The Magic of the Enchanted Cottage
The Enchanted Cottage
1 hrs. 31 mins Drama, Fantasy, Romance 1945 7.5 stars
Director: John Cromwell
Cast: Dorothy McGuire - Laura Pennington
Robert Young - Oliver Bradford
Herbert Marshall - Major John Hillgrove
Mildred Natwick - Mrs. Abigail Minnette
Spring Byington - Violet Price
Hillary Brooke - Beatrice Alexander
Richard Gaines - Frederick “Freddy” Price
Alec Englander - Danny “Taxi” Stanton
Josephine Whittell - Canteen Manager
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie
Synopsis Part I
A Major John Hillgrove (played by Herbert Marshall) narrates the story as he performs a piano piece he has written about the tale we are about to see. The very early parts of the movie focus on the history of the cottage. It had been a wing of a much greater mansion the rest of which had been destroyed by fire long ago. Hillgrove is a pianist, a composer and a performer who is blind. He has written a musical piece to go along with and accompany this story. The movie is not a musical, but this merely serves as a device in which to present the tale.
The cottage is set upon the New England coast and it is occupied by Mrs. Minnette (played by Mildred Natwick). She has put a call out to Laura Pennington (played by Dorothy McGuire) to be a housemaid for the cottage. As Laura approaches the cottage she meets Hillgrove and his nephew, Danny. Because of John’s blindness he takes Danny along as a guide and he therefore sometimes refers to him as “Taxi”. After exchanging pleasantries of introduction Laura continues into the house. Danny, however, informs his uncle that though Laura is very pleasant to talk with she is awfully homely. John rebuffs him for saying such a thing.
Inside the cottage Mrs. Minnette interviews Laura and finds her acceptable for the work. Mrs. Minnette was particularly worried that Laura would believe the cottage to be haunted being as it is very old and there were rumors. Laura did not believe it to be haunted which was good because that would have been a deal-breaker. Mrs. Minnette hired her on the spot and Laura’s room and board were included; she was to start immediately.
There was a young couple coming in the afternoon to check the cottage out as a honeymoon location; they were soon to be married. The couple, Oliver Bradford (played by Robert Young) and Beatrice Alexander (played by Hillary Brooke) arrived just as the interview concluded and Laura hastened to her duties.
Laura spoke to Oliver about several items in the house displaying knowledge about its history. She had grown up in the area and knew of all the legends within the old cottage. There were names etched onto one of the windows, names of lovers who had been there in previous years. Oliver attempted to add his and Beatrice’s name, but the diamond setting on the ring broke off, and he was unable to do so. At seeing this attempt Mrs. Minnette was taken aback.
Oliver and Beatrice depart. As a time stamp, Laura happens to mention that it is December 7th, 1941 and in the next scene we learn that Oliver has been asked to report for duty in the military, because the United States has just declared war.
Laura, against the advice of Mrs. Minnette, gets a job at the local canteen washing dishes. The manager strongly encourages her to mingle and enjoy herself, go out and dance with the soldiers who are there for entertainment. But as she sits there it becomes increasingly obvious that she is passed up for every dance. The men are completely disinterested and she notices it too especially as some of the men are very obvious with their disinterest. The sting of rejection rises up in her to where it is overwhelming and she leaves in tears to retreat back to the safety of the cottage. In consolation at this time Mrs. Minnette hints that the cottage holds something special for her.
Oliver and Beatrice Check Out the Cottage
Synopsis Part II
Oliver Bradford returns to the cottage having been injured during the war – it is approximately one year later. He is alone and wants to stay at the cottage to convalesce. His injury has disfigured him. Most notably there is a large scar across his check, his right arm appears to be crippled and his mouth sags. He feels rejected by his family and has broken off his engagement with Beatrice. In this cottage he hopes to be left alone to sort out who or what he now is.
His family comes to the cottage to talk with him, but he refuses to meet with them. He won’t even talk with Beatrice when she speaks to him through the bedroom door.
