Many film fans wrestle with the topic of movie remakes. I fought the idea until I realized that some of my favorite films are remakes. (Another version of “Jane Eyre”? Yes, please.) Sometimes they work – and work very well. Other times, they aren’t successful. It seems to only be fair to give them a chance then – even if it takes you a while.
From the first time I watched the 1945 film “The Enchanted Cottage,” I fell so deeply under its spell that I remember thinking it could never be remade. It’s not for everyone – especially in today’s cynical world. It’s so unabashedly sentimental and fantastical that it’s understandable if it’s too much for some, but on an emotional level, it was perfect for me.
Why that one of all movies? Why not “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” or another film so extraordinary or beloved that talk of a remake would be universally bashed? Why would I pick this lovely, but little film that isn’t well known except in classic movie circles?
It’s as simple as its sweet title. This enchanting story works through the lens of a fairy tale that is very much of a time gone by. It’s about a disfigured war veteran and “homely” young woman who heal together through the magic of a cottage. The black and white film is colored by shadows and candlelight, lending it a dreamy look that casts the viewer under a spell. It is the embodiment of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” not a phrase the modern world fully embraces judging by our preoccupation with youth serums, injections and anti-aging treatments.
About three years ago, a film called “The Enchanted Cottage” popped up on Amazon Prime. Hoping it was just a film with the same name, I watched the trailer and realized it was definitely a remake. I didn’t have the heart to watch.
Then I learned my beloved 1945 movie was a remake of a 1924 film that was based off a play. It was time, then, to watch two other versions of “The Enchanted Cottage” that were made more than 90 years apart.
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The story of ‘The Enchanted Cottage’
“The Enchanted Cottage: A Fable in Three Acts” was written in 1921 by British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. It was a timely post-World War I play that sublimely looked at the horrors of war through Oliver, an injured veteran, and Laura, a painfully shy and unattractive young woman who meet at the cottage of the title. Their lives intersect with Mrs. Minnett, the cottage owner/caretaker, and a blind veteran who are both eager to help them.
Their intense inner pain leads Oliver and Laura to find some solace in each other and enter into a marriage of convenience that only brings more suffering. As they fall under the cottage’s spell, their emotional healing manifests in physical changes, too. In the play, that magic is credited to the love of past honeymooners that permeates the cottage and Mrs. Minnett, who may be a descendant of a “beneficent witch.”
The movies drop the witchcraft reference for the more romantic idea of a love enchantment from past inhabitants. Otherwise, they carry the play’s basic outline and important plot points.
In 1922, the play opened in London; a year later it was on Broadway starring Herbert Bunston and Katharine Cornell; and the following year it was adapted for film for the first time.
A silent film speaks volumes
The 1924 silent film starred Richard Barthelmess as Oliver and May McAvoy as Laura. As the film opens, a wounded Oliver is home from the war. He walks hunched over with the help of a cane and has little use of one hand. Already bitter and filled with self-loathing, he learns the woman he was expected to marry is in love with someone else. Wanting to hide away, Oliver leaves his wealthy home and wanders for months before holing up at a cottage. After his overbearing sister arrives with promises of moving in to care for him, Oliver takes advantage of an offer of friendship from Laura and proposes a marriage of convenience and companionship.
From there, this film truly becomes enchanted with visions of joyous past honeymooners in the house. Their ethereal images are a stark contrast to the darkness surrounding Oliver and Laura who are trapped within themselves in profound sadness. “I’m so ugly, I mock the memories that linger here,” a despondent Laura says in an intertitle. Laura’s pain is so powerful it melts Oliver’s heart and he finally sees her unselfishness, love and beauty.
The film is in the public domain so it’s easy to find online. It does show its age as so many silents do, yet I was still deeply touched by the emotions clearly conveyed by Barthelmess and McAvoy.
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A magical 1945 remake
The 1945 film presents more of the back story of the characters. Dorothy McGuire is Laura, hired by the kind widow Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick who lends the role great gravitas) to help her in the cottage. A clock shows how time stopped in 1916 when Mrs. Minnett’s husband was killed in World War I.
[Also read: My appreciation of character actress Mildred Natwick]
Robert Young plays the handsome Oliver who plans to rent the cottage for his honeymoon, but instead goes to war and returns to the cottage disfigured, bitter and suicidal.
The cottage and a new friend, John (Herbert Marshall), a pianist who lost his sight in the war, work their magic. Laura comes out of her shell and Robert’s bitterness ebbs away. Their serenity is shattered by an impending visit from Oliver’s family that causes him to abruptly and awkwardly propose.
It’s a horrible proposal filled with pain, loneliness and a powerful raw honesty that they can’t shake even after they marry. But love helps scars fade as beauty emerges and a deep happiness grows.
While the three films all deal with despair, this version is particularly powerful. A scene of Laura left alone, rebuffed by soldiers at a canteen dance once they see her face, is achingly sad. Oliver’s difficulty in facing his wounds is partly because of how his family reacts to him, and his anger at having his life changed by the war is palpable and heartbreaking.
Other films from director John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell) include such highly regarded romances as “Made for Each Other,” “Night Song” and “In Name Only.” “The Enchanted Cottage” was a favorite of Cromwell and actor Young, who named his home The Enchanted Cottage. The beautiful piano concerto by Roy Webb, which forms the tone poem used to frame the story, was Oscar-nominated.
A modern look in 2016
This version of “The Enchanted Cottage” is poignant with its use of 9/11 and the ensuing war as the reason Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) puts his engagement on hold and goes to Iraq against his father’s wishes. When Oliver returns injured and with horrible facial scaring, he cuts off contact with his family and hides away at the cottage.
In this case, Laura is a neighbor and nurse who cares for Oliver’s wounds and his heart. She’s played by Sarah Navratil as an awkward and nervously chatty woman who hides behind stringy long hair, a hat and glasses. The late Richard Hatch is a welcomed sight as Oliver’s father.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the film is so new and is in color that makes it feel less magical than the previous versions. (Black and white film has a magic all its own.) Oliver and Laura talk to each other much more and you can sense that at least their internal changes are evolving naturally. Physically, Oliver’s wounds are fresh in this film (they appear healed in the other two) and we watch him grow stronger through medical help and physical therapy.
It’s been hard to find background information on this version. It is associated with the Arts Institute of California, which was part of a series of arts institutes across the country, but has since closed down; and the Theatrical Arts International Foundation, a supporter of the arts through the California Theatre of the Performing Arts in San Bernardino. Those groups and much of the cast and drew also worked on other movies like “The Invisible Man” (2017) and the “Picture of Dorian Gray” (2018), giving insight that this was an indie project and produced on a lower budget. Joseph Henson is credited as the lead director among seven directors.
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So now we have three film versions from an unlikely source – a 19th century English playwright without enduring name recognition at least in the film world. What has endured, however, is his story of “The Enchanted Cottage” which remains relevant a century later because it is grounded in the understanding of deep pain, loneliness and the sacrifices of war that all generations can sadly understand. It also holds the timeless message of the healing power of love – and that is its true enchantment.
Main photo: From “The Enchanted Cottage” 2016.