The tale of an emotionally unstable barber who allows his romantic jealousy to consume him and… Advice to fellas: Don’t let the weird guy who is pining after your girlfriend give you a shave with a straight razor. Just saying. One of Anthony Asquith’s earliest films and one of Britain’s last silents. A suspenseful tale with atmosphere to burn and some very powerful performances in the mix.
When Harry Met Sally…
Ask an American to name a British silent feature film and, without skipping a beat, they will probably say The Lodger. Ask them to name a second title—no Hitchcock this time— and they will take a bit longer before recalling something called A Constant Nymph. Ask for a third title and, nine times out of ten, you will have stumped them.
First of all, you have got to stop interrogating your friends with obscure pop quizzes. It’s weird. But second, you have probably realized that British silent features are not terribly well-known. Slowly but surely, that is starting to change. Mr. Hitchcock is no longer the only game in town.
A Cottage on Dartmoor was one of the very last silent films to be produced by a British concern. Like the rest of the world, sound was taking over the British film industry but the silents had one last burst of greatness before the end came. Directed by Anthony Asquith (of The Importance of Being Earnest and Pygmalion fame), the film has been building quite the reputation of late as a very fine suspense film with style to burn.
So, is A Cottage on Dartmoor a forgotten treasure or are modern critics barking up the wrong tree? (Or am I using mixed metaphors?) Let’s dive in.
Ah, moors! What would we do without you? The Bronte sisters would be sunk, that’s for sure. Moors were made for the movies. Moody, broody, barren and harshly beautiful, they just scream that something gothic, gloomy or dangerous is about to occur.
In this case, the latter. A prisoner (Uno Henning) has escaped from Dartmoor Prison and he is racing across the wild landscape toward a lone cottage. Inside, a young mother (Norah Baring) is putting her baby to bed. She goes downstairs to fetch her work basket but senses that she is not alone. She turns and sees the prisoner standing in the shadows. Seven minutes into the movie, we get our first dialogue card and the film jumps into a flashback.
The escaped prisoner is Joe, a barber who works at a swank tonsorial parlor in the city. The young mother is Sally, a popular manicurist who spiffs up customer’s nails while Joe clips and shaves. It is clear from the beginning that something is very wrong. Sally enjoys friendly banter with her customers but Joe glowers at her every smile. He does his best to keep the men away from her, using his barbering work as an excuse.
Most clients enjoy flirting with Sally but it ends there. That day, though, a new client comes into the shop. He is Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), a prosperous farmer with more than a few rough edges. He may not have fine city ways and his nails are appalling but Sally sees that there is a genuinely sweet man under the hayseed exterior. Harry, for his part, is utterly charmed by Sally and is soon finding every excuse he can to get a manicure.
Joe is, of course, seething at his new rival. Sally sees how lonely he looks, feels sorry for him and finally agrees to go out with him. However, the date is a disaster. Joe is just too possessive and intense. Sally finally manages to get rid of him and resolves to never make the same mistake again.
The next morning, Joe sends Sally flowers with a card asking her to wear one and give him hope. The card gets lost in delivery and Sally innocently wears one of the flowers to work. Harry is there, waiting for his manicure. Joe believes that one date and one flower on the lapel mean that Sally is his. He watches with growing rage as Sally and Harry continue their courtship.
(If you think it unlikely that the young and lovely Norah Baring would fall for the older, stolid Schlettow, you should check out Mantrap. There, Clara Bow’s flapper manicurist falls head over heels for… Ernest Torrence?)
Stalking ensues but what finally pushes Joe over the edge is seeing Sally’s new engagement ring. This is especially bad timing as Harry is in Joe’s chair getting a shave. Joe’s sanity has frayed to the breaking and he strikes. Harry is injured but not dead. Sally screams that Joe is a murderer. Joe vows to come back and finish the job—on both Harry and Sally.
And we return to the present. Now we know what the escaped convict is doing in Sally’s house. What comes next? You’re just going to have to watch the movie and see.
Before I get to the analysis proper, let me clear up a little misconception about this film.
Some plot synopses of this film state that Sally was Joe’s girlfriend at the beginning of the story. That is not so. Sally rejects his overtures and makes it clear that she sees Joe as nothing more than a friendly co-worker. His possessiveness and sense of entitlement make Joe a classic sufferer of Nice Guy™ Syndrome. (“I was nice to you! You owe me love!”) His bizarre fixation on communicating with Sally through archaic means (language of flowers!) further convinces me that the shoe fits.
