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

  • The Master’s uproarious first comedy, stuffed with oddballs and eccentrics
  • It’s full of good old-fashioned English humour, from gentle to bawdy and earthy
  • With slapstick and even subtle smut, fans of the Carry Ons definitely need apply
  • It’s one of Hitchcock’s most accessible early films, 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 digital

Note: this is one of 50-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.

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.

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)

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. It starts off in very sombre mood but gradually descends into uproarious farce, before reaching the inevitable conclusion. The film was based on a long-running 1916 play of the same name (FadedPage), which prolific and possibly perverse author Eden Phillpotts adapted from 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 sibling. A remake of the play followed in 1941, with two further TV remakes in 1955 and 1959.

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

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 them is Hitch regular Gordon Harker, gurning for all he’s worth as surly handyman-cum-cod-philosopher Churdles Ash, who effortlessly runs away with every scene he’s in.

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. He 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 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 synchronised sound-on-disc talkie with music, effects and dialogue in the final scenes. It’s currently unavailable, but the BFI has a cache of fine quality film materials including the original negative; I urge you to see it if you ever hear of a rare screening.

It’s also well worth seeing him 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 Jameson’s most significant role was playing suave club owner Valentine Wilmot in E. A. Dupont’s brilliant, groundbreaking Piccadilly (1929). The following year, he led the surprisingly sexy and violent UK crime thriller Night Birds, an early multiple-language version film. I’ve never seen Jameson 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 sad, untimely early death at the age of 50 from TB.

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. 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.

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. Here’s a fascinating piece about the reconstruction of its intertitles, while these scans from its original pressbook are similarly illuminating. It was transferred at 21fps (107min) and once again there’s no sign of that version on home video yet, but we live in hope. No new score was commisioned 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

American actress Mollie Ellis, in her only known film appearance as Sibley, and Jameson Thomas as her father, Samuel Sweetland

American actress Mollie Ellis, in her only known film appearance as Sibley, and Jameson Thomas as her father, Samuel Sweetland

Like all other British Hitchcocks, The Farmer’s Wife has been heavily bootlegged and there have only been a limited number of official releases to date. Cause and effect, you see. The currently available version is an excellent earlier restoration 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 digital option. All were transferred at 24fps (98min; PAL DVDs w/4% speed-up = 94min) and feature a very adept Xavier Berthelot piano score. Note that Kino in the US are soon releasing the film on BD and DVD.

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

UK pressbook

Those not yet linked are coming very soon. Subscribe to the email list to be notified.

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


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment on this post.

Leave a Reply

You might also like