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Stranger's Return (1933)

Film Review

STRANGER'S RETURN

Release Date: 2 July, 1933

Studio: MGM

Director: King Vidor

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Hopkins, Franchot Tone, Stuart Erwin, Irene Hervey, Beulah Bondi, Grant Mitchell, Tad Alexander, Aileen Carlyle

Produced: Lucien Hubbard

Screenplay: Brown Holmes and Philip Strong; from the novel by Philip Strong

Cinematography: William Daniels

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

5th Avenue Girl was shown as part of the Aging Parents theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was author, critic and film historian Leonard Maltin.

Synopsis

Octogenarian Grandpa Storr (Barrymore), owner of a large farm, lives with Beatrice Storr (Bondi), the widow of a nephew, and Thelma and Allen Redfield (Carlyle and Mitchell), the stepdaughter of his son and her husband. These relatives wait expectantly to inherit the farm. Farmhand Simon Bates (Erwin), loyal to the old man, works conscientiously despite his heavy drinking.

Grandpa Storr's granddaughter, Louise (Hopkins), separated from her husband, comes to the farm seeking solace and tranquility; she quickly finds contentment with her grandfather. The other relatives treat her as cheerfully as they can manage notwithstanding their obvious resentment.

Granddad takes Louise to meet the neighbor, Guy Crane (Tone), and the men indulge in their friendly game of mutual insult. Louise visits Guy's farm to meet his wife Nettie (Hervey) and child (Alexander). Guy and Louise, cultured college graduate and sophisticated city woman, hit it off immediately. Nettie, sweet and simple, cannot participate in the conversation. Louise and Guy are soon falling in love; their mutual attraction becomes obvious to Granddad’s relatives. Beatrice maliciously spreads rumors about them. Louise loves the farm but thinks of leaving because of her feelings for Guy. Grandpa advises her to stay.

The actions of Grandpa begin to upset Louise and Simon; he acts confused, talks about a civil war battle, and fears a confederate attack. His relatives call for a professional examination hoping he needs the assistance of a rest home. Louise and Simon, concerned, object to placing him in a home. As the Commissioners of the home examine him, Grandpa changes his demeanor and demonstrates his sanity and competence. He was pretending senility knowing his relatives would reveal their unfriendly intentions toward him. In the presence of the Commissioners, Grandpa revises his will, leaving his farm to Louise, allowing the chastened Redfields to stay, and throwing out Beatrice. Having ensured the future of his farm, Grandpa dies peacefully. Loyal Simon will help Louise manage the farm.

Guy comes to say goodbye. He cannot hurt his loving and trusting wife and has taken a teaching position with a distant college.

In the fields, a plow is preparing rows for the next planting.

Discussion

From the early twenties, King Vidor stated his wish to make films accentuating subjects with great meaning to humanity: steel, wheat, and war. This film and Our Daily Bread (1935) pick up the wheat theme with an emphasis on the relationship of the farmer to the land. The film has a strong rural feeling, with its depictions of the open land, the fields of wheat, the harvest of the wheat. The main characters, Grandpa and Louise, share a deep attachment to the farm. The farmer's life is honored. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Philip Strong, author of State Fair (1932), who was born and raised in Iowa.

Grandpa, strong and deeply rooted to the land, has absolute control over the farm and its inhabitants, but is aged and concerned about who will inherit and manage the farm after him. The relatives living with Grandpa, greedy and unconcerned about the future of the farm, are not suitable heirs. The arrival of Louise, the granddaughter who is much like him, provides the proper heir.

Louise is presented with choices: will she accept her inheritance and take responsibility for the farm from aged Grandpa; and how will she and Guy resolve their romance? Louise, who has known the culture and sophistication of city life, is at home on the farm and in tune to the opinions of Grandpa. Louise is the appropriate heir for the farm, but she must be certain about her commitment to it. She understands Guy, who shares with her education and culture. Their subtle romance generates strong feelings. Guy’s wife is gentle and trusting, he made a wrong choice but cannot betray her. Guy and Louise are saddened but recognize his responsibility to Nettie. They exchange places, Guy returns to city life, Louise, accepting her proper place, stays on the farm. Loyal Simon stays to help her.