After they leave Oliver decides that the best course of action would be to take his own life. He takes a revolver out of the drawer, but at that moment Laura is bringing tea to him. She sees what is happening and quickly stops him.
Sometime later Laura is out by a tree working on a hobby of hers – wood engraving and tells him about the need to develop a hobby. Loners need hobbies to pass the time. Shortly after that John comes by to meet Oliver. They have a one on one talk. Ordinarily Oliver wouldn’t want to meet any new people because of his disfigurement and his self-consciousness about that, but he is put to ease by John’s blindness. He comforts Oliver by saying that his blindness was the result of an injury he sustained in the First World War. John says essentially the same thing that Laura said about developing a hobby. John says to him, “You’re a person, not a case.” After a while Oliver is doing better and is comfortable with Laura and Mrs. Minnette and has developed a strong friendship with John. But his newfound peace is shattered by a letter he receives from his mother and step father – they are coming to take him away from the cottage and may institutionalize him. He confides his dilemma to Laura, and then asks her to marry him. They each find themselves repulsive, but they see redeeming qualities in each other. Laura agrees to the marriage, though Oliver hates himself, in hindsight, for making such a selfish suggestion.
They marry and continue to live in the cottage. The newlywed couple begins to notice that their appearances change. Laura ceases to be homely and becomes beautiful and Oliver’s scars disappear and he regains full use of his crippled right arm. In short order they realize that as lovers the cottage has made them whole and attractive.
Oliver invites his folks to come and see the change so that they could rejoice in this miracle with them. But when Mrs. Minnette hears that they are coming she is startled and she drops what she’s working on in the kitchen. She has a worried look on her face also John comes to the cottage to help deal with what’s about to happen. Oliver’s clueless and insensitive parents arrive and the happy couple prepares a nice tea for them. The festivity is spoiled by an inadvertent admission by Oliver’s mother that she sees no change at all and she cries and then departs.
Oliver and Laura are dumbfounded and crestfallen. It is then that they learn from Mrs. Minnette that the enchantment of the cottage is only for these two to perceive. Their ‘sight gift’ as John calls it is for them alone. Mrs. Minnette also has not seen the change they’ve perceived amongst themselves, but she is aware of it.
The disappointment that Oliver and Laura feel soon vanishes as they realize, and as Mrs. Minnette points out, that their perception of each other is really all that matters. With their happiness restored they join the many that had gone before them in etching their names on the window.
In the final scene they arrive at the piano recital John is giving in their honor.
Oliver and Laura as the World Sees Them
Analysis Part I
Mention is made early on that the cottage is not haunted. In fact that was one of the few interview questions that Mrs. Minnette asked of Laura. There is an important distinction to be made between enchantment and haunting. This is not a ghost story, but more of a magical tale. Laura’s answer to this question was satisfactory and the interview continued, but Mrs. Minnette had already decided that she wanted Laura for the position before Laura even arrived for the interview; Mrs. Minnette had invited her, after all. Mrs. Minnette was a reclusive older woman who was widowed when her husband was off fighting in the First World War and the rumors amongst the youngsters around town that she was an ugly old witch were completely untrue. She knew Laura from the past and that she had been away but had recently returned to this, her home town. As young Danny informs his blind uncle, John, and by extension us, Laura is homely. Laura had a thorough knowledge of the cottage and the legends surrounding it and these are the qualities that attracted Mrs. Minnette’s attention, homeliness and knowledge about the cottage. Additionally, Laura was an eager worker, her job duties started immediately at the conclusion of the interview. In addition to a job Mrs. Minnette gave her room and board.
Mrs. Minnette appeared to have an otherworldly relationship with the cottage. She knew that Laura was the right and only person for the job. She knew that the cottage would and did change Laura’s life for the better and she knew the same was true of Oliver. What’s more, John Hillgrove knew the enchantment of the cottage as well. How?
