|Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young 'feel pretty' when they're in 'The Enchanted Cottage.'
One way to look at 1945’s The Enchanted Cottage is pure Hollywood golden era fantasy. Another way—beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder—is that the film’s message is timeless.
The British government commissioned playwright Sir Arthur Wing Pinero to write The Enchanted Cottage, to uplift WWI’s returning soldiers, after many men returned home physically and emotionally shattered. First a play, then a silent movie, The Enchanted Cottage was remade two decades later for WWII audiences, with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young.
|Dorothy McGuire as lonely Laura Pennington looks on at the cottage's latest lovebirds, Beatrice and Oliver.
Oliver Bradford brings his lovely fiancée, Beatrice, to a cottage where honeymooners once nested, on the New England coast. The tradition was broken 25 years earlier when the last groom died tragically; the bride is now the cottage’s taciturn owner/housekeeper, Mrs. Minnett. The current couple's plans are put on hold when Oliver is sent off to war after the Pearl Harbor attack. Tragedy strikes when he is injured and left disfigured. His lovely bride-to-be bails and Oliver later arrives alone at the cottage.
|Mildred Natwick and Dorothy McGuire as the lonely housekeeper and maid, keepers of the cottage.
The soldier meets the housekeeper's maid, Laura Pennington, a girl with a homely face and the heart of a romantic. They bond and Oliver proposes. Sadly, Laura is more in love than Oliver; for him, it's a marriage of convenience. Yet, on their honeymoon, he sees past his self-pity and realizes how loving Laura is. Miraculously, they begin to appear physically beautiful to each other. Laura attributes this to the enchanted cottage. Hedging their bets, they keep to themselves, not wanting to jinx their good fortune. Finally, the newlyweds decide to face his parents. Their sympathetic pianist pal, Major Hillgrove, who is blind, tries to warn the visiting family. However, Oliver's childish mother and boorish stepfather react badly, breaking the couple's romantic spell. Oliver and Laura are crushed. The housekeeper passionately tells them that their love for each other is what makes them beautiful, not the cottage. They realize that she is right, and the newlyweds renew their bond.
|Robert Young & Dorothy McGuire are Oliver and Laura, who see each other's inner beauty.
Cottage hosts a small but stellar cast: Robert Young, who found later renewed fame on TV in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, was an intelligent leading man whose unmannered work looks better to modern audiences’ eyes. Young plays charmingly cheerful and later bitter and disillusioned equally well. Interestingly, this was Robert Young's favorite film, for its romantic message, and later told Leonard Maltin that he didn't want filming to end.
|Herbert Marshall is the blind pianist who befriends the reclusive couple.
Herbert Marshall, with that mellifluous voice, is the perfect storyteller here and as usual, plays with authority. Though blind, his character has more of a clue than the others. It’s ironic that Herbert Marshall himself was an English WWI veteran who lost a leg in service.
Spring Byington is a scene stealer as the shallow, clueless chatterbox mother. Byington gives Billie Burke a run for her money in the flighty department here. Hillary Brooke manages to remain sympathetic as Beatrice, the beauty who leaves the soldier after his injuries leave him scarred.
|Mildred Natwick is a standout as the heartbroken housekeeper.
Mildred Natwick deserved a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role as the brusque housekeeper with a broken heart. Natwick’s big scene, when Mrs. Minnett tells the new couple the true secret of the cottage, is moving and beautifully performed.
|Dorothy McGuire gives a soulful performance as the homely maid with a beautiful heart.
