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THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE – Roy Webb

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

RKO Studio producer Harriet Parsons came across a poignant love story based on Arthur Wing Pinero’s play “The Enchanted Cottage” (1921). It had been previously performed on stage in 1922, and had a silent film adaptation in 1924. Parsons believed that she could deliver an updated version of the tale that would play well to modern audiences. Studio executives gave the project the green light to proceed, but took the film away from Parsons, instead tasking Dudley Nichols. A diatribe by renowned newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper charging sexual bias caused the company to blink and reverse its decision. As such Parsons was again assigned production, and wrote an outline of the story she wanted. Herman J. Mankiewicz and DeWitt Bodeen were hired to write the screen play, and John Cromwell was tasked with directing. For the cast included Dorothy McGuire as Laura Pennington, Robert Young as Oliver Bradford, Herbert Marshall as Major John Hillgrove and story narrator, and Mildred Natwick as Mrs. Minnett.

The film is set during WWII and centers on the life of pilot Oliver Bradford who suffers a terrible disfiguring battle injury. When his fiancé recoils at his appearance, he flees from her and family to live a life of seclusion at a seaside cottage in New England. He is bitter at his circumstances yet eventually befriends his neighbor John Hillgrove, a blind concert pianist. It comes to pass that a homely caretake Laura Pennington who cleans the cottage slowly forges a bond with Oliver. They fall in love but wonder if this is a relationship forged out of mutual pity. Remarkably, a physical transformation occurs where both lovers perceive themselves not as they are, but as they believe they are. This visualization is limited to the two, with outsiders still relating to their true appearance. Eventually the cottage owner, Mrs. Minnett informs Oliver and Laura that the cottage is indeed enchanted, telling them of its legend. The film was a commercial success earning a profit of $881,000. Critical reception was although mixed, was largely positive and the film earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Film Score.

Although Max Steiner had collaborated with Cromwell on eleven prior films, he was now at Warner Brothers and unavailable. Roy Webb was RKO Studio’s resident composer and so he was the natural choice to take on the assignment. Upon viewing the film, he quickly realized that this would be a fascinating assignment as the film was a tale of two sad, alienated people, who were ashamed of their physical appearance, yet nevertheless overcome their estrangement from others through the power of romantic love. Webb also understood that There was also a magical element to the story in that the cottage itself was enchanted and facilitates the illusory physical transformation from which their love blossoms.

To support his soundscape Webb composed two primary themes, which unified his soundscape, The Enchanted Cottage Theme. It serves as not only a leitmotif for the cottage itself, but also for its magical transformative effects. In the film it nurtures the romance which unfolds and blossoms for Oliver and Laura. It has a magical, intangible quality when supporting the cottage, or in its purest form on piano forte with more passionate iterations when rendered in piano concerto form. The Love Theme speak to the romance between Oliver and Laura. Old Hollywood strings romantico empower one of the finest themes in Webb’s canon, a wondrous romance, which carries us tenderly like a forest stream. There is a subtle undercurrent of sadness within the notes as both lovers bear deep seated self-esteem problems related to their physical appearance. Yet the musical narrative of their love is ultimately transforming, which allows each through the power of love, to see each other as they wish to be seen. Regretfully there is no commercial release of the score, or Youtube recording of the concerto which at one time had an LP release. As such I will review it directly in film context using scene descriptors as cue titles with film time indices.

00:00 “Main Title” opens with the RKO Studio logo, after which launch the roll of the opening credits. Webb graces us with a wondrous romance for orchestra rendering the Enchanted Cottage Theme, which perfectly establishes the tone of the film. At 1:38 we flow seamlessly into the film proper with “The Party” atop a stirring cadenza as we see the blind concert pianist warming up for a performance of his concerto. Harriet interrupts him and advises Oliver and Laura are unable to attend his party tonight. At 2:38 we segue into “The Tale of the Enchanted Cottage”, a wonderful score highlight where we are graced by an introductory performance of Webb’s “Immortal Concerto”. John announces to his guests that he will premiere his new Tone Poem, “The Enchanted Cottage” for them this evening. We are swept away by a romance for piano, from which he begins to narrate the tale of “The Enchanted Cottage” as the camera takes us to the ruins of the legendary New England Estate. He speaks of one wing that survived the fire, which he would rent out to newlywed couples. The flowing lyricism of the solo piano is joined by strings romantico as we see the cottage and John relates his desire to capture its charm musically.

