The Enchanted Cottage (1924) A Silent Film Review

Richard Barthelmess plays Oliver Bashforth, a veteran of the First World War whose body was mangled beyond repair in the conflict. Trying to escape his overbearing and insensitive family, he takes a cottage in the country. In order to create a further buffer, he enters into a marriage of convenience with a homely local woman. But the cottage seems to have something magical about it and soon love and healing are in the air.

I will also be reviewing the 1945 remake starring Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The eye of the beholder…

Richard Barthelmess is known today for two roles: the lead of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and the title role of Tol’able David, made after he left Griffith’s company. It’s a pity that his other solo work is overlooked as Barthelmess parlayed his star power into enviable creative control. His films were not flashy, at least not compared to some of the epics of the era, but they always had the best directors, the best scripts and the best supporting players available. If the Barthelmess name was above the title, you were guaranteed a quality product.

One key to his success was that Barthelmess knew what he did well and he sought out films that showcased his brand. Ideally, his role would allow him to display his ability to brood, his skill for gentle romance and his patented boyishness.

A bit of romance would not go amiss either.
A bit of romance would not go amiss either.

The Enchanted Cottage gave him everything he could have wanted. The film opens with Oliver Bashforth (Barthelmess) struggling with his new life. Horrifically injured in the First World War, he has become bitter and withdrawn. His overbearing family is no help. They don’t see why he can’t just get over his injuries and the trauma that goes with them.

Oliver has been engaged to Beatrice (Marion Coakley) since before the war but when he discovers that she has fallen in love with another man, he withdraws his claim to her hand and also withdraws from society in general.

Oliver has been well and truly dumped.
Oliver has been well and truly dumped.

Oliver chooses an isolated cottage in the countryside. The place is hundreds of years old and has been regularly used as a honeymoon destination. Oliver has no thoughts of love. He sits alone and stews.

Of course, Oliver is not the only soldier injured in the war. Major Hillgrove (Holmes Herbert) was blinded in the conflict and is a popular figure in the village. Among his friends is Laura Pennington (May McAvoy). Laura is saddled with two of the biggest burdens a woman could bear during that time: she is single and she is not beautiful. She’s intelligent, generous and thoughtful but that couldn’t possibly matter, right?

Not married? Then what possible use could she have?
Not married? Then what possible use could she have?

At the urging of Mrs. Minnett (Ethel Wright), Oliver’s housekeeper, Laura pays a call on the reclusive new neighbor. Oliver’s bitterness has consumed him completely. He is rude and sarcastic but Laura’s gentle nature makes his remember himself and he apologizes for his behavior. The ice is broken and Laura sets about trying to make him more comfortable.

Oliver has a bossy big sister named Ethel (Florence Short). She barges into the cottage and announces that she will be moving in to keep house for him. This is the last thing Oliver needs and he knows he has to act fast to prevent it. His plan? He asks Laura to marry him.

Oliver is threatened with an Ethel invasion.
Oliver is threatened with an Ethel invasion.

Laura knows that she’s no beauty but she has hopes and dreams like everyone else and the proposal is painful to hear. He wants her because she is safe and because he doesn’t want to ask a pretty girl to throw herself away on him. It’s one of the most brutal proposals ever filmed but Laura finally accepts. The problem, you see, is that she is love with Oliver.

The plan works. Ethel is stymied and Oliver can return to solitude. What he hadn’t counted on was how awkward his selfish proposal would make his relationship with Laura, whom he considers a friend. After a tense conversation, Laura retires upstairs to await her bridegroom. But will he come?

Rejected?
Rejected?

Oliver is brooding again, wondering how he could have been so selfish. Why should a pleasant young woman like Laura waste herself on a wreck like him? Meanwhile, Laura has given up hope and begins to cry. Oliver hears her, misreads the reason and enters the bedroom intending to offer her an annulment. And this is where the enchantment of the title comes in. Laura looks at Oliver and he is handsome and uninjured. He looks at her and sees a beautiful young woman. Love!

But is this enchantment real or in their minds? Oliver and Laura spend the remainder of the film trying to deal with what has happened to them and unravel the mystery of the honeymoon cottage.

Laura is transformed.
Laura is transformed.

As you can see, this is a rather sentimental picture and the viewer’s enjoyment depends almost entirely on their willingness to be pulled into the central conceit of the film. Fortunately, Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy do their best to help things along.

