Thursday, December 21, 2006


Long before Argentine author Manuel Puig evocatively synopsized The Enchanted Cottage (1945) in his experimental novel The Kiss of the Spider Woman; long before his character Molina's romantic recount was omitted from the film adaptation of the book; and long before Turner Classic Movies began airing the film without commercial interruption so that its delicate ensorcelment could effectively occur, my mother and I would sit mid-afternoon on a Sunday and watch John Cromwell's The Enchanted Cottage, not once but whenever it was broadcast. While the movie played, intimate and familiar as we were with the storyline, Mother would guess the names of actors and actresses, and mull over the little bits of biographical detail she had sifted from magazines. What Mother taught me during those languid Sunday matinees was that some movies are your favorites—not because they were the best movies of their time, perhaps only two stars in a five-star rating system—but because they leaned dutifully into a need for fantasy and illusion. Mother had things she wanted to forget in her life and I was already using fantasy as a defense against what I feared in my life to come. Movies were a way we each held off the world.

I don't even know how many times I have watched The Enchanted Cottage. If I'm channel surfing and I happen to come upon it, I always stop and become involved. As was the case this morning when I drew the blinds against a cold rain storm in San Francisco, lit the lights on the Christmas tree, and turned on the t.v. to watch something while I drank my first cup of French roast. And there it was. The Enchanted Cottage. The scene where Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire)—made to look as homely as taste would allow—has returned home from a failed venture elsewhere. She has answered an ad placed by Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick) seeking a young woman to help with cottage chores. The cottage is to be rented to a young newlywed couple: a handsome aviator Oliver Bradford (Robert Young) and his socialite wife Beatrice (Hillary Brooke) who plan to use the cottage for their honeymoon. It's Oliver's idea, of course. Beatrice is being more obliging to her fiancé than enthusiastic.

Before they have a chance to occupy the cottage, however, war breaks out in the Pacific, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and Oliver is conscripted long before anticipated, before they are even wed. Subsequently shot down over Guam, crippled and facially disfigured, Beatrice reacts poorly to Oliver's appearance and he retreats bitterly to the cottage.

Do you know the story? There is something enchanted about the cottage. Little by little, as they get to know each other, Laura and Oliver become lovely in each others' eyes. The film reveals this wondrous transformation. Oliver's scars melt away. Laura's homeliness disappears. Mrs. Minnett understands that it's their love for each other that has brought this on and a blind neighbor, John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), who has become the couple's confidante, exhibits the ancient wisdom of Teresias of seeing clearly into the heart of the matter. I had already learned by fifth grade through my favorite book The Little Prince that it is only through the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. The Enchanted Cottage only proved that treatise.

I don't always look at movies these days as fantasies. I measure their production values. Their demographic reception. I critique their direction, their performances, and overview the criticism of others. I investigate a director's oeuvre or delineate the parameters of genre. The historian in me uncovers that there was an earlier 1924 silent film version of The Enchanted Cottage based on Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's play and I'm curious to compare it to the one with which I'm familiar. I can see now the role the movie might have played in mollifying the cultural attitudes towards men returning disfigured and wounded from the war; the 1924 version for the First World War, the 1945 version for the Second. I even hear that Pinero's play was adapted into a musical earlier this year premiering in New York, perhaps a reflection on the war in Iraq? The world—not only the world of movies—has become a much smaller place and Hollywood no longer reigns dominion. For that matter, romance no longer reigns dominion. In many ways Hollywood has collapsed under the weight of its own artifice; its dreams and romances rendered ingenuine and obsolete. Yet still, on certain rainy days, in the middle of the afternoon, this 1945 Grade B melodrama brings my mother back to me, the appreciation she taught me for movies. I guess you could say I still use movies as a defense: to counter my disabilities, my inability to work as I once used to, to ward off a world that has taken so many loved ones from me, so many dreams, myriad ambitions. Mother herself has become so ill and lives in constant pain. She finds it difficult to sit still long enough to lose herself in a movie. That breaks my heart somehow. It seems like the ultimate theft by—as they say—time and other thieves. I hope that thievery is a long way off for me. For in losing myself in movies, I ultimately find myself, like the light that gradually returns in this winter season.

So this is not so much a review of The Enchanted Cottage as it is a Christmas missive to Mother. May light return to you. May today find you one second less of pain. I love you. Thank you, sincerely, for teaching me to love the movies. I wish I were with you right now, your frail hand in mine as we sit on the edge of the sofa, hearts in our throats, when Laura and Oliver descend the stairs, homely and disfigured to others, but fair and handsome to each other. If only the world, and all our pain, could be so enchantingly transformed.


Pacze Moj said...

A lovely post.

The film itself, which I had never heard of, seems like a bit of an oddity: dealing with many of the same themes as film noir, but through romance and fantasy. I'll have to catch it on Turner Classic Movies.

Maya said...

Thanks, Pacze. The Enchanted Cottage is, undeniably, "an oddity." It wasn't well-received critically when it came out either. I think The New York Times termed it "grotesque." Yet it is one of those mellers that is simply romantic. Who hasn't hoped that love will transform our physical limitations towards perfection? Nowadays I guess no one cares because botox is so much easier. Heh.