Later, against her better judgment, Sally feels sorry for Joe, relents and agrees to go out with him. Once they are alone, his strange behavior flares up and she clearly is afraid of him. Trying to be nice, Sally begins to play the piano to keep him at a distance but he fixates on the title of some sheet music. My Woman. He starts to make his move. His creepy, creepy move. The entrance of a hard-of-hearing pensioner saves Sally from further unpleasantness.
One mercy date does not a girlfriend make. This scenario is incredibly realistic, by the way. Social norms, frankly, encourage women to enter dangerous situations. “Let him down easy. He’s so sad. Give him a chance. So what if he seems to be barking mad!” All while her sixth sense is screaming that peril awaits. If you don’t understand any of this, read The Gift of Fear. If you are nodding sagely, read The Gift of Fear. (If you are a guy, just know it is the one book pretty much every girl receives when she comes of age. At least all my friends did. Maybe we come from paranoid families. Thank goodness.)
I would be interested to learn the reasons why the writers of these synopses believe that Sally was ever Joe’s girlfriend. It would be a fascinating study in psychology and perceptions of gender roles. Perhaps they sympathize with Joe a little too much. Or maybe they just didn’t bother to actually watch the movie. Because, you know, old. Silent. Blech. (If you think everything could have been avoided if Sally had just been nicer to Joe, go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.)
To say that A Cottage on Dartmoor is flashy is the understatement of the century. Asquith basically put every silent cinema visual device in a big bag, shook it and then tossed it onto the screen. Fancy compositions, a mobile camera, double exposures, visual glimpses into the character’s thoughts, rapid cuts, flashes, twirls… Every bell and whistle you can imagine and more besides. You see, Asquith was a devotee of the silents. He was sad to see them go. It is one of the few films made during the sound transition that mourns the loss of silence so overtly.
The characters of A Cottage on Dartmoor are aware of this. They laugh uproariously at a Harold Lloyd silent short but then fall into enraptured silence as the talkie feature plays. The scene is ambiguous. Talkies entertain but what has been lost?
That’s not to say the film is flawless. Asquith overplays his hand at certain points. I, for one, could have done with less of Uno Henning leaping into the frame during the opening chase across the moors. Once was a jolt. Twice spoils the effect by drawing attention to its mechanics. The same with his flashy tricks with mirrors. Once or twice is clever. Repetition makes the effect too precious by half. And then the film has Harry go to the theater and sit in seat 13. Get it? Get it?
Of course, Asquith was still very young, both in years and in motion picture experience. He was all of twenty-six when he directed this picture. The gaudiness is born of youthful excitement, not aged pomposity. Asquith is clearly having a gleeful time playing with his new toy, silent cinema. In any case, the vast majority of his tricks work very well. Subtle they ain’t but their brashness has charm. I particularly admired his close-ups of the performer’s expressive hands, all of which furthered the story and gave insight into the psychology of the characters. Reminded me of Victor Seastrom.
All the style in the world would be of no use if the cast was unworthy. The astute Asquith had to have been aware that the age of the international cast was almost over. Nowadays, if performers from assorted nations wish to act together, they need a script that accounts for their different accents. In the silent era, actors from all over the world came together and could play—anything they darn well pleased! Asquith assembled an English leading lady, a Swedish leading man and a German second lead. Such casting would not have been possible even a few months later (unless the film went the dubbing route, which sometimes worked but usually didn’t).
Uno Henning gets most of the attention and rightly so. He is the central figure in the story and his breakdown must be believable in order for the rest of the film to work.
Joe needed to be played by forceful actor and everyone knows the best place to find a dark brooder is Sweden. They grow them intense in that neck of the woods! Uno Henning could not have been more perfect for the role. He manages to both repel the audience and intrigue us. We pity him even if we do not sympathize with him. His shift from worst-date-ever to homicidal maniac to repentant escapee is a fascinating study in the power of silent screen acting.