However, the jewel in the crown is Dorothy McGuire. A popular star in her day, Dorothy should have been even bigger. Amazingly, McGuire did not receive an Oscar nomination for her soulful performance as lovelorn Laura, nor for her tough tenement mother Katie Dolan, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—both released in 1945. Perhaps that’s because McGuire was under contract to producer David Selznick, and not to RKO or Fox respectively, as all studios encouraged their blocs of voters to support their own stars. Selznick star Jennifer Jones had recently snagged an Oscar at Fox for The Song of Bernadette—but she was his protégée and future wife. While 1945 was Joan Crawford’s year for Mildred Pierce, a number of the other nominees were Hollywood’s perennial pet nominees, and Dorothy should have made the cut. As Cottage’s Laura Pennington, McGuire is as soft and gentle as she was tough and hurting as Tree’s Katie Nolan. The scene at the canteen, when no soldier will ask the homely housekeeper to dance, is a reverse-Cinderella moment where she doesn’t become the belle of the ball, and is a classic tearjerker moment. McGuire reminds me of Eva Marie Saint—an appealing, classy, smart leading lady who was perhaps too “normal” to be a larger than life movie diva.
|The dreamy photography of 'The Enchanted Cottage' softens Robert Young's & Dorothy McGuire's harsh looks.
My one quibble: From today’s viewpoint, Laura is hardly hideous, and Oliver's scars and limp arm aren’t very horrifying. But for a '40s film, when beauty and perfection were everything, McGuire and Young gamely present themselves as imperfect. McGuire's pain at being rejected is palpable, and Young's self-pity at no longer being perfect and carefree is realistic.
What makes The Enchanted Cottage work is the taste level of everyone involved. Director John Cromwell was always terrific with actors. He was also a strong storyteller and very adult in the handling of material. Of Human Bondage, In Name Only, and Caged come to mind, where he shows strong emotions without going over the top.
|'The Enchanted Cottage' is both haunting and a honeymooners' haven!
The Enchanted Cottage’s score and tone poem for Robert and Laura was created by Roy Webb, who received the film's sole Oscar nomination. The cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff is soft focus perfection. The score and photography together create a romantic atmosphere in which this dream-like story is played out. The nearly poetic screenplay was written by DeWitt Bodeen and Citizen Kane’s Herman Mankiewicz.
A remake of The Enchanted Cottage has been discussed several times. First, in the early '70s, there was talk of McGuire and Young playing the older roles of the housekeeper and pianist. That fell through when Dorothy, after a screening, declared the story a product of its time. I think in terms of the story—if not the sentiments—McGuire was right. In the mid-1970s, Cher wanted to get into movies, starting with a remake of Cottage, a project she pursued for years. She owned the rights twice! Other great stars like Streisand, Midler, and Spielberg have remade their favorites, A Star is Born, Stella (as in Dallas), and Always (A Guy Named Joe). Sometimes, it's better just to watch your film faves and not remake them in your image.
|Dorothy McGuire's Cinderella gone wrong moment, when the canteen hostess gets her to go dance with the soldiers.
I noticed in research for The Enchanted Cottage some people feel that the message of the movie is that unattractive people need to hide away. I’m not sure why, because the film’s final scenes are clear. Once the couple's spell is broken by family members, the housekeeper tells them the truth, and declares that their love is what makes them beautiful to one another. Alone, Oliver and Laura talk it over, and reaffirm their love. They then write their names on the cottage's glass panes like past newlyweds. The film ends with the couple joining the pianist and his guests at a dinner party, ending their seclusion.
|Eventually, Oliver and Laura's names join the other newlyweds' names on the cottage's window panes.
The other complaint is confusion over the film’s POV, when the couple shows off their “new” selves. It’s simple: the damaged soldier and homely girl appear the way to whoever is looking at them. When the husband is looking at his bride, she is beautiful. When the stepfather listens to their story, he sees their actual appearance. Once the couple realizes that there is no miracle, they see their actual themselves. When Oliver and Laura reaffirm their love, they're beautiful again. To nitpickers, I think they just confirm the film's message about people seeing what they want to see!
The real charm of The Enchanted Cottage is that it is one of the most genuinely romantic movies ever. For a studio era movie, it’s quite subtle. This film may be a product of its time, but it’s also timeless.
|Here's my own little 'enchanted cottage' in Upper Michigan!