The delightful 1945 romantic fantasy The Enchanted Cottage was first recommended to me by one of my favorite grad school professors (hi, Dr. Riley!). There were only three of us in this particular class, and we were flung together for three long hours every Wednesday afternoon, so a sense of easy camaraderie developed. There were many times when we found ourselves discussing topics completely unrelated to graduate-level English research (and thank God for that … believe me when I say there are fewer topics so dry and lifeless). This film, which Dr. Riley proclaimed one of his favorites, was one I had never even heard of, so when it came on TCM several weeks after his declaration, I sat down to watch it. And I’m glad I did, because it has since become one of my favorite films, too.
The Enchanted Cottage stars Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire as Oliver and Laura, two people who are hiding away from the world for very different reasons. Laura, a plain, homely-looking young woman, takes a job as a maid for the isolated titular cottage, which is situated on the grounds of a burned-out estate. The cottage had long been a hideaway for young honeymooning couples (all of whom have etched their names on the glass windows over the past hundred years), and its owner, Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick), agrees to rent it to Oliver and his fiancée, Beatrice (Hillary Brooke), who are soon to be wed. Before Oliver and Beatrice can marry and move in to their new home, however, Oliver is drafted into the war. And when he finally returns to the cottage a year later, he is alone. His face disfigured and his spirit deflated, Oliver refuses to see Beatrice or his family, including his nosy, persistent mother, Violet (Spring Byington). An understanding and kind Laura, along with a new friendship with a blind musician, John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), help the despairing Oliver understand that his life is far from over. When Oliver and Laura, out of a shared sense of desperation and loneliness, eventually marry, they discover the magical nature of their little honeymoon cottage, and their marriage of convenience becomes one of true love.
This is such a beautiful story on a multitude of levels. It’s not merely a story about the magical influence of love—though it makes a powerful statement to that regard—but it is also about the beauty of acceptance. Oliver and Laura are, to the outside world, mangled and homely, unworthy of a second look by our perfection-obsessed culture. But in the cottage, where the outside world has no influence and, indeed, no meaning, they are exquisite creatures, for the inner beauty of their souls is reflected in one another’s eyes. And who but the hardest hearts among us can resist a simple, yet profoundly moving story such as this?
On a darker level, in addition to its attempts to underscore the proverbial idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, The Enchanted Cottage also serves as a bleak reminder of the price that is sometimes exacted from people in the name of serving their country. The original play, written by Englishman Arthur Wing Pinero in 1923, dealt with the trouble facing disabled veterans returning home from World War I. Pinero’s play had been filmed once before, for a 1924 silent production starring Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy (which you can view on YouTube, though the quality is not all that great). But in adapting the story for the newer version, producer Harriet Parsons (daughter of notorious gossip columnist Louella) updated the time period to the 1940s to better reflect the immediacy of the soon-to-end Second World War; in fact, The Enchanted Cottage was released in theaters less than two weeks before V-E Day.
The play’s theme about the struggles of former soldiers to adapt to “normalcy” in the wake of war proved to be just as important a message two decades later, as young servicemen and women returned en masse from the battlefront with scars, missing limbs, and broken memories, sometimes to the abject horror of those they had left behind. A series of films with such messages were released in the subsequent months after peace was declared—most notably, 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which so excellently portrayed the numerous difficulties faced by veterans after the war. While Lives naturally takes a much more realistic look at the trope of the returning soldier, films like Cottage nonetheless provide an intriguing and truthful glimpse at the horrific aftereffects of war. Though the reactions of Beatrice and his parents to Oliver’s newly-deformed visage may seem overly exaggerated in the context of the overarching, fanciful plot, they actually are not far off from the reactions faced by some wounded soldiers whose triumphant homecomings were soured by heartrending cruelty, indifference, or fear from their family, friends, and acquaintances.
Admittedly, Young is not one of my favorite actors. It’s not entirely his fault, as he was generally relegated to B-level pictures throughout his career, never really getting an opportunity to expand his talents on screen (though, like fellow B-movie star Lucille Ball, Young found great success—and the greatest use for his light comedic talent—on television, particularly in the 1950s series Father Knows Best). But The Enchanted Cottage provides Young with one of the few truly interesting parts in his film career. He is wonderful as Oliver, perfectly balancing the character’s bitterness at the turn in his fortunes and his growing respect and love for the homely young maid. McGuire, though not entirely believable as a frump even with a multitude of shapeless dresses and a serious lack of makeup, is nonetheless charming in only the third film role of her career (and the second in which she co-starred with Young—the first being her debut in 1943’s Claudia). Supporting characters Natwick and Marshall nearly steal the show, particularly the former as the crusty yet ultimately caring landlady who knows the cottage’s secret. The latter, playing the part of the wise and kindly blind pianist, performs a gorgeous piano concerto written by composer Roy Webb, who earned his seventh (and final) Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for the film. And Byington, always a welcome presence in her many supporting roles, effectively plays against type as Oliver’s overbearing and selfishly judgmental mother.
Overall, The Enchanted Cottage is a lovely, romantic little gem of a movie. It’s a fairy tale for us grown folks—fantasy, yes, but with a grain of pure and simple honesty at the heart of it. For whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, we all want to be loved for who we are more than anything else, and it’s a lucky pair, like Oliver and Laura, who can recognize—and celebrate—the inner beauty in one another. That is the “true” nature of “true” love, after all.