The Enchanted Cottage

Dir: John Cromwell, 1945. Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Robert Young, Herbert Marshall. Classics.
The Enchanted Cottage
If you are impervious to the charms of a sentimental love story beautifully told and with ravishingly romantic art direction then please click away at once! For who could deny the simple pleasures of a small film about love filled with such strange charms? The Enchanted Cottage is hardly a work of great art for the ages but by some mysterious combination of good acting, gorgeous cinematography, and just the right amount of bewitching weirdness it manages to transcend its Hollywood cornball trappings and become a minor kind of classic—one that says something profound about love as being both simple and eternally mysterious.

The film opens at an evening gathering of sophisticated middle-aged Waspish types in a Massachusetts mansion where the guests are all gathered in the living room of the host. A blind pianist with a beautifully cultivated accent (Herbert Marshall) is regaling the assembled guests with the story of how his two friends, Oliver and Laura, fell in love before he performs the new piece inspired by them. As he begins performing the piece we flash back to the first meeting of the two and the role that a cottage, an enchanted cottage, played in the story of their falling in love.

A cottage overlooking the sea in Massachusetts has sat there for hundreds of years and in that time a strange legend has grown up around it. It seems that the cottage casts a spell on every couple who inhabit it and that they find true, everlasting love by virtue of living there and having the house work its magic. A meek, homely young woman named Laura (Dorothy McGuire) arrives to take a job as an assistant housekeeper there. Her unattractiveness is mentioned throughout the story though it’s the kind of attribute rendered with excessive shadows and a bad haircut rather than genuine homeliness on Dorothy McGuire’s part. A couple to be married come to take a look at the cottage and hear about the legend from its rather severe-in-manner housekeeper. Before they get married and honeymoon, Oliver (played by Robert Young) will be going off to fight in WW2. But weeks later the plane that he was piloting is shot down and, though he survives, he is left with disfiguring scars.

After his discharge Oliver calls off the engagement to his fiancé and retreats to the cottage he had already reserved to brood in the darkness of his room. While living there he starts to warm up and becomes friends with the assistant housekeeper and soon their friendship blossoms into love but not before some peculiar plot twists occur. Up until now the story has some similarities with the plot of Jane Eyre—a plain melancholic girl and a soulful though bitter man find love—but The Enchanted Cottage has some unique differences. Oliver and Laura initially agree to marry more out of convenience than anything as they’re both pretty lonely. But soon the house works its magic and both become beautiful to each other. She loses her homeliness and he loses his scars and his smile returns. Are we in the presence of spirits? Possibly but they mean to enchant not to haunt. Still, there is a fine line between being enchanted and being haunted and it’s to the film’s credit that these ambiguities are allowed to stay less than clear within the story.

As Oliver and Laura’s love and happiness grow they are eager to share it with their friends and families.  But instead of rejoicing in their son’s newfound happiness Oliver’s mother and step-dad pity him. They see Oliver and Laura to an extent as lonely grotesques cut off from society living in a house of delusion rather than one of enchantment that nurtures their relationship. As a contrast to Oliver and Laura they seem aloof, insincere, and not terribly happy. But neighbor, and aforementioned blind pianist, John Hilgrove (Herbert Walker) and the housekeeper of the cottage (Mildred Natwick) both are moved by the way the house works its spell on these two lonely souls and they become their champions as well as their protectors.

The Enchanted Cottage
is a very strange film. You won’t find it easily (it’s only available through Warner Archives) but it’s a moving love story with a poetic quality that calls to mind the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the supernatural romanticism of the Val Lewton-produced Curse of the Cat People.


Posted by:
Jed Leland
Sep 21, 2011 5:14pm
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