Known both as a dopey romance and as a cult film, The Enchanted Cottage has Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire (as Oliver Bradford and Laura Pennington) get together. Oliver, a disfigured war vet, and Laura, a plain girl working as a maid, aren’t doing so well with the cards they’re dealt. Thanks to his injury, Oliver’s been jilted by fiancee Beatrice (Hillary Brooke).
Major Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall) narrates the story, taking place in landlady Abigail Minnett’s (Mildred Natwick’s) cottage. Let’s just call it at least a country home, if not a mansion. The calendar says 1917, but it’s ’41. Laura pops up to speak with John–his little nephew says she looks “homely.” Not nice. She inquires of Abigail about a job and place to stay. It’s a done deal. Abigail talks to her about lonliness, emphasizing, by the way, that the place isn’t haunted.
Oliver and Beatrice arrive to take residence. Again they talk about the cottage’s haunted status–she prefers to say “enchanted.” Abigail has a distant look about her. Anyway, the war puts off Oliver and Beatrice’s wedding; and of course, delays their spell at the cottage. Laura gets an outside job in an Army canteen.
So, she gets thrown into a Halloween dance at the base. Well, placed into it, like a potted plant. She’s so anxious that she leaves. Abigail tells her “It’s not for some of us…to live like other people.” They’re definitely like peas in a pod. Oliver sends a message that he’s coming. By Abigail’s reaction, there’s something wrong–for one thing, there’s no Beatrice. Actually, she shows up later with his parents, Violet and Freddy (Spring Boyington and Richard Gaines), but he doesn’t want to see them.
“We can be married right away” she says. And she does know about his injury. A dark-and-stormy-night. As facial scars go, it’s not so bad; looks like a knife wound, his right arm is messed-up too. Laura does manage to penetrate his protective seclusion; true to her inherent decency, she doesn’t even react to the way he looks. Soon they’re talking about her woodcut art. He feels “locked up in a glass bottle.”
Time for John to show up, with the nephew and dog. More ‘feelings’ about the cottage, as he and Laura talk. Why not just put up a sign saying ‘historic enchanted place’? He and Oliver, of course, have a lot in common, both war victims. John relates that he has “invisible eyes” that “see things as they really are.” This is a good scene–the older guy’s at peace with himself, the younger one can’t yet accept the way he is.
Now, at least, he’s got John and Laura. Not so fast: bad news. Must be that Beatrice up to no good. Of course, Laura, do-gooder that she is, traipses after him. The news is about his parents. Strangely, they’re going to force themselves on him, one way or the other, like he’s helpless. His reaction is bold: he proposes to Laura. She sees the utterly cynical aspect of it: “I don’t want to be your wife just because you need one.” But it makes sense for her too–she’s comfortable with him.
Done deal. After the wedding, John comes around, or, rather is summoned. It’s about the…cottage. They think that they’ve changed, physically. A little flashback to their wedding night–wherein Oliver feels guilty; coincidentally, so does Laura. They both think they’ve married for selfish reasons. Now this is interesting. She’s beautiful (and not just ‘cleans up good’), and he’s…Well, she’s Cinderella, and he’s not too shabby. He does seem slightly less disfigured.
More strangely, they think the ghosts (not that there’s any haunting here, remember) of the cottage’s former happy couples have cursed them with an indeterminate happiness. John says the obvious, non-paranoid thing–that if they’re happy, just enjoy it. Having been more or less uptight, if not unhappy, for so long, it’s literally as though they need to discover and believe in happiness.
Oh man, they’ve even got to inviting his parents. Are they going to put a hex on the happy couple? Well, they sure try to. John seeks to ‘explain’ to the folks the ‘transformation.’ Why? What’s the mystery? And, what’s with mom’s reaction, as though Oliver is worse off now. Her to Laura: “It won’t be necessary to see people” Abigail tells Laura and Oliver that (big secret of The Enchanted Cottage) “you love each other.”
The world record for using the word ‘love’ in a film? Maybe, but shards of disbelief are strewn all over. This movie has a simple, but very unique take on a well-known bit of emotional health–that love helps makes people feel better. But then, not satisfied with congratulating itself for being so heart-warming (which it is, even for this cynic), it sets about undercutting its point with assiduous care. I can’t see why John keeps thinking that Laura and Oliver are ‘weirdos’ or whatnot.
And the mom. She’s the weird one. A classic narcissistic personality who wants to control her son (and his wife) by demeaning both of them, so she can ‘help’. This is a deep topic that controls the whole plot, but it’s never discussed by Laura and Oliver. John even seems to be infected by this implicit put down, at least in the final parental visit. Abigail is the only one who maintains what is correct; the couple is just a couple in love, like any other. There’s nothing different about them that would segregate them from reality.
The other problem here is the over-hyped aura of the danged cottage. For the first part of the movie, it seems that it’s the main character. Of course, in some genres (horror, mystery, film noir) houses, or buildings in general, do make good, even key ‘characters.’ But The Enchanted Cottage never really commits itself. The jibber-jabber about the cottage doesn’t do any more than sell it as a B&B (see Farmermouse comment below). It’s not an Old Dark House, and neither is it a love-nest.
It would be better to have an overtly gothic element, Jane Eyre style, or just skip the domestic doo-dads entirely by having an urban flat or boarding-house. In other words, either a horror or romantic atmosphere; but not a tentative ‘enchanted’ place in between. There’s three strands here that don’t really mesh: the beautiful romance, the fantasy aspect of the cottage, and the suffocating mother.
An entertaining, even captivating movie that is compromised by an uneven tone and atmosphere. Farmermouse loves any movie with a tea party (“wait till you try the scones” indeed). He gives this six wood cuts. 6/10.