Henning plays Joe as a man who, on the surface, has a calm and almost prim demeanor. Quickly, though, we see that the composed surface is held in place by the very thinnest veneer. Dark thoughts, hatred and murderous violence are churning beneath, peeking out here and there and finally bursting free with a terrifying shatter. I cannot emphasize enough how utterly perfect Henning is in this role. Here is a man whose sanity is held together by a few threads and we are watching them snap, one by one. (Asquith does actually show a breaking thread at one point. I am on the fence about it.) Mr. Henning, you have my deepest respect.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) I particularly was impressed with the scene where Joe decides to allow himself to be shot. He holds a blazer, which was meant to be used to disguise him during his escape, and the jacket of his prison uniform. As he looks at a picture of Sally, he drops the blazer, rejecting escape. Then, he drops the jacket, rejecting surrender. It’s clear that he means to create a third option. He sees a guard in the distance and focuses on the rifle he is holding. He smiles. The interplay between Asquith’s direction and Henning’s performance is marvelous. Without a single title card, we know exactly what is happening in Joe’s head. And, selfish to the end, Joe makes sure he dies in Sally’s arms. Because giving your beloved PTSD is what true affection is all about!
I also quite liked Norah Baring as Sally. She is a pleasant, gentle young lady who finds herself trapped in a bizarre nightmare. Would being meaner to Joe have prevented the sad events? Perhaps but it may also have set him off all the sooner. She is stuck in a no-win situation that remains all too real today. Baring does a wonderful job of conveying her characters emotions for the first two acts. It’s just a pity that the script calls for her to forgive Joe later in the tale. Um, why?
Hans Adalbert Schlettow plays Harry, the unsophisticated farmer who wins Sally’s heart. Schlettow does well, though his role is not as meaty as those of his co-stars. Basically, he just has to come off as a nice guy, the genuine article this time. His wooing is eager but not pushy and he never behaves in a way that makes Sally uncomfortable. I do think that some viewers may offer sympathy to Joe simply because Uno Henning is the more handsome of the two men but close viewing will soon remove any doubt as to who the real nice guy is.
Like his fellow German star Harry Liedtke, Schlettow stayed in Germany during and after the rise of the Third Reich. Both men were casualties of the Second World War. Material on Schlettow is scarce but the German edition of Wikipedia (take that source as you will) describes him as passionately pro-Nazi, an anti-Semite and an informer.
Generally, the simple story chugs away to the tragic ending, though it also has a few holes. For one thing, it relies a little too heavily on Joe having a case of the dropsies. He drops his movie tickets, which forces Sally to invite him to her boarding house. Then, he drops the note from his bouquet, the one that requests that Sally wear one of the flowers to give him hope.
As mentioned before, while the story during the flashback is on firm psychological ground, the present plot goes a bit wonky if you think about it too much.
Joe grabs Sally but before he can carry out his threat, the prison guards knock on the door. He collapses, realizing that he is going back to prison. Instead of calling for the guards, though, Sally opens the door to her baby’s nursery and has Joe hide in there.
No. Just, no. This guy was trying to kill her a second before and now she is leaving him alone with her child? What is this? It’s not one of those “she felt regret for the pain her beauty caused” plot twists, is it? Please tell me it isn’t. I hate those.
In spite of these flaws, though, anyone watching A Cottage on Dartmoor is in for a real treat. The film moves quickly, there is always something interesting to see and Uno Henning is a wonder to behold as the disturbed Joe.
It is also a splendid example of late British silent film. The British film industry had a hard time recovering from the First World War. The French industry received a shot in the arm from the arrival of talented Russians fleeing their country’s revolution. Germany’s post-war woes spurred it to make bigger, better and more unique films and the anything-goes world of the Weimar Republic was a playground for a new crop of directors. The British studios? They were a bit slower to jump back in the game but some of their silent era offerings still have the power to wow.
I know there are a few conspiracy theories floating around about how the British industry was nobbled by, from what I gather, some kind of international conspiracy. Please. The British film industry took a little longer to recover from the war but when it did get its magic back, it more than made up for lost time. Instead of inventing conspiracies, it’s much more constructive to draw attention to the wonderful movies that Britain did make during the silent era.
No industry could ask for a better ambassador than A Cottage on Dartmoor. It’s stylish, well-acted and completely intriguing. I’m not asking you to break up with Hitchcock. Just maybe add some variety to your movie collection.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Kino has released this feature on DVD with a very good Stephen Horn piano score. It is packaged with the documentary Silent Britain, which contains quite a few conspiracy theories and ranges from meh to feh. Watch with a few tablespoons of salt. That or make it a double feature with Forgotten Silver and see if your guests can tell the difference.