The Cult of Inner Beauty in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

*contains spoilers

Inner beauty is a hard thing to write about and to define which is probably the reason there aren’t too many movies on the subject. Of course, there are poets and filmmakers who can write or direct beautiful things – but what about inside of the creators themselves as we just assume that they are as beautiful as the things they produce?

Moviegoers like their stars to be beautiful and handsome on the outside and they really don’t care if they’re not beautiful on the inside – until they commit crimes!

There remains a distinct but undefinable difference between being photogenic and having an inner beauty as well as also having talent and an inner beauty.

The Enchanted Cottage (1945) appeared hard to promote

That aside, can you see if you have inner beauty? If you look for it within yourself, you possibly don’t, or you may be unable to see it. Such is its intangibility. Is it meant only to be spotted by someone else? Or is it something that only lovers can see? In the world today one wonders if anyone cares at all about inner beauty due to its obsession with all things superficial and shallow in subject and appearance.

The Enchanted Cottage (1945) is a sentimental story, but it is one for the ages, as it tells its story of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Further, that beauty can be seen as a part of the soul – inner beauty is something that not everyone possesses and if they do it is to varying degrees. And relationships can flounder for those who lose sight of it in others and within themselves.

You could be physically beautiful and still shallow, handsome and yet uncaring and whereas not everyone possesses the traits of outward attractiveness, inwardly they may. And yet, you can be plain and still be ugly on the inside…

‘Ugly Ducklings’ Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

The Enchanted Cottage tells of a disfigured war veteran and a shy and homely young maid who form a relationship in an old New England cottage of the title during World War Two.

The girl works for a widow who rents the cottage to young married couples, something of a tradition throughout the centuries.

The movie was set during the war at a time when there was concern over returned servicemen who had been scarred physically and mentally by the war and the soldier in the movie named Oliver Bradford is played by Robert Young (1907-98 respiratory failure). At the beginning of the movie, he is a handsome young flyer about to marry his fiancée and that is why he is at the cottage to put a down payment on his honeymoon.

Dorothy McGuire was at her peak in The Spiral Staircase (1946). Trailer.

He catches the attention of the cottage’s new maid Laura Pennington played by Dorothy McGuire (1916-2001 cardiac arrest) who has also arrived that very day.

“She’s awful homely,” says a young boy to his blind composer uncle after they meet Laura outside the cottage when she first arrives. It was once part off a great estate which had long since burned down leaving only the wing of the cottage intact while the rest is covered in moss and ivy and wild roses.

The story is told in flashbacks as the blind composer plays his new composition which is a piano concerto about their story. It is as he plays that the story begins to unfold…

There is a strange enchantment to the place which inspired the music but it wasn’t until Laura turned up that the composer could understand what it was.

Dorothy McGuire as Laura Pennington, Robert Young as Oliver Bradford and Herbert Marshall in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

Actress McGuire was never a great actress or a glamour girl but her voice is velvety and beautiful and so is her character. Her hair was made to look drab for the role of Laura and she wore no make-up and was dressed in ill-fitting clothes.

“Do you know what loneliness is? Real loneliness,” asks the widow who owns the cottage, played by Mildred Natwick (1905-94 cancer), who is suspected by locals of being a witch.

“Yes,” answers Laura.

Later when Oliver and Laura are alone in the cottage while his fiancée looks upstairs, she tells him that the cottage is enchanted, and not haunted, with a love and extolment for the place which seems to make her a part of it.

Mildred Natwick as the widow Mrs. Minnett in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

“Enchanted is to be happy and gay… it’s beauty,” she says as she relates how lovers of centuries past had engraved their names on the leadlight window panes to celebrate their wedding vows.

And so, we have an illusion of the cottage as a romantic hideaway for lovers and even for those who believe in love and romance and dream about it but who may never find it. Even the widow Mrs Minnett once believed, but time has stopped in the cottage for her, with a calendar which reads June 1917, the date when her husband was killed in World War One.

Oliver won’t return as a newlywed as the war will intervene and when he does return it is after his fiancée screamed at his appearance because his face is badly scarred and his right arm useless.