I have read that May McAvoy and Richard Barthelmess were at odds during the filming. While I can find no further details on their conflict, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. From what I have read of McAvoy, she sounded like a real pill. She was one of those performers who wanted creative control on par with Gish or Swanson but without paying her dues. (Gish, Swanson and Barthelmess all had to be in some pretty stupid stuff before they were able to throw their weight around artistically.) Yes, May, I’m sure you were wonderful in To Hell with the Kaiser but that doesn’t make you Mary Pickford.

Conflict on the set?
Conflict on the set?

I would like to clear up a misconception about McAvoy’s departure from Paramount, which occurred just before The Enchanted Cottage entered production. In Speaking of Silents, McAvoy stated that she was suspended from making films because she turned down the flapper role in Cecil B. DeMille’s Adam’s Rib. She claimed to have objected to having her hair bobbed and wearing the fig leaf costume. Would-be film historians have taken her story and boy did they ever run with it, even going so far as to claim that partial nudity would have been required for the role.

Well, darlings, I have seen Adam’s Rib. This is the costume:

Shocking!
Shocking!

If this is partial nudity, you live a very sheltered life. Also, it’s an animal hide and not a fig leaf, if one wishes to argue semantics. It’s entirely possible that McAvoy turned down the part. Like I said, pill. However, this weird insistence that the Adam’s Rib role was somehow lurid or offensive is simply not true. McAvoy seemed to be sniffing at the concept of being in a vulgar DeMille picture. (Again, I wish to emphasize that she was popular but she wasn’t a Gloria Swanson. Who, by the way, became a star thanks to her work with DeMille.)

I will give May McAvoy credit for freelancing it, though. That’s not easy to do and she managed to make a career for herself without a studio’s publicity department to back her. She finally settled down at Warner Brothers but then left again to avoid studio politics and to raise a family. She returned to acting as a hobby later in life.

Barthelmess didn’t ask McAvoy back but she did just fine. The next year, she wrested the female lead of Ben-Hur from Gertrude Olmstead.

Even post-transformation Barthelmess was not enough to save the picture.
Even post-transformation Barthelmess was not enough to save the picture.

Unfortunately, The Enchanted Cottage was not the success it should have been. Labeled too cerebral for the average viewer, it sank at the box office. Barthelmess redirected his career toward more realistic fare. The film is a bit of a curiosity. Too brainy for its day, too sentimental for many modern viewers, it remains comparatively obscure. Let’s break down why the sentimentality works well in this case.

The performers sell it

McAvoy and Barthelmess may not have been pals on the set but they know their onions as far as dramatic work goes. Barthelmess twists and contorts his body until it hurts to even watch him. His understated acting works perfectly for a man like Oliver, who is bottling up a whole world of pain inside.

Barthelmess gets intense.
Barthelmess gets intense.

May McAvoy is very touching as the plain, hardworking Laura. I could have done with a bit less of her mouthing “ooo ooo ooo” but she is generally very good. Her most touching scene is the wedding night. The fear of rejection is an almost universal human phobia and McAvoy taps into that terror beautifully.

McAvoy sells it.
McAvoy sells it.

Direction and cinematography

The most distinct aspect of this film (and the reason why it is often listed in the fantasy genre) is its use of the honeymoon cottage’s historical visitors. As Laura and Oliver brood and despair, we see shadows of past couples enjoying themselves. Victorian, cavalier and Georgian couples frolic in the cottage and in the garden, thanks to the magic of double exposure. Are they (and the “miracle”) real or are they another figment of Oliver and Laura’s combined imagination?

Brides from the past.
Brides from the past.

Even without these figures from the past, The Enchanted Cottage has an ethereal quality to it, even more so than most silent films. Everything seems to glow and shimmer. It’s lovely.

Ultimately, this is a tale of healing, meant to soothe the wounds of the recent war. Of course, one might argue that Oliver is hardly a typical case. His descent into despair was cushioned by money but most veterans returning from the war would have to scrape together a living somehow. Not every returning soldier can afford to take a picturesque cottage in a bucolic setting, after all. There is a tone of snobbery about the thing with no mention of anything so coarse as an enlisted man.

Gorgeous!
Gorgeous!

