"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rachel and the Stranger (RKO, 1948)

A classic 1940s film if only just a Western


Rachel and the Stranger is not a Western in the sense of sixguns or stage hold-ups or anything. It’s a pre-Civil War pioneer story and reminds me more of Angel and the Badman or Four Faces West, fairly unviolent semi-Westerns about families or relationships.  It was directed by Norman Foster, who married Sally Blane, an older sister of Rachel’s star, Loretta Young. Foster directed some Charlie Chan pictures, The Green Hornet, and some Davy Crockett and Zorro movies for Disney. Rachel was only his second Western.
Norman Foster, director

The film was photographed by Maury Gertsman who did 26 lower-budget Westerns with titles like Five Guns to Tombstone, Gunfighters of Abilene, Gun Duel in Durango, that kind of thing. Rachel and the Stranger was shot in Eugene, Oregon, reasonably well. There are some striking night-time scenes, for example, and the countryside is sweetly American, almost bucolic.
Bucolic pioneer story

The movie was written by blacklisted Waldo Salt. It was his only Western, though the script was nominated by the Writers Guild of America as ‘Best written Western’ (they probably meant best-written Western) in 1949. The story was by Howard Fast, whose novel The Last Frontier later became Cheyenne Autumn.

So director, cinematographer and writers were solid but not quite first rank ones. Well, it was RKO.

Still, it had a big name in the lead (Young, in her last Western, who had been Cherry de Longpre opposite Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones three years before) and two youngish but up-and-coming stars next-billed in William Holden and Robert Mitchum. And it did healthy business, earning $395,000, quite good box-office for the 1940s and the studio’s biggest hit of ‘48.

It is the story of David Harvey (Holden), stolid widowed Ohio farmer, who marries Rachel, a bondservant (Young) because it wasn’t quite decent to live with a woman who is not a wife, but he still treats her as hired help and he really only wants her to bring up his son Davey (Gary Gray, rather brattish in his coonskin cap) in the decent way that his late wife would have wanted. Father and son cannot get over their loss and both treat Rachel with some disdain but things settle into a routine.
The equilibrium is disturbed, however, when David’s dashing, glib (if rather obviously named) friend Jim Fairways (Mitchum) arrives and, given that Rachel only appears to be a wife in name, charms and woos her. This awakens David and he comes to see Rachel as more than just a drudge. The stage is set for a classic love triangle.
Mitch as the flirting Indian fighter Jim Fairways

The script is quite interesting on the role of the woman in the West and even proto-feminist in the way that it highlights Rachel’s strength and independence, and undermines Western machismo.

The acting is very good, from the superb opening scene where we learn of the death of the first wife. Holden had done two light-hearted early 40s Westerns for Columbia (Arizona, Texas) and then this movie and The Man from Colorado in 1948, which are quite different, darker. In Rachel he is at first a conventional, principled, almost ox-like farmer, then he develops the character in a most interesting way, as he clumsily begins to express interest in, then affection for Rachel. Loretta Young is strong without being strident. She is beautiful, intelligent and can even shoot. She is very good in the role. As for Mitchum, he could often sleep-walk through parts but here has a sparkle in his eye. He sings for the first time on screen, no fewer than six short songs (Foolish Pride being best, I thought). He was proud of his voice and made records but, well, as a singer I would say he made a good actor. Maybe Mitch even prefigures The Night of the Hunter as he arrives on horseback, singing.

Frank Ferguson is in it, which always helps.
Holden as farmer

As a Western fan (natch) I was quite glad to see the attack of the Shawnees in the final reel but I must admit that from a filmic point of view, it does appear to be tacked on to give a bit of action and is out of place in the essentially personal and triangular (or quadrilateral if we include the child) relationship that has been, interestingly, developing. The heroics of David and Rachel do, however, strengthen their marriage and at least they give an excuse for Jim to go off, back to Indian fighting.
Father and son learn to live with their loss

Loretta Young always had a "swear box" on the set of her films, charging anyone who used bad language 25 cents for doing so, then giving the contents of the box to her favorite charity. Bob Mitchum, on the final day of shooting, apparently dropped a $20 bill in, and said, "This should just about cover everything I've been wanting to say to Loretta."  He was busted at this time on a marijuana charge and RKO rushed the release of the movie to cash in on the publicity.

Rachel and the Stranger is a different Western, almost not a Western at all, but it’s an interesting 40s film that is well worth a watch.
Marriage without love - at first

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