I don't think of it as a noir piece. Too much light for one thing and no true femme fatale. It's actually how light is used to signal the transformation that shoves it into the fantasy category.

And it was the perfect film for Puig to have Molina apply a "queer reading" to. Poor Molina. Who wanted so much to be transformed by love himself.

Maya said...

I am frequently amazed by unexpected responses to The Evening Class, sometimes in the comments section, often through email. Today I received an email from Timothy Massett who runs the lovely single-screen San Marco Theater in Jacksonville, Florida. He had pointed to this entry on his email newsletter and received the following response from a woman named Grace who thought he had penned the piece:

"Oh how beautifully you have written this homage/review! It has been a pleasure to read and
enjoy and quite a surprise too. May some of your dreams come true this Christmas and may those
for your mother come true too. Would that all our sons were as loving and eloquent. :) Thank you so much for opening your heart through your 'pen'."

It felt great not only to hear Grace's response but to have Tim so kindly forward it to me. I guess it's true after all that Christmas packages come in all shapes and sizes.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful movie. A mixtura of horror and fantasy, outer-reality forming to inner dreams and desires.

I first saw this movie in 1990, Professor Nestrick's film theory course at UC Berkeley and have never forgotten it.

Maya said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Anon. I'm always glad when someone enjoys a movie as much as I do. I'm not familiar with Professor Nestrick. Is he still teaching at UC Berkeley?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately he passed away in 1995. He started the film program was beloved by many. I credit him along with the department with opening my mind to the potential of film.

We saw Enchanted Cottage and read Kiss of the Spider Woman. Maybe its age but Enchanted Cottage is a nostalgic inducing movie. I think of finishing his lectures on a sunny late morning followed by a bike ride to the marinas to relax in the sun.

This is a great blog -- I'll frequent more often. Thanks for the great insights and work.

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie last night again, and am struck by how lovely, how wonderful it is. I came upon your blog searching for more commentary on it. Would that we could all have in our life an enchanted cottage by the Maine seashore. Sometimes, I think that is what marriage is supposed to be; seeing our partners at their most lovely, no matter the "reality."

Great post.

ilikethetinman said...

I saw this movie for the first time this evening...a cold winter evening around Detroit, it was a somewhat interesting movie, I caught it about maybe 15 minutes in, when some guy's kid was saying how ugly 'that lady' looked...I thought he was talking about the older lady, I never thought that he was referring to the younger lady, she just looked sort of plain, not homely...anyways, I was watching thru about when the guy was going off to the war...then...I nodded off! not because of the movie itself, was just I woke up in time to see the guy put the gun to his head, and the girl sort of 'saved him'...i watched thru when he and her were in the garden,then..back to sleep again! ... I woke back up and then I was pretty much lost! by then his scar had healed, he grew more hair, his arm got fixed and he was traipsing around with somebody else! the scene where the girl wakes up in bed, she looks radiant...I wondered who the heck she was...then I couldn't figure out why when his mom and dad showed up, why the blind guy wanted to 'break the news' to them... and then when they came down the staircase his mom almost fell over...even with his scar, he didn't look that bad, and she was OK. By then I figured out..well..somewhat ..what was going on! But I wanted to get on the web to find a review to verify that...Overall I liked the movie, me nodding off was not due to the movie itself, I actually enjoyed what I saw, and whenever it comes on again, I'm gonna watch it...and stay up.

Maya said...

Thanks for stopping in to comment. Were you watching this on TCM? I was watching it as well, again, for the umpteenth time. I imagine that--if you were nodding in and out of the movie--it must have proved confusing; but, am glad to hear you enjoyed what you caught. By today's standards, Robert Young's disfigurement and Dorothy McGuire's "ugliness" probably don't register as they would have when the film was made. What struck me tonight in watching it again was the film's sheer artifice. The external scenes had (clearly) painted backdrops and yet that somehow patched in to the film's literal and thematic enchantment.

thupergal said...

I have not seen this movie since the mid 1960's. I too used to watch it with my Mother, my first recollection around 1956. I didn't understand it much at age 5 but each time afterwards, as I understood more, it touched me more deeply. It has always been a hauntingly memorable movie that I longed to see again. I've never caught it on TV and just decided to look it up on Google today. I'm somehow relieved to know there are others who love it as much as I do and very much enjoyed your piece on it, Maya. My Mother just passed 5 months ago and I wished we could have enjoyed this movie together one more time. I know when I do see it again, these 40 years later, I will be transported back to the lazy summer afternoon with the curtains pulled and my beautiful Mother sitting on the couch behind me (I was on the floor on my stomach with chin propped on hands.) In fact, I think I'll grab my daughter as ask her to join me. It is truly a classic.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I was searching around for anything on this beautiful movie...and here you are.
I am always stunned by a common experience with strangers...when you think you are the only one to have it. Here I was a few days ago, forcing my 5 year old to sit on the couch and for the first time, watch this movie through with me. At the end, I said "can we sit together sometimes and watch this." I know he doesn't understand it, just as I didn't initially when I watched it with my mum (who passed this last year).
And here are at least 2 people who have had a mirror experience.
Beautiful, touching comment on your mum that brought tears to my eyes.
Marie, Perth Western Australia