Thursday, December 21, 2006
THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945)
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.