Laura is about to be humiliated by uncaring soldiers looking for beauty in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

In the meantime, Laura does volunteer work at the local soldier’s canteen but after being told to socialise by the manager, she is cruelly humiliated when no soldier chooses her for a dance based solely on her appearance. She leaves upset and near tears… This scene is sometimes deleted from some shortened versions of the movie.

That night, Mrs Minnett tells her that people like “you and me” can’t live like other people.

“You think you can sometimes but there’s always the world to remind you,” she says and continues that you’ve got to find something else to take its place, somewhere where you’re safe and no one can hurt you. I guess you must find a home of some sort where you can feel safe from judgment and inhabit yourself just as happily. The Enchanted Cottage is such a place.

People will judge and whisper!

Upon his return one stormy night, Oliver hides in the upstairs bedroom, where he was to spend his honeymoon, pacing as he dwells on his disfigurement and subsequent mental ills. He is about to blow his brains out with a revolver when Laura intervenes…

“You saw me before. Doesn’t the change shock you? Isn’t it repulsive to you?!”

“No,” says Laura looking him in the eye.

The seclusion of the cottage and the countryside eventually changes Oliver as time passes and his friendship with Laura grows along with one with the blind composer who lost his sight during World War One.

Once upon a time or in the future you will find a place called ‘home’

The composer is played by Herbert Marshall (1890-1966 heart failure) who really was disfigured during World War One although not blinded. The actor was shot in the knee by a sniper at the Second Battle of Arras in France and after several operations had to have his leg amputated. He suffered self-pity and bitterness at first but learnt to use a prosthetic leg and entered the theatre and then the movies with great success. During World War Two he worked on the rehabilitation of injured troops especially aiding amputees like himself.

Marshall is the perfect choice for the composer and his voice along with Young’s is iconic and adds to the wonderful soundtrack of The Enchanted Cottage.

When Oliver tells Marshall that he thinks himself a “head” case, the composer tells him: “I was lost until I found music… you’ll find something… you’ve got to have faith in yourself… You’re a person, a complete individual… You’ve come across a place with many side paths… you’re confused… Some people find new talents within themselves like me… others find new friends and a new life.”

Mildred Natwick amongst the idyllic ruins of The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

This passage, with its words of wisdom, should be noted by the lonely and the mentally ill who suffer the stigma of mental illness and not belonging due to their appearance. Time will heal. And so, Oliver, who may be forced to leave the cottage and live with his parents proposes a marriage of convenience with Laura so he can stay. It is not one proposed out of love…

“There’s only one thing you’ve overlooked,” says Laura, who is initially repulsed because she truly loves Oliver. “Women like me, conscious though we are of our defects… We find a refuge in our dreams… daydreams as well as night dreams, merciful dreams in which we’re… lovely and desirable… it’s cruel to destroy those dreams.”

We see that Laura really has a lot going for her. The sound of her voice and her laughter and the fact that she really cares about other people… She has faith in something divine and believes love between two people can be a shining and blessed thing.

“Bless you Laura… Bless you forever and ever,” says Oliver in a tear inducing moment upon this discovery by him of Laura’s belief.

Herbert Marshall as the blind composer who plays the piano concerto entitled The Enchanted Cottage

And the miracle of The Enchanted Cottage is about to begin as the couple still go through with the marriage not based on true love and romance…

“We don’t know how to explain it… It’s fantastic,” says Oliver to the blind composer who is summoned to the cottage one evening several days after their nuptials. “We’ve changed.”

And the couple explain they have undergone a physical change. But alarm bells are ringing in the composer’s head as Oliver relates in flashback how on their miserable wedding night, he thought he had married Laura for “shabby” reasons… And Laura tells herself how she loved Oliver the first moment she set eyes on him but their marriage was “a tragic farce” … But it is at that moment on their wedding night as she plays the piano that the enchantment of the cottage took over and she looked over to Oliver and saw him as he was that first day… She flees in tears to the bedroom and Oliver follows where he finds Laura and takes her in his arms: “She was beautiful… More beautiful to me than anyone I’d ever known.”

