Fairy Tales have left their mark on pop culture in various ways. Many start with a phrase that is incredibly inviting – “Once upon a time” – referring to a time and place of fantasy with little to no true existence. But then there are those fairy stories that feature a modern angle – which seem to not stick as strongly with viewers, including yours truly.
Sure, I love the work of Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth) more than I do most things, yet typically when filmmakers do fairy tales that are set in some sort of realism, my fantasy itch never feels fully scratched. But somehow, even with that in mind, I found myself (mostly) falling under the (slightly dated) spell of 1945’s The Enchanted Cottage.
Set in a time just before Pearl Harbor, The Enchanted Cottage tells the story of Army Air Force pilot Oliver Bradford (Robert Young), who happens to step into an whimsical New England cottage with his fiancée (played by Hilary Brooke.) There the two meet the cottage’s residents – the widowed owner, Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick) and the shy maid, Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire), both of whom present their own sort of interesting quirks.
See in this film’s world, Laura is considered unattractive. What this means visually is that her eyebrows are the tinniest bit bushier (guess there were no tweezers at the cottage), her hair isn’t as done up, and neither is her makeup. Yet somehow in The Enchanted Cottage‘s cinematic universe, this is considered downright disgusting according to its citizens, leaving Laura often ignored or tossed to the side (aka not picked to dance with any of the town’s “wonderful” bachelors.)
On the other hand we have Oliver, who in this film’s world is considered a catch, with his handsome good looks and dashing, All-American swagger. He’s got the riches, the girl, the pride… and yet what do I think of him? The best I can do is give a shrug.
The Enchanted Cottage pushes a strange angle that we (much like Laura) are supposed to blush at the very thought of Oliver looking into our eyes. But with the casting of Young in the part – I’ll be honest, I just don’t feel it. Young has such a very boring, almost too-boyish face – coming off more like 1945’s Toby McGuire than what he and the studio were (likely) aiming for. He doesn’t have that magnetic quality that would make us believe that this character would have been such a prized bachelor, nor does he have that haunting inner darkness that makes his character’s arc the emotional gut-punch it should be.
What I am alluding to is the reason for the film’s turn of events – the disfigurement of Oliver after his time serving in the war. This (much like The Phantom of the Opera) pushes the sweet charming persona of this male lead into the one of a tortured introvert. As a result, Oliver pushes everyone (including his fiancée) away, and transforms into one of the fairy tale creatures of old (like the Beast), with the obvious exception of not being under any sort of redeemable curse.
So what happens when you force two “unattractive” lonely hearts together in one beautiful setting? Simple – you get the fundamental building blocks of a classic romance, but with the trimmings of “edgy” material in the oddest of places that do nothing for Oliver’s character. There’s Oliver’s strange jokes about his friend that Laura doesn’t know, his childish tantrums, and his “brilliant” idea to marry Laura simply because it’ll get people to leave him alone. What a guy.
As much as the movie would like for me to have compassion for Oliver’s struggle, I can’t help but feel that he’s just a total brat. Rather than being a character like the Beast that learns to love even through his deformity – Oliver is a character consumed by his selfish behavior and self-loathing, and is always looking for the easy way out. He loves Laura in a way he’s never loved anyone else before, but can’t push away his inner demons to communicate that to her.
But, of course, all of this changes when our two leads finally witness the “magic” of the cottage.
During their first meal as a married couple, the two (in their own inner thoughts) struggle to figure out how to begin what should be the happiest time of their life. Oliver feels that he’s done the wrong thing by pushing Laura into a situation she didn’t want (which maybe he should have thought about BEFORE marrying her), while Laura knows she’s madly in love with Oliver, but that he’ll never fall for her in the same way.
Suddenly, we each see the character’s perspectives, in which we discover that this “ugly duckling” couple have both been transformed into cinematic swans. Laura has flawless make-up and eyebrows, and Oliver’s scarred face and limp arm have disappeared. Is it the cottage? Are they dreaming? Is it real? That is where the fantasy and the true enchantment (mentioned in the title) take place.
Underneath these odd writing choices, there’s a sweet innocence and charm to the Enchanted Cottage that is unique to even the great pre-WWII romances. The chemistry between Young and McGuire is hard to dismiss, and you can see the sparkle in their eye from a mile away. The film (and the play it is based off) have a well meaning message behind it (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder) and does its best to convince the audience of that message.
Unfortunately, that moral has a hard time sticking the landing when presented in a film format. Much like a great book that is somewhat watered down when adapted to the screen, The Enchanted Cottage actually works best when brought to life in an audio format – like in the Lux Radio Theatre version that starred both Young and McGuire, and was released the same year as the movie.
In this recording, though they do their best in the film version, you can sense Young and McGuire feel much more comfortable and less constricted in their roles. There are hints of further character development, even though the radio version only runs a mere 57 minutes in length, and the story somehow comes off even more magical than it did on screen. It truly stands as an example of a story that struggles to exist in a visual media, and is at its best when not limiting the viewers imagination.
Overall, The Enchanted Cottage is a harmless film that is a wonderful fantasy and piece of inspiration from an era that needed it badly. It may contain some flaws that haven’t aged as well over time, but the message at its core still remains just as beautiful as the two lovers believe they are in their own eyes. Just listen to the radio version first, so your creativity can run wild before the film tampers those expectations.