The Enchanted Cottage is a film best enjoyed if one does not think about it too hard and simply lets the sentimentality sweep over them. The performances are good to excellent, the special effects are simple but charming and the whole thing is a gauzy fairy tale in best way possible. It’s not really a movie for everyone but it is certainly worth your time.

Movies Silently’s Score:★★★½

Where can I see it?

The Enchanted Cottage was released on DVD by Grapevine.

enchanted-cottage-silents-vs-talkies

When it became clear that mankind had not learned its lesson and that the Second World War was underway, Hollywood calmly reached into its cupboard and dusted off wartime scripts for the new catastrophe. The Enchanted Cottage was one of the Great War stories updated for the 1940s. But how will the 1945 version measure up against the film made two decades before? We are about to find out.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD by Warner Archive.

The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

RKO purchased the rights to The Enchanted Cottage in 1929 and fifteen years of false starts ensued. The project was earmarked for Helen Twelvetrees, considered for Ginger Rogers and then finally got off the ground thanks to screenwriter Harriet Parsons. One power struggle later, the film was in production with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young as the leads (they had made a splash in the film version of Claudia) and Herbert Marshall as the saintly major.

The Enchanted Cottage Rebooted
The Enchanted Cottage Rebooted

The story was updated to the then-current war and events were rearranged to make the story appeal to 1940s audiences. Instead of meeting Oliver (now Bradford instead of Bashforth) post-injury, Laura is introduced to him when he is healthy and about to marry a beautiful socialite. (I almost typed socialist. That would have made for a very different movie. I would totally watch it.)

As in the play and the silent original, Laura is a very homely woman. So unattractive that men flee rather than endure her presence. Are you ready to look upon the face of this gorgon? Be careful! Surely this must be the Medusa of yore, whose face could turn men to stone.

(Aren’t we suspenseful?)

Behold!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

You have not screamed and fled. This is good. You show courage, my poppets.

What’s that? She’s not hideous at all? Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, dearest lambs. Look at her uncurled hair. Her unrouged lips. Her lashes in dire need of mascara. Blech! Repulsive.

A small hint to filmmakers: If your story revolves around someone being hideous, you need to realize that looking monstrous and needing twenty minutes in Sephora are not the same thing. Laura looks like a lovely woman who chose to wear minimal makeup that day.

Ugly, my foot.
“Ugly” my foot.

This makes everyone’s reaction to her “ugliness” unrealistic and unintentionally hilarious. Are we really supposed to believe that lusty sailors on shore leave flee at the sight of her? Clearly the filmmakers don’t know sailors.

The idiotic error would be almost cute if it weren’t so common. I am just a little sick of “plain” women on the screen who look like supermodels but with (ick) glasses. That’s not how life works, you dolts. I have read fawning accounts of how McGuire eschewed makeup for her role. No, no, no, dears. You want makeup for a role like this. Uglying up a movie star takes work. Movies are all about creating an illusion, not actual reality. McGuire was a lovely woman and claiming that wearing no makeup somehow was a sacrifice for the part is falling for the oldest acting trick in the book. She gets to be gorgeous and “ugly” at the same time. I’m calling shenanigans.

Young attempts the Barthelmess Brood.
Young attempts the Barthelmess Brood.

Robert Young does a bit better in his injured role but he doesn’t quite commit to the physical nature of the role like Richard Barthelmess. Plus, showing him as a healthy man actually weakens the story. Instead of focusing on his character’s descent into despair, we have to sit around waiting for his plane to crash. Come on, we all know it’s going to happen. There is nothing about the happy opening scenes that could not be established with a few words of dialogue later in the film.

Further, this version opts to keep its feet planted on terra firma. There are no gauzy, sparkling fairy tale scenes, no phantoms of past happy couples. It all feels very plain and tidy and nicely arranged on an RKO sound stage. But The Enchanted Cottage is not The Enchanted Cottage without those touches of quirkiness; I miss them terribly.

Much too tidy.
Much too tidy.

Let’s see how the cast measures up:

Oliver: Robert Young does what he can but Richard Barthelmess was at the height of his powers and he pours his all into the role. A point to the silent.

Laura: The decision the make Dorothy McGuire not ugly at all and yet have all the characters treat her like a gorgon was a fatal error. My disbelief was thoroughly unsuspended. A point to the silent.

Well, I guess she could do something about those eyebrows...
Well, I guess she could do something about those eyebrows…
Never mind.
Never mind.