Two souls find beauty in each other which the rest of the world cannot see in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

It is at this point in the film where the point of view of the audience shows Oliver as he really was and Laura has had some sort of make-over… They see each other through the love of their eyes and they are attractive and desirable. Just as Laura had dreamt.

Is it the cottage itself? Or is it just the glow of their souls? Or eyes which penetrate the outer flesh and see the soul within? And will it last for these two lovers? Is God playing a cruel joke? … as Mrs Minnett doesn’t look at them… It will soon be interrupted by Oliver’s parents coming to visit.

“With the truer sight of the heart,” says the composer, as he tries to explain to the parents that they may not see the miracle which has befallen the couple with a parable about blind citizens in a ruined city which they saw as a paradise…

People who judge others do not necessarily have inner beauty. Mean Girls (2004) trailer.

Sadly, the world and many of its citizens are judgmental, especially when it comes to appearance and personality traits. People can’t help themselves but to judge others as though they themselves are better looking and better people… It seems to make them feel real and, in some way, happy as they judge and some may vindicate that judgment by saying: “But that’s all right.” Who gives these people the right of such moral high ground? Beats me!

You may be fat, or nervous, you may not wear the latest clothes or have the right haircut and no matter how kind and loving you maybe… you will still be judged by these people. Perhaps they will joke together to further humiliate you… But, ultimately, they are perhaps ugly and not at all content on the inside and will lead the world to its eventual destruction and damnation… Perhaps we are already there! So, they would have us think!! Plenty of essays have been written pondering the subject but it rarely is pondered in the movies!

Oliver and Laura in The Enchanted Cottage exist in a world which was fighting for its very free existence during the Second World War… The beauty of democracy versus the ugliness of Nazism. The couple are pillars of true beauty and respect and they do not want to intrude, upset or harm… That is what is so moving about the entire movie. They are what we would like to be, or how we would like to see ourselves.

Laura and Oliver are about to have their illusions shattered in The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

It is hard to convey the true romance and “enchantment” of this movie. It is a movie which upon repeated viewings may reduce you to sobs, or it may leave you cold and wondering what you saw in it in the first place. It may even make you laugh at the sentiment and its very concept if you want to judge it that way.

Based on a 1921 play by Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), it was one of the playwright’s later plays which were often unsuccessful after an early career of comedies and farces. Pinero wanted to make a statement about returned veterans who were maimed by the war and it was quickly turned into a movie in 1924 starring Richard Barthelmess (1895-1963 throat cancer) and May McAvoy (1899-1984 heart attack). The original play had more characters than both film versions, while the silent 1920s version features fantasy sequences such as the ghosts of lovers from the past looking lovingly upon Oliver and Laura.

At the end of the silent film, the parents of Oliver flee the cottage and simply pronounce him: “Mad!”

Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy in the 1924 silent version are watched by ghosts

Actor Robert Young claimed The Enchanted Cottage to be one of his favourite movies to make and he named one of his homes The Enchanted Cottage. He was on loan from MGM while McGuire was on loan from David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attacks) when the film was made at RKO.

Young and McGuire had appeared together previously in the actress’s film debut Claudia (1943) where she repeated her hit Broadway role as a naïve young wife who matures especially after learning her mother has cancer. It was a hit which led to a sequel, after The Enchanted Cottage was made, entitled Claudia and David (1946).

Producer Harriett Parsons (1906-83 cancer), who was the daughter of gossip columnist Louella Parsons (1881-1972 heart disease), wrote the outline for the 1945 version which was then turned into a screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen (1908-88) who had written Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943). The final draft was polished by Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897-1953 kidney failure). A movie called Mank (2020) starring Gary Oldman about that writer’s struggle to be recognised for his work on Citizen Kane (1941) is showing on Netflix.

Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz worked together on Citizen Kane (1941)

The director of The Enchanted Cottage was John Cromwell (1886-1979 pulmonary embolism), the father of actor James Cromwell (1940-), who created an enduring and successful career after appearing as the farmer in the movie Babe (1995).

