Silver Screen Standards: The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
There are many grander, more glamorous romances to choose from, but when I think of a romantic classic movie I very often think of The Enchanted Cottage (1945), in which two lonely people learn that beauty truly does lie in the eyes of the beholder. Directed by John Cromwell and adapted from the 1922 stage play by Arthur Wing Pinero, the 1945 film version stars Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young as the lovers learning to see one another with new eyes, with memorable supporting performances from Herbert Marshall, Mildred Natwick, and Spring Byington. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s a story about getting past imperfections to love the spirit within, and the spirit of The Enchanted Cottage is lovely, yearning, and kind, just like the heart of its heroine.
McGuire plays that heroine, a shy, plain girl named Laura Pennington, who returns to her native village after life with relatives in the city fails to work out. She gets a job and a home with Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick), the widow who owns the cottage and supports herself by renting it out to newlyweds as a honeymoon retreat. The couple who plan to use it are Oliver Bradford (Robert Young) and his elegant fiancée, Beatrice (Hillary Brooke), but Oliver is called away to fly in World War II before they wed, and the engagement ends after he is wounded and disfigured in combat. Oliver takes up residence at the cottage in order to hide from the world and his obnoxious family, but he is slowly drawn out of his misery by the friendship of a blind pianist (Herbert Marshall) and the patient, generous Laura.
One of the things I like so much about The Enchanted Cottage is the small stage on which the events take place. It’s a quiet, intimate story revolving around two damaged people, even though big issues like the war loom in its background. You can feel its roots as a stage play in the limited settings, consisting primarily of the cottage itself. As much as I love the grand European tours and luxury cruises of other classic romances, I understand that the protagonists of those movies inhabit a world of privilege far beyond the reach of most people, just as the glamorous stars embody a physical beauty that few can ever realize. This is not a love story about beautiful people in Paris, as charming as that might be. Instead, it’s a love story about two broken people who might be anybody, anywhere, at almost any time, which ironically gives it a universality that a grander romance often lacks. There are always plain girls pining for a second glance as the young men rush by, and there are always young men turning away from the world that hurt them to nurse their wounds in bitterness and solitude. The magic happens when two people like that find one another and realize that they can have something wonderful if they’ll just take the chance.
Each of the key players understands the deeper emotions at work in the characters, which helps the mostly quiet performances resonate with the audience. Dorothy McGuire is certainly too beautiful to be truly plain, but Laura’s bad haircut, frumpy clothes, and bare face strip her of any hint of glamor and make us believe in the abiding loneliness of the shy wallflower. The scene at the canteen dance, when the eager soldiers would rather stand around than dance with Laura, is especially heartbreaking. There’s a troubling equation of Laura’s plainness with Oliver’s scars, suggesting that a woman who isn’t pretty is the same as a man who is literally disfigured, but the anguish that Oliver feels is never in doubt. Although Robert Young gets to indulge in the occasional self-pitying outburst, we do feel intense sympathy for his suffering, more so perhaps in his moments of quiet despair than in his angry attempts to drive people away. Mrs. Minnett and the pianist, John Hillgrove, serve as foils to Laura and Oliver and provide further insight into the workings of the human heart. Mildred Natwick invests the widow with the self-control born of life-shattering grief held very close, but we see how her efforts to help Laura and Oliver slowly heal her long-broken heart and bring joy back into her life. Herbert Marshall, while not actually blind, brings absolute truth to his role as a WWI veteran who understands Oliver’s pain because Marshall lost a leg in the first World War. While it wasn’t exactly a secret to the public, Marshall’s prosthetic limb also wasn’t often mentioned, but in this particular role, Marshall has an understanding of the situation that very few other actors could possess. Only Spring Byington has a truly thankless role as Oliver’s noisy, fussy, insensitive mother; she’s so good at being awful that we’re relieved to see so little of her.
I won’t talk much about the enchantment that supposedly hangs over the cottage or the third act’s twists because I don’t want to spoil those scenes for first-time viewers, but the ending manages to fulfill the fairy tale promise without putting such happiness out of reach for real people. It’s a lovely and refreshing departure from the usual Cinderella story or magical deus ex machina one gets in so many similar tales. If you’re in the mood for more classic romances for ordinary people, pair The Enchanted Cottage with Marty (1955), or try The Spiral Staircase (1946) for another of my favorite Dorothy McGuire performances. The 1945 film is the second of three adaptations of the original play thus far; the first, from 1924, stars Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy, while a 2016 version stars Paul D. Masterson and Sarah Navratil. The reviews for the newest adaptation are terrible, but it’s on Amazon Prime if you love the 1945 version and are sufficiently curious.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.