When he returns a year later, his face disfigured and his right arm paralyzed from an airplane crash, Oliver is a different man—bitter and intent on keeping to himself. He ignores his family and former fiancée and moves into the cottage. He is eventually befriended by composer John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), who lost his sight as a pilot during World War I. Oliver also finds a kind and earnest companion in Laura, who has fallen in love with him.
The outcome of The Enchanted Cottage is never in doubt. We know that from the opening scene where John recounts the story as a tone poem at an evening gathering. Therefore, the film relies heavily on its well-drawn characters, strong performances (particularly Marshall), and a sense of “magic” created by John Cromwell’s atmospheric direction, the almost-expressionistic sets which incorporate paintings of the cottage, and Roy Webb’s lyrical music.
Cromwell makes brilliant use of lighting, especially in the shadow-filled scenes when Oliver first returns and when he locks himself in his room when his family visits (his face first revealed to the viewer by the light of a match in the blackness of the room). Cromwell’s direction is equally masterful, as when the camera makes a sweeping circular move, stopping just short of Oliver and Laura’s faces as they explain excitedly to John how they’ve “changed.” Interestingly, Cromwell was also an actor, winning a Tony in 1951 opposite Henry Fonda in Point of No Return.
Composer Roy Webb is sadly one of the least-remembered composers of the 1940s and 1950s, despite writing music for classics such as The Spiral Staircase, Notorious, Out of the Past, I Remember Mama, and several of Val Lewton’s horror films. Webb’s score for The Enchanted Cottage, which includes a lovely piano concerto, earned him the last of his Academy Award nominations (he never won).
Harriet Parsons produced The Enchanted Cottage at a time when there were few women working in film production in Hollywood. She acquired the rights to the original stage play, which was written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1923 (and also made as a 1924 silent film). Parsons hired screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen to adapt the play (Herman Mankiewicz contributed to the script, too). It’s interesting to note the parallels between The Enchanted Cottage and Bodeen’s screenplay for Lewton’s 1944 Curse of the Cat People. Both films can be viewed as traditional fantasies or as “real events” in which the fantastical elements occur only in the minds of the characters.
While The Enchanted Cottage can’t compete with the great romantic fantasies, like A Matter of Life and Death and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it holds an enduring appeal. It’s a well-crafted film that leaves its viewers with a timeless message: The beauty of love is in the eye of the beholder.