The seaside cottage is old—used to be part of a much larger estate, but the house burned down ages ago. For a while, it was rented out to newlyweds for their honeymoons, but that tradition ended when the young husband of Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick) was killed in World War I. The desk calendar is still set to the day he died, nearly 30 years ago.
Some people believe the cottage is haunted by the spirits of all the young couples who stayed there and etched their names into the windows. Others, like Mrs. Minnett’s newly hired housekeeper, Laura (Dorothy McGuire) believe the cottage is enchanted—a magical place where miracles can happen.
And maybe, just maybe, Laura is right.
This is the setting for The Enchanted Cottage, a gentle fantasy that explores the healing powers of love.
Laura is a broken soul, shy and plain--“homely” is the word used by the nephew of John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), the blind concert pianist who lives nearby and is fascinated with the cottage, even though he can’t see it.
Laura is lonely, but not seriously searching for love. Rather, she wants to find “a place that, when I woke up in the morning, I’d be glad that it was another day, and when I went to sleep I’d know that it had meant something to have been awake.” It nonetheless stings when, while helping out at the local USO club, the many handsome men in uniform would rather stand around than ask her to dance. (One cad starts to ask, then reaches down as if he’d meant to tie his shoes.) Laura runs out of the club in tears. No one notices or cares.
Mrs. Minnett hired Laura when the cottage was to be rented to Oliver (Robert Young) and Beatrice (Hillary Brooke), who are about to be married. However, when Oliver is called to active service as a flyer in World War II, the wedding is postponed, though Mrs. Minnett keeps Laura on to help with chores.
Not long afterward, though, Oliver returns to the cottage…alone. He does not want to see or talk to anyone, not even Beatrice or his mother (Spring Byington). Oliver has been wounded—physically, yes (his right arm is immobile, and his face is badly scarred), but mentally and emotionally as well.
Oliver avoids human contact as much as possible, but slowly opens up to Hillgrove, who lost his sight in World War I, and to Laura, with whom he strikes up a friendship that soon becomes…well, not a romance, exactly, at least not at first. But the more time they spend together—especially in the cottage—the more they seem to grow, change, heal…and perhaps not just emotionally.
Director John Cromwell (a veteran of melodramas like Of Human Bondage and Made for Each Other) and screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen (previously a scripter of Val Lewton horror films) and Herman Mankiewicz (an Oscar winner for co-writing Citizen Kane) approach the material more as a fable than a traditional romance, and most of the characters seem to know they’re in a fable, especially Laura and Oliver.
Young may be best known now for his TV work—he won Emmys for both Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.--but in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was a leading man in many dramas, and he brings that wealth of experience to bear here, portraying Oliver as a man damaged more in spirit than in body. It’s McGuire’s Laura, though, who delivers most of The Enchanted Cottage’s emotional impact. It’s rare to see a character who longs not for romance, but for peace of mind and heart—and then, when she finds that peace, is unsure she can fully trust it.
Natwick, a member of John Ford’s stock company who enjoyed a lengthy career, provides the flinty Mrs. Minnett with an unmistakable twinkle that reveals the warm, hopeful heart beneath the hard, remote exterior. Marshall, in some ways, has the most interesting part: The narrator/observer who “sees” things clearly, even though he is blind. (It wasn’t much of a stretch for Marshall to play a wounded veteran who’d survived, even thrived, despite his injury—he lost his right leg in World War I.) And, as a pianist, he gets to “play” the lovely concerto composed by RKO’s busiest composer, Roy Webb, who received an Oscar nomination (the last of a total of seven in his career) for his work here.
More than anything else, The Enchanted Cottage is a candle cutting through the dark shadows cast by loneliness and depression, regardless of the cause—one need not be “homely” or physically injured to feel what Laura and Oliver do--nor to be moved by their gradual journey toward the warmth of the light.