The romance for strings and piano is sustained with a segue at 4:55 into “Laura’s Arrival” as John’s narration supports the arrival of Laura to the cottage several years ago. A woodwind pastorale joins a Laura is greeted by the boy Danny as leaves dance in the winter winds. John then arrives, introduces himself, and then departs guided by the boy. Laura has an appointment with the cottage’s caretaker, Mrs. Minnett. She is greeted with cold formality and told to wait in the adjoining room for tea. At 7:29 we segue into “The Cottage” atop strings tenero with woodwind adornment, which voice the magical Cottage Theme as Laura scans the quaint room warmed by a fireplace. We see a sense of wonderment in her eyes as we are swept away by strings felice. The music subsides as they discuss Laura’s past and desire for employment. Mrs. Minnett advises that she has rented the cottage and the guests insist on a caretaker and maid, agreeing to Laura’s request to be hired. As they prepare for the guest’s arrival, Laura brings up the tradition of renting to honeymooner’s only to be told by Mrs. Minnett that she broke that tradition.

Oliver and chat alone downstairs as Mrs. Minnett and Oliver’s fiancé Beatrice tour the upstairs. At 13:52 we segue into “Cottage Lore”, a score highlight where the confluence of music and film narrative is superb. Laura tells Oliver that the cottage is not haunted, but instead, enchanted. Strings full of wonderment adorned with soft harp arpeggios support Laura’s warm description of the cottage. At 14:10 harp arpeggios that bubble like a brook join with strings tenero as Laura takes Oliver to the window where she shows him dated testaments painted on the window by honeymoon couples who swore to love one another. Harp glissandi support as Oliver reads the dates going back to 1790 as Laura relates that their precious memories will live on forever. We close at 16:13 as strings d’amore as Oliver and Laura lock eyes as he departs. We see that she is smitten and dreamy eyed as Oliver and his fiancé exit the cottage.

At 17:20 we segue into “The Calendar” atop an eerie misterioso as Laura sees a calendar date of April 6, 1917, (the date America entered WWI) which is off by over 24 years from today’s date of December 7, 1941 (the date America entered WWII). Plaintive strings support Mrs. Minnett looking out the door at swirling leaves in the wind, as she has prescient feelings that war has come. In two subsequent unscored scenes Oliver’s mother frets as he packs to report for duty on the very day he was to be married. While back at the cottage Mrs. Minnett receives a letter from Beatrice advising that they will not be renting the cottage due to Oliver’s deployment. Mrs. Minnett agrees to have Laura stay on as she hopes to again rent the cottage and values her company. At 26:04 we segue into “Halloween Party” as we see Laura, at her boss’ insistence, leave the kitchen to join the Halloween party, which is supported by festive source music. All the men see her, avert their eyes and bypass her, much to her humiliation as she is very homely. She is distraught, begins to cry, and flees the Canteen.

At 28:30 we segue into “Somewhere Safe” as we see a distraught Laura arriving at the cottage carried by aching strings tristi. A sad musical narrative supports Mrs. Minnett counselling her that people like us are not meant to live life like others, but instead must live alone, somewhere safe. We close atop ascending harp glissandi as Laura, who is resigned to her fate, ascends the stairs to go to bed. In an unscored scene a year later, Mrs. Minnett receives a letter from Mr. Bradford expressing his intention to rent the cottage for an indefinite period of time. Laura is ecstatic, happy that he and Beatrice wed, however we see that Mrs. Minnett is circumspect. Oliver arrives alone and the camera holds on Mrs. Minnett stare of his face, which is hidden. She escorts him upstairs as Laura makes hot tea. At 32:06 we segue into “Mr. Bradford Came Alone” as Mrs. Minnett removes the second tea cup and advises she will serve him as he came alone. Laura is puzzled and a misterioso unfolds as we shift to the bedroom where we see Oliver pacing back in forth. At 32:46 a Pathetique borne by woodwinds unfolds and we are draped with sadness as we see Beatrice and Oliver’s parents arrive. He locks his door, and they wait over an hour downstairs with his father dismissive of Oliver’s reaction to his disfigurement. His mother badgers Beatrice to go up and she finally relents.

