of its intertitles, while these scans from its original pressbook are similarly illuminating. No new score was commissioned for the restoration’s première on 23 September 2012 at the BFI Southbank, London, but Neil Brand did perform his well-practised solo piano accompaniment. Neil’s score is so far unrecorded and the current DCP is silent.

The Farmer’s Wife is one of several of the Hitchcock silent films for which the original negative does not survive. Working from later duplications of that negative made in the 1960s, the restoration team’s principal challenge was to ensure that the film looked as much as possible like the original. Work on The Farmer’s Wife accordingly focused on meticulous grading and on a precise calibration to record the image data back to a new film negative. This has ensured that the new prints have the correct contrast and texture. As well as minimising scratches and damage printed in from the original, some work was done to restore Hitchcock’s trademark dissolves, such as when the camera moves seamlessly from a long shot of a house through the window to the inside. This elegant dissolve had been stored in the negative ‘unmade’, i.e. the constituent parts had not been combined in the printing process so that the shot didn’t cross fade and flow as intended. As with most of the other silent Hitchcock restorations the intertitles have been reconstructed using alphabets constructed from the original lettering and exact layout.” – BFI programme notes

Diana Napier in her screen début and only appearance under her real name, Mollie Ellis, and Jameson Thomas as her father, Samuel Sweetland

Diana Napier in her screen début and only appearance under her real name, Mollie Ellis, and Jameson Thomas as her father, Samuel Sweetland

Like all other British Hitchcocks, The Farmer’s Wife has been heavily bootlegged and there’s only been a relatively limited number of official releases to date. Cause and effect, you see. In addition to having very poor image quality and unsynchronised needle-drop scores, most boots run far too slowly, dragging the runtime out to 130 minutes! The restoration has only been released in the US thus far, with a new score by Jon Mirsalis, although it’s been stripped and ripped in lower quality for an anonymous Spanish BD-R, likely from Resen. The most widely available transfer is an excellent earlier preserved version which really is a delight to watch. I’ve projected it several times on a 106″ screen and it holds up beautifully: steady, clear and lots of lovely grain. The still-in-print UK box set is the best way to obtain it on DVD, while until recently the US had a HD streaming option. All were transferred at 24fps (98min; 94min w/4% PAL speed-up) and feature a very adept Xavier Berthelot piano score.

The Farmer's Wife (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK pressbook

UK pressbook

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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28th January 2022 04:55

Hello Brent,
Thank you for the wonderful information you provide in Brenton Film!
I have been especially interested in researching Hitchcock’s early films on your site.
Do you know of any resource that has more information about the film locations in “The Farmer’s Wife?”
I have been able to identify West Street in Dunster as well as the Royal Oak Inn. According to BFI, the film’s scenic locations were filmed “on the edge of Exmoor near Minehead.”
I would appreciate any help or suggestions for more research!
Thank you for your amazing site!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x