Director Cromwell was an experienced theatre director who was a natural to make sound movies upon their advent in the late 1920s. He directed many notable titles and had worked with Young previously on Spitfire (1934) which also featured Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003 cardiac arrest). Cromwell never got a major award or nomination for his work despite such titles as Since You Went Away (1944) and Anna and the King of Siam (1946). A liberal democrat who loved the creativity of working at RKO, Cromwell was baited by billionaire Howard Hughes (1905-76 kidney failure) upon his purchase of that studio for his Leftist views and was ultimately blacklisted in Hollywood for a number of years for being a suspected Communist. Eventually, he returned to the theatre and was cast in a couple of Robert Altman’s (1925-2006 leukemia) movies late in his life. His work on The Enchanted Cottage shows RKO at its most creative and Cromwell at his most heartfelt and untypical as he was more of a realist in terms of the movies he made.

Shallow Hal (2001) is not as pure as The Enchanted Cottage (1945) in its depiction of inner beauty

Sadly, The Enchanted Cottage was poorly remade in 2016, featuring one of the final performances by Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch (1945-2017 pancreatic cancer). That version is very low budget from viewing the trailer and very poorly envisioned and executed.

What many people remember about The Enchanted Cottage is the classical piano score composed by Roy Webb (1888-1982). It was, in fact, a piano concerto which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1945. The blind composer plays it and the music remains popular on classical radio stations to this day.

Webb was a stalwart composer at RKO and The Enchanted Cottage was performed at the Hollywood Bowl the year the film was released by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Constantin Bakaleinikoff (1896-1966) who was the senior music director at RKO Radio Pictures. The studio was a happy family before the arrival of Hughes.

The Enchanted Cottage (1945) trailer

In terms of films about inner beauty in Hollywood, they seem to be very rare indeed, especially among mainstream movies. There is Shallow Hal (2001) where Jack Black (1969-) imagines that a morbidly obese Gwyneth Paltrow (1972-) is really a skinny beauty. While the film can be sweet and warm-hearted, it still pokes fun at Paltrow’s character for being obese. It doesn’t really take the subject of inner beauty as seriously or purely as The Enchanted Cottage as it allows those who make judgments upon others to still make the same judgment while once more saying that it’s all right in this case to be fat, when really, they believe the reverse. So, ultimately, Shallow Hal pokes fun at Paltrow’s character and laughs off most of its serious intentions. It was a big hit at the box office probably because it momentarily disarmed its judgmental audience from the fact they judged themselves as beautiful for not being morbidly obese. Or something like that!

What is interesting is that Black’s character tries to pick up beautiful women and always gets knocked back at the beginning of the movie as he himself is no prize in terms of appearance and his shallow character. There was a far more serious and better movie to be made from Black’s perspective as the ugly duckling. Perhaps they did make it with Shallow Hal, or as close as they’ll get, as no one really cares about unattractive characters falling in love – as who would bother to go and see it? I guess it needed all those laughs for the audience to swallow the premise. This makes The Enchanted Cottage all the more unique.

There is another comedy about inner beauty which ends on a note of obesity and that is The Man with Two Brains (1983) starring Steve Martin (1945-). I find this movie funnier and features Martin as he telepathically communicates with a brain in a liquid filled jar and then he falls in love with the brain… Appearances be damned!

Laura and Oliver ponder a lifetime together along with those names engraved on the glass

There is also the Australian film Lonely Hearts (1982) which deals with unattractive characters who have never found true love despite no longer being young. Starring Norman Kaye (1927-2007 Alzheimer’s disease) and Wendy Hughes (1952-2014 lung cancer) and directed by Paul Cox (1940-2016), this film is far more serious and dramatic than the two films previously mentioned but also contains a kind of beauty and gentle innocence between its two main characters.

If you love someone heart and soul, you know it doesn’t matter what anyone looks like as you already know they have inner beauty as we all do to some extent. If there is any judgment to make, it is if a person is kind and genuine. The Enchanted Cottage embodies something of the possibility of surviving the judgment of others within a cruel and shallow world and being able to find happiness, or more importantly, contentment within and with another being. Look in the mirror and what do you see? Are you at home there? It’s a beginning…

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Permalink

    I remember seeing this movie. You have described well the struggles people go through in such a superficial world that has dated back centuries and sadly still lives on today.

    Reply

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