At 35:29 we segue into “We Must All Be Brave” atop a string borne ascent in register as she climbs the stairs tentatively. Strings full of heartache support an extended musical narrative for her pleas for him to open the door and speak to her. She informs him that she wants to proceed with the marriage and that she will try to make him a good wife, and then apologizes for her reaction seeing his injury the first time. Strings affanato empower a descent motif of futility, which carries her weeping descent downstairs as she cries that she tried to be brave about it, again saying that she really tried. The camera shifts to his room where he sits by the fire, head bowed with remorse as muted horns tristi support the three departing in a taxi. At 37:22 violins surge as he walks briskly to the door and opens it, yet their energy descends and dissipates in despair as he turns back. He sees him face in a mirror, and strings surge in pain, crowned at 37:56 by horns di agonia crying out. At 38:04 tremolo violins support a match strike to light a cigarette, which illuminates his face, allowing us to see his disfigurement for the first time. A crescendo of pain erupts, which dissipates in despair as he opens a drawer and a pistol is revealed.

At 38:33 we segue into “Suicide Stooped” atop tentative strings as Laura comes to the bedroom door and knocks. She knocks again and then enters to find Oliver holding a gun in his hand. Strings of desperation carry her run to him. She grabs the gun and strings affanato carry a descent into a well of despair to carry her departure as he stands motionless. Later at 39:13 we segue into “Dinner” as we see Oliver sitting by the fire, with Laura arriving with his dinner tray. Strings of hope with harp adornment and a wandering flute support her entry and placement of his dinner tray. She hands him a letter from his mother, which he reads, crumbles and angrily tosses in the fireplace. He rages against living with his ugliness, yet is diffused when he asks if she is repulsed by his injury, and she calmly answers no. She then uncovers his plate and departs as he offers a heartfelt thank you. In an unscored scene, the next day Oliver is drawn outside by bird song and the idyllic blossoming beauty of springtime. He finds Laura enjoying her hobby of wood engraving and she offers him a smile and good morning. We see a nascent bonding begin to form as they talk and share their feeling about art. He compliments her for her kindness and she blushes, as she is unfamiliar with compliments.

Mrs. Minnett answers the front door and finds that John and his guide have come to call on Mr. Bradford. She states that Oliver is refusing all guests, but then relents as John is blind and decides to ask Oliver if he would like to reconsider. At 46:47 music enters diegetically in “John Visits” as he sits down and begins playing some gentle arpeggios on the piano. When Laura enters, they begin conversing with John relating that as a blind man he perceives something unusual about the cottage. We find out that Mrs. Minnett first came here as a bride, and the reason the calendar remains frozen in time at April 6, 1917 is because that was the day her husband left and never came back, a casualty of WWI. She escorts John into the garden but is put off by Oliver until he learns that John is blind. The men sit and John exhorts him to overcome his disability as he has and develop untapped potentials, such as he did by learning to play the piano. As John departs, Oliver agrees to leave the cottage and escort him home – his first effort to reengage life. Webb chose to not score the dialogue rich scene, which was beautifully carried by the actors in a very moving conversation.

In an unscored scene Danny and Laura are playing with his dog at the beach when Oliver arrives above with John. Oliver hands off John to Danny and decides to join Laura who is gathering driftwood on the beach. He clearly enjoys his time with her and we see she is smitten with him as they return to the cottage. Three weeks later at the cottage Oliver reads a letter, becomes agitated, cancels afternoon tea with Laura, and storms up to his room. At 55:03 we segue atop strings tristi with woodwind adornment into “Oliver’s Relapse” as we see her disappointment with the return of Oliver’s anger. The musical narrative is sustained later that day as we see Laura blow out the lantern and prepare to turn in. She turns and sees Oliver walking in the garden as strings surge and ebb like ocean waves. A woodwind misterioso ushers in strings full of longing as she decides to leave the cottage and follow him.

