When I first heard of the 1924 film The Enchanted Cottage I was told it belonged to the vast legion of the many, many lost silent movies. Then I learned from the useful Silent Era website that a print did exist in the Library of Congress archive. And now a DVD is on sale from that ever-resourceful firm, Grapevine Video. My copy arrived this week.
The film is based on Pinero’s 1922 shell-shock play. The plot remains much the same, but there are differences.
Oliver Bashforth (he was John Bashforth in the original play) had been badly wounded and traumatised during the war. Bent and crippled, he is embittered and alienated. Here (played by Richard Barthelmess) he stares into the mirror at the physical and psychological wreck that war has made of him.
When he discovers that his fiancée prefers another man, he hides himself away in a country cottage. His family are concerned for him, and his overbearing sister announces that she will come and be his housekeeper and look after him. Her character is rather well summed-up in this intertitle:
Bashforth can’t bear his sister’s interference – she won’t even let him smoke in his own house – and sends her packing.
This episode with the sister is an interesting deviation from Pinero’s original play. In the stage version, Bashforth’s parents asked a local vicar to look after him. The vicar treats the ex-soldier with a soapy condescension that infuriates him. This scene is a standard one on the post-war British stage; there are several other plays where the easy pieties of a complacent vicar are contrasted with the troubled knowledge of an ex-soldier who has seen a world where easy answers don’t apply.
Presumably the film-makers did not want to offend the religious by presenting a clergyman negatively. In the 1932 film version of another shell-shock play, Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement, something similar happens; the platitudinous vicar of the stage play has been tactfully omitted by the movie’s scriptwriters.
Wanting his family to leave him alone, Bashforth has an idea. Laura Pennington is a local young woman with a sweet nature but a homely appearance (May McAvoy sporting tied-back hair and some unflattering dentures, both signifiers of unmarriageability, one assumes.).
He thinks that she would be an ideal companion for him, and proposes, in a tactless way, that since both of them are lonely, she should come and be his companion. ‘We’d be married first, of course.’ She asks him why he does not marry some pretty girl that he knows, and he answers scornfully:
Despite the pain that the implications of this remark cause her, she agrees, and the two of them settle in at the cottage under the benign eye of the housekeeper. This character is considerably changed from the stage play, in which she is bony and witch-like. Here she is bonny and plump. She tells Bashforth that the cottage was once known as Honeymoon Cottage, and hints that it is haunted by the spirits of past lovers. In Pinero’s play, she was shown as conjuring up these spirits and orchestrating their activities in extended scenes that the Times reviewer described:
Then comes the supernatural business. Pairs of dead-and-gone lovers go up the same staircase. Imps come down the chimney. Cherubs come out of a box. There are witches with broomsticks.
As the climax of this vision, Laura appears, looking beautiful, and disposing of her husband’s tiresome relatives. The fantasy ends with the married couple in a close embrace.
The film cuts out most of this. The housekeeper has no witch-like powers. The spirits perform in no set-piece spectaculars. Instead we get some short sequences of double-exposure film showing transparent couples in historic costume walking about and giving their blessing to the couples.
The magic happens, though. Bashforth straightens up and loses his anxious grimace, while Laura’s hair comes down and her teeth shrink to a more conventionally acceptable size. They have become beautiful, at least in each other’s eyes.
They tell their friend, a Major blinded in the war, that a miracle has occurred and he believes them (since he, like most blind people in popular fiction sees deep truths more clearly than sighted people do). When Bashforth’s family arrive, though, they see only a cripple and a very ill-favoured young woman (The hair is up, and the dentures are back in). Bashforth tries to convince them that a magical alteration has occurred, but they think he is mad.
They leave the pair alone, and they come to the conclusion that perhaps they are deluded – but they are happy to be so. The magic cottage has worked its spell; they are deeply in love, Bashforth has lost his postwar bitterness, and there are hints of the prospect of a baby.
Play and film invoke two of the most common fictional remedies for shell-shock – country air and the love of a good woman. My summary of the film’s plot probably makes it sound pretty absurd, but it is saved from mere sentimentality (as was the stage version I saw a few years ago) by the two central performances. May McEvoy is rather touching as Laura, and Richard Barthelmess is very convincing indeed as the embittered cripple.
The message of play and film is that the war-wounded don’t want to be pitied, patronised or bossed around. They need to be part of a community of equals. The blinded major is crucial here (and even more so in the stage version) because he offers not only support from someone who knows a similar hardship, but also a model of how war trauma can be survived without bitterness.
There is undoubtedly something very dodgy about the film’s implicit premise, that a homely-looking girl is under as much of a disadvantage in life as a man crippled by war. Yet there is also something appealing about the film’s picture of two lonely people finding comfort and satisfaction in one another. I’m glad I’ve had a chance to see the movie.