Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
Babe is one of my favorite movies. And while I love all of the things that everyone else praises, the story of an “unprejudiced heart” who challenges preconceptions, the fantastic music (which will be a post of its own one day soon) and the Oscar-winning effects, my favorite part of the movie is one that is often overlooked: Arthur Hoggett. Though James Cromwell was nominated for an Oscar for the role, losing to Kevin Spacey for his deserving role in The Usual Suspects, his performance in this Best Picture nominee has been mostly ignored in the 18 years since Babe’s release. So today, I’d like to highlight one of my favorite characters/performances, who turns out to be deeper than he might seem on one viewing.
Arthur Hoggett in many ways comes off as a bit of a farmer stereotype. He’s a quiet, old-fashioned type, with strict rules for how things work in his world. He does things the traditional way, even when it may be harder, for example, shearing his sheep with manual shears instead of electric ones. He’s a bit “hen-pecked” by his wife, who also comes off as a stereotype, who gives appearances of dominating the household, making decisions and plans for the both of them and leaving him complicated instructions while she goes out of town. In fact, in their first scene at the local fair she even calls him like she would a pig, as if he’s just another animal on their farm. Both Hoggetts scoff at their son’s gift of a fax machine, and Arthur gets a lecture from his son about their finances, being told he needs to modernize and that he’s “still using a horse and cart, for god’s sake.”
But as I’ve watched the movie over and over again, I’ve come to see Arthur Hoggett as a lot more human and therefore a lot more interesting. Given that (according to IMDb) Cromwell only has 171 words of dialogue, of which 61 are sung, a lot of what we learn has to come from things that are unspoken, or from the narration. One aspect of Hoggett is his belief in larger forces at work, which come from two bits of narration. When he first picks up Babe to guess his weight at the fair, the narrator says, “The pig and the farmer regarded each other, and for a fleeting moment something passed between them: a faint sense of some common destiny.” Later, once he starts training Babe for the sheepdog trails, the narrator says, “But Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.” We even get the sense that fate is on their side, as Hoggett’s honesty has him worried about lying on the entry form, but instead of saying “Name of Dog” it says “Name of Animal”, as though fate were on his side.
Hoggett is a tinkerer and a craftsman, of course, but also a bit of a perfectionist. He creates a gorgeous dollhouse for his granddaughter, who rejects it because it’s not like the one on television, and he sees that the gate is slamming so he invents a device that causes it to open slowly and gently. But where most people would complain about the granddaughter’s reaction, or would brag about their invention for the gate, Hoggett keeps it to himself. He’s an introvert (married to an extrovert), but there’s more to it than that. His accomplishments are enough for him to be satisfied, he doesn’t need the praise of others nor does he even want the attention that goes along with it. But while some people work very hard to be self-reliant and come off as cold, it seems to be simply the way he is and it doesn’t affect the way he treats other people. That sense of self is what also allows him to stand quietly during both the arguing before Babe’s trial as well as while being jeered at by the crowd, but it also keeps him from being distracted by the cheers and allows him to pass on his praise to Babe in the iconic line, “That’ll do, Pig.”
But what I really love about him is his rebellious and artistic spirit. It comes out in little ways like how he cleverly talks his wife (the authority in the house) out of eating Babe by fretting that she’ll miss out on the best ham prize at the next fair. But where it really shows is in his decision to train Babe and enter him in the sheepdog trials. As the narrator says, “When the thought first came to him, Farmer Hoggett dismissed it as mere whimsy. But, like most of his harebrained ideas, it wouldn’t go away.” It’s easy to imagine Hoggett if he had switched places with the sheepdog officials, reacting with anger and disappointment over the entering of a pig in the competition, but I think that wouldn’t be giving him enough credit. It’s easy to paint Babe as the hero who changed the farm, but Hoggett’s capacity to accept change is key to the story. Any other farmer would never have let the whimsical idea take hold, and wouldn’t be seen enthusiastically running through the course while his pig watched and learned.
You can see that Hoggett is different from expectations when, while home alone with his wife gone, he chooses to watch a classical duet on TV in what seems out of character. It shows an appreciation for art that one might not expect in a character like him. One very telling moment is when he uses the fax machine that he and his wife had dismissed in order to enter Babe in the trials. He’s embracing (or is at least willing to use) technology and the change that it represents in order to accomplish his goals. And he has to have been aware of the backlash he would face at the trials when he showed up with Babe, but he felt strongly enough about the pig to risk the ridicule and shaming that were inevitable.
But for me, the defining moment with Hoggett is this one:
I listed this scene in my musical climax analysis, but it deserves reposting. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat their animals, and the way they act when they’re alone. Hoggett’s serenade of Babe shows a deep caring and affection for the pig, and I could imagine him singing his kids to sleep when no one else was watching. But the dance is something else entirely. It has a bit of that whimsy mentioned by the narrator, sure, but it’s also the purest expression of who Hoggett is. When alone, Hoggett is a man who enjoys life regardless of what might be expected of him. He may be an old man alone in his house with a pig, but the music leads him to dance and he does it without shame or reluctance. And in that final moment when he leaps into the sky, with his soul soaring higher than his aging frame will allow, it’s a release of everything he’s carried. In a way, it’s a moment that his entire life has shaped, and one which gives him the strength and courage to go forward with his plan.
It’s also probably the scene that singlehandedly earned Cromwell’s Oscar nomination for the role. It’s been widely said that Cromwell took the part because he counted up his lines in the script and assumed it would be an easy movie, only to have more screen time than any other role he had yet taken. It’s tough to craft a character with only 110 spoken words, but he shines in the role using his expressions and body language to say more than words ever could. So while Babe may be the central character of the film named after him, I can’t take my eyes off of Arthur Hoggett. It may be because I can relate to being a silent type, quietly defying tradition and expectation whenever I feel called to. But beyond just my personal inclination towards the him, it’s a top-notch example of creative storytelling and character crafting, and it’s what keeps me returning to Babe again and again.
What do you think? What’s your favorite James Cromwell performance? Should he have won the Oscar over Spacey? (Probably not.) Is “That’ll do, pig” one of the best final lines of a film ever? Let me know in the comments!