At 56:16 we segue atop strings tranquilli into “Oliver and Laura” as we see him walking atop a vista ridge overlooking the beach. Webb sows an idyllic ambiance as Oliver sits on a rock, yet we discern within the notes and undercurrent of sadness. Laura arrives, and relates that she felt that he wanted company, as Oliver stands to look at her. A sad romantic rendering of the Love Theme attempts to emerge, yet fails to coalesce. He is distraught as his parents have issued an ultimatum for him to return home or they to come and live with him. Laura comes to him and places her hands gently on his arms to comfort him. They sit, and as he says that she is thoughtful and kind, woodwinds delicato create a tender moment of intimacy. At 58:22 we segue into “The Proposal” a beautiful score highlight. A crescendo romantico unfolds following his asking her to marry him. Yet it quickly dissipates as she is startled and turns away. A beautiful violin soliloquy leads a retinue of strings in a Pathetique as Laura expresses the reality of her ugliness, and how she survives by finding refuge in her dreams. Yet the musical narrative brightens, arising from a kernel of hope when he bears his heart to her by saying how much he loves and values her. A romance for strings bearing the Love Theme rises up as her resistance crumbles and she relents, saying yes with her eyes as the scene fades to black.

At 1:00:52 we segue into “Marriage” as we see Danny playing with his dog outside a church as “Mendelssohn’s Wedding March in C Major Opus 61 (1842) plays on organ in the background. At 1:01:08 we segue into “Mrs. Minnett Sets the Calendar” atop a woodwind borne twinkling misterioso as we see her change the calendar date from April 6, 1917 to June 6, 1943. At 1:01:43 we segue into “John Returns” as we see John playing a few bars of his concerto on the piano. He moves to his chair and relates to Harriet his experiences of being on tour. Danny comes home with a letter from Mr. Bradford, which John asks that he read aloud. He says the “Something extraordinary has happened and Laura and I need your advice. Please come to see us as soon as you arrive”. It is evening, and John elects to take a taxi to the cottage. Ms. Minnett greets him, but he immediately senses something has changed in the cottage.

Laura and Oliver arrive home, sit with their backs to the camera and tell John that something extraordinary has happened. At 1:06:04 we segue into “Transformation” a romantic score highlight. They relate to John that a physical transformation has occurred. Strings tenero support with a softly voiced romanticism as they tell John what occurred when they sat for dinner at the cottage after the wedding. We hear his mind speaking that the real reason he married was out of selfishness to end his loneliness. Her mind then speaks of how she loved him from the very first day they met. She goes to the piano and begins to play a romance from the concerto as she relates, she felt the room change as well as Oliver’s appearance, as he now appeared unblemished like the first day they met. She begins to cry and runs up to the bedroom, chased by Oliver. As he sits by her on the bed violins d’amore with harp glissandi offer the Love Theme as he gently takes her into his arms only to notice that she was no longer homely, but radiantly beautiful. They embrace and kiss with the scene returning to the present where they relate that they are bewildered that both their physical appearances have changed. They fear this is a cruel trick by the memories held by the cottage and do not want to return to being ugly. John stands and offers his counsel – accept and cherish this transformation as a miracle, a gift from heaven.

At 1:12:56 we segue into “Enchanted Cottage”, another exquisite score highlight, which opens with John’s taximan arriving to drive him home. Strings felice voice a tender romance as our lovers hug and revel in the gift they have been given. Laura goes to the window and thanks by name the happy couples etched on the window. At 1:14:18 the Enchanted Cottage Theme blossoms as a magical pastorale, as Laura relates of the song-like melody she hears in every room of this enchanted cottage. When Oliver says he loves her, she responds that love is the song she hears in the cottage. At 1:14:56 we segue into “A New Day” atop playful woodwinds voicing a happy musical narrative as Oliver enters the bedroom. The string borne Love Theme joins as he sees the radiantly beautiful Laura still asleep and wakes her lovingly with a kiss. She says she was dreaming of their wedding day and her dashing, handsome man. As they kiss, affirming how much they are in love, woodwinds romantico with harp adornment crown the moment.