Major Hillgrove: One of the biggest changes between the silent and the talkie is the emphasis on and the role played by Major Hillgrove. In the silent film, he is one of the believers. He hopes against hope that Oliver and Laura really were transformed (though he has some lingering doubts) because it gives him hope that his eyesight will someday return.

No fooling THIS major.
No fooling THIS major.

Herbert Marshall’s take on the character is much more clear-headed. He suspects that Oliver and Laura are deluded by love but seeks to protect them from having their illusion shattered. It makes him more of a protector but it also deprives him of character development.

Further, the sound film makes the fatal error of designating the major as the narrator. We open with a frame story. The major is debuting his latest composition of muzak and he offers to tell everyone the story of Oliver and Laura. This is a problem because:

  1. He shares details of things that he could not possibly have been privy to.
  2. In his narration, he tells how Oliver and Laura came to him with the tale of their transformation and then we flash back to Oliver and Laura’s memories. Whose head are we in? Is this Inception? Quick, check to see if the top is still spinning. Help!
  3. The story of Oliver and Laura has some pretty intimate stuff and yet the major is sharing it with an entire roomful of people? Good grief! The fastest way to send word, it seems, is telegraph, telephone and tell the major.

In short, narrator fail! A point to the silent.

Quick, before they get here! Let me tell you aaaaaall about Oliver and Laura. Nudge nudge.
Quick, before they get here! Let me tell you aaaaaall about Oliver and Laura. Nudge nudge.

Mrs. Minnett: How about that? A creepy housekeeper who isn’t evil! The role of Mrs. Minnett was miniscule in the silent film but the talkie gives her quite a big role and character actress Mildred Natwick is more than up to the task. She’s likable and suitably mysterious. A point to the talkie.

Uncreepy housekeepers are in short supply. We had an awful time getting her.
Uncreepy housekeepers are in short supply. We had an awful time getting her.

The transformation scene is really the one that made up my mind. It is not present in the original story but was added for the 1924 adaptation and subsequently borrowed for the 1945 movie. The silent film presents the scene so delicately and the unspoken fear of rejection is palpable. The sound film had the misfortune of being made in a time when any hint that married couples might (whisper) enjoy marital relations was considered utterly unacceptable. (Of all the things banned by the Code, this is by far the weirdest. I mean, I’m not saying I want graphic love scenes but I have absolutely no problem with seeing a double bed in the home of a married couple.) The main suspense of the scene is whether or not Laura’s new husband will come to her as her husband. Without that suspense, the scene is fatally weakened.

The most dramatic scenes muffed.
The most dramatic scenes muffed.

The sound film adjusts by having Oliver feeling remorse at his selfishness during the wedding dinner and then coming in to offer a divorce but the scene lacks the pure emotion that Barthelmess and McAvoy convey. The audience keenly feels her pain in the silent. In the talkie, it all seems strained.

Worse, the scene is told as a flashback with the happy Oliver and Laura telling their tale to the major. Way to kill the suspense, movie! The major, you will recall, is narrating the story so it’s a flashback within a flashback. The only classic film I recall that is worse is the Humphrey Bogart war flick Passage to Marseilles. That movie had flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. (It may have had a few more layers of flashbacks but my eyes were glazing over at that point.) What was it about mid-forties movies and weird structure?

Wait, whose head was I in again?
Wait, whose head was I in again?

I have to give the talkie one point, though: its breathless marketing is pretty entertaining. Posters for the film had catchphrases like:

“The whole town whispered about these two!”

“SCANDAL marked their love!”

Well, hinting at naughty behavior was probably easier than being honest:

“A guy with facial scars marries a homely woman and then decides she’s actually pretty hot! And she thinks his scars aren’t all that bad! But it’s only in their heads!”

Ha! Beat that, silent movie.

And the winner is…

The Silent

This was an utter route. It’s not that the 1945 film is a bad movie, far from it. It’s just that there is not much that it does better than the 1924 original and several things that are of considerably lower quality in the talkie.

They nailed it the first time.
They nailed it the first time.

In the end, the sound film was done in by its unwillingness to commit to a truly homely heroine and the restrictions placed on it by the censors of its time. In some ways, prettying up the film paid off. The 1945 version was a solid box office success and has completely eclipsed the original. Don’t be deceived, though. The silent version remains the definitive take on The Enchanted Cottage.

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