Mrs. Minnette lived in the cottage for decades. She has been there since her husband was killed in World War I, the same war, incidentally in which John Hillgrove was wounded causing him to lose his sight. The movie makes no overt attempt to link those tragedies, but it is curious that Minnette and Hillgrove both have a sense or knowledge that the cottage is arranging the romance of Oliver and Laura. Early on we see that Oliver’s attempt to etch his and Beatrice’s names onto the window is thwarted by the breaking of the setting of the ring. We are also able to see the alarm in the eyes of Mrs. Minnette when this happens. She either knew ahead of time or this event told her that Oliver and Beatrice would not marry. Though the cottage has no perceptible personality nevertheless it plays a central role in the plot.
Major Hillgrove, like Mrs. Minnette, perceives what the cottage is doing, but vaguely. No concrete explanation is given as to what he knows or how he knows it, but he does mention that along with the loss of his sight he gained an enhancement of his other senses and that in many ways he “sees” better now than he did with his sight.
Oliver comes back to the cottage about a year after he first visited with Beatrice. During that intervening year he was injured when his plane was shot down in the war Hillgrove’s injury also a downed plane.
Oliver has recuperated in a hospital and has now left there. He has an immobile arm, a drooping mouth and a scar from his ear to his mouth. The sight of himself in the mirror repulses him. Not visible but much more serious are the emotional scars he bears. He sequesters himself away from his family and away from his fiancée, Beatrice. He can’t bear to be seen by her. He does not feel as ashamed of his appearance around Laura. This is for two reasons. First his relationship with Laura is a professional one; she is room service and maid. Secondly, and more importantly, she is homely. He sees her and immediately categorizes himself as being in her league. It is upon this weird negativity that he allows himself to be friendly with her. Likewise it’s the fact that John Hillgrove is blind that enables Oliver to permit himself to be friendly with him. John is aware of this and is able to use it to good purpose. The friendship from John and Laura bring Oliver out of his despondency, but it’s a long process.
Their Tranformation Can't Be Seen by Others
Analysis Part II
Laura’s issues are also deeply personal and in the same way as Oliver’s they deal with a disappointment regarding personal appearance and the resulting value she places on herself as a person, what we would today call self-esteem or self-worth. There are two major differences between Oliver’s and Laura’s self-opinions. The first is that Oliver’s problems involve a debilitation (like John’s, incidentally) and so his functionality is limited. Laura has no such disability. The second difference is that Oliver’s problems were of a sudden-onset nature. He knows, experientially, what it’s like to be whole and handsome and he has fallen from the high pinnacle that it creates, a pinnacle he doesn’t fully realize exists until it is taken away. He has sustained a great loss. But Laura has always been homely; she has never been on that pinnacle apart from the dreams she must have had. In both of them there is great personal pain.
One of the greatest lines in the entire movie is when John Hillgrove says to Oliver, “You’re a person, not a case.” This helps Oliver to see that though his body is injured his personhood is not. He has value as a human being and Oliver desperately needs to realize this.
When Oliver and Laura realize that the cottage has arranged it so that they are beautiful to each other Mrs. Minnette utters another great line. Though her husband died years ago and she has aged considerably she states that if he were to come back from the grave and see her now, “I would be pretty to him, pretty to him.”
The movie tries to teach us that physical perception is shaped by the heart, a godly quality, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. (I Samuel 16:7b NIV)
Oliver and Laura are not being superficial; they’re human beings; they want attraction, but they lack attractiveness. The cottage compensates for that disparity.
Please, take note of how the camera shows their different appearances during the scene where Oliver’s parents come to visit. When the camera perspective shows Oliver looking at Laura, or Laura looking at Oliver we are shown their perspective and we see wholeness and beauty, but when in the same scene the camera angle shows someone else’s perspective we see the harsh reality of their true appearance.
The movie shows us that with Laura, Oliver and even John the heart see more accurately than the eyes.