In “Laura meets the Parents” it’s a wonderful new day as Laura and Oliver prepare for a visit from his parents. She is ecstatic to show them her new dress and the beautiful woman their son married. They arrive early and John agrees to meet them to allow them time to change. John tries to explain to the parents obliquely using parables that Oliver and Laura see themselves as they wish to be seen, not as they really appear, and that they should not challenge this illusion and instead play along with it. However, this only serves to confuse and agitate them. As Oliver and Laura descend the stairs, we see them as they really are, she homely, and he facially disfigured with a limp right arm. He hugs his mother and introduces them to Laura with the camera from Oliver’s perspective showing her beautiful, while from the parent’s perspective we see her homely. The mother begins to cry and then shatters Laura say, “You have so much more to give Oliver than a pretty girl”. Laura grabs her face and we see that the illusion has vanished. The parents then decide to forego tea and depart instead, promising to visit again. Music enters at 1:25:38 grimly on strings as Mrs. Minnett closes the door, and weeping strings affanato support Oliver’s realization that John has known the truth about them for some time. John admits he has, and then Laura says to Mrs. Minnett that she too also knows. Oliver confronts Mrs. Minnett and demands to know the truth about the cottage. She confesses that when she sees them, she sees them as they are, adding, that even though he and Laura see each other differently, what is so sad about that? A stirring violin tremolo supports her asserting that it is the power of their love, which has brought this remarkable transformation. She says to Laura that if you keep your love burning, you will always be fair, and Oliver, handsome. Adding, this truth is the secret of the cottage’s enchantment. At 1:28:50 the music brightens and gains a warm optimism as Laura comforts Mrs. Minnett, and Oliver thanks John for all his assistance.

At 1:29:50 we segue into “Window Etching” a magnificent score highlight. We see our lovers reaffirm their undying love for each other. At 1:30:36 a flute tenero ushers in a heartfelt Enchanted Cottage Theme as Laura says that they have yet to add their names to those on the window. Strings romantico blossom as Oliver begins to write and we flow seamlessly into John playing his Tone Poem to the guests at his party, a lush and ornate romance for piano, which stirs our hearts. We close magnificently with a love resplendent flourish as Oliver and Laura arrive at John’s, hear the concerto at the door, and join in a kissing embrace, their outward appearances again transformed into their idealized selves.

Again, I am forced to review a classic Golden Age score using archival sound while viewing the film – yet another score, and piano concerto, that begs for a commercial release. Upon viewing the film, Webb understood that at its heart this was a romance, which blossoms following a transformation created by an enchanted cottage, and the power of love. To that end he composed two primary themes, which spoke to both of these entwined story narratives. Additionally, he wrote a piano concerto, which is regretfully never fully played in the film, but whose primary melody arises the Enchanted Cottage Theme. The theme is perfectly conceived and has an ineffable quality to it, a sense of magical wonderment. The string borne Love Theme offers classic Hollywood romanticism, which slowly evolves as the love between Laura and Oliver comes to life. Webb unlike his contemporaries was very judicious and subtle with the pervasiveness of his music, with his style informed by impressionists such as Debussy and Delius. His soundscape for this film for me resembles the musical equivalent of cinematography, in that he uses aural color to instill mood and ambiance for the particular scene. In the film he emotes character feelings, rather than the characters themselves. Folks, this score is wonderfully conceived, masterfully executed and instrumental in assisting director John Cromwell realize his vision. Thanks to Webb’s gift, the magic and wonder of the enchanted cottage came to life, achieving a beautiful confluence with the film’s story-telling. Until such time that the score is rerecorded, I recommend you take in the film itself. You will have to purchase the DVD as I did, as I was unable to find any streaming platform which offered it. You will be rewarded by a fine film, and gain an appreciation of just how good Roy Webb was as a composer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to an archival suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWhRljYOptY

Track Listing:

  • NOT AVAILABLE

Unreleased (1945)

Music composed and conducted by Roy Webb. Orchestrations by Gil Grau. Recorded and mixed by Earl Mounce. Score produced by Constantin Bakaleinikoff.

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