The simple plot centers on sympathetic characters confronted by difficult choices. The focus is on the personal interactions and resultant strong emotions. Nobody’s flashy, but all the main characters are complex. The low-key acting is sensitive and restrained. The film lacks an easy ending; the audience is left with a humane, but not necessarily satisfactory, resolution.

Lionel Barrymore, wearing aging makeup to add 30 years to his looks, is well suited to his role and comfortable in all aspects of Grandpa's character. His tendency to overact fits the exaggerated behaviors of the character. A popular and busy actor in the early thirties, Barrymore had leading roles in eight films in 1933.

Miriam Hopkins restrains the prickliness of her persona and her tendency for overacting and produces a warm, intelligent, and witty characterization. Franchot Tone is similarly restrained and realistically projects intelligence and resignation. Stuart Erwin's character, the loyal, caring, and frequently drunk farmhand, is more multifaceted than his usual comic simpleton.

Beulah Bondi appeared in 11 Broadway productions (1926 -1953) including roles in Street Scene and The Late Christopher Bean (1932) that she repeated on screen. Her early film characters were unpleasant, slatternly, drab women. Later in her career, as her appearance softened, she played warm-hearted, loving mothers, notably in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Bondi continued acting into her eighties, including the television series The Waltons (1974 -1976).

In the early thirties, King Vidor directed four films, Cynara (1932), Wedding Night (1935), So Red the Rose (1935), and Stranger's Return that share mature themes, involving the inner conflicts of strong characters who are seeking love and commitment. In each film, multiple characters have conflicting demands, prerogatives, and choices. Although intelligently made, these films are not well known.

Approximately six months were involved in the production of Stranger's Return during the early months of 1933. Metro bought the rights to the book in February. Clark Gable was announced in the cast in April but had been replaced by Franchot Tone by May. In April, Gable had also been cast in Night Flight and Black Orange Blossoms (released as Hold Your Man). The characters in latter films are better suited to Gable’'s persona than is the highly educated sophisticate of Stranger's Return. In May, the company spent two weeks at farms in Chino, California. The Chino location (40 miles east of Hollywood) was much closer than Iowa. The film was released in July.

Contemporary reviews were positive. Reviewers noted the simplicity and naturalism of the plot, the restrained direction and the realistic acting. In particular, reviewers complimented the "hearty and brilliant performance given by Lionel Barrymore. A part made in heaven for Barrymore." Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times described the direction as “…restrained and imaginative. Mr. Vidor manifests fidelity to life and avoids stereotype notions. The comedy is gentle, natural, free from hokum. A tame sort of tale is greatly enhanced by sober portraits that add to its charm." John Scott in The Los Angeles Times notes "the considerable homespun drama, romance and comedy, topped off by the really fine characterization by Lionel Barrymore who typifies the old farmer to a T. King Vidor's direction reflects attention to detail and holds the piece together." The Variety reviewer noted that the plot splits interest. "A New York girl finds love, but he leaves her to save his wife. The audience wants her to get him, but no reason for the other woman to suffer. It's real life, but not completely acceptable picture material for those who want hero and heroine to join. Overshadowing the love interest is very eccentric old farmer plagued by fortune seeking relations who wait for his demise. A ruse demonstrates their selfishness, and he leaves property to the sincere relation, his granddaughter. Barrymore fits the role and carries the story."

Guest Introduction

Leonard Maltin described the film:

• presents an adult subject approached with intelligence.

• Hopkins and Barrymore are wonderful.

• Vidor probably got to make a film with a non-commercial subject because the director of the very successful silent film, The Big Parade (1925) had clout at the studio.

• Apparently, the film was not a success, and Vidor's next film Our Daily Bread (1934) was filmed away from the studio.

• King Vidor is an underrated filmmaker who was always trying new and challenging subjects meant for adult audiences. He never got into a rut.

• The camera negative burned in 1970’s, a small piece of film may be missing. The film concludes on an abrupt cut, and a little end piece, a 25 or 30 sec wrap-up may have been lost. The story point has been made, however.

Leonard Maltin

References

MG Buys Strong Yarn. Variety. February 17, 1933

Inside Stuff Pictures. Gable Scheduled in Stranger’s Return. Variety. April 18, 1933

Chatter Hollywood. Metro 2 weeks in Chino. Variety. April 23, 1933

They Know the Answers. The New York Times. July 1, 1933.

Stranger’s Return. Chic. Variety Film Reviews. August 1, 1933.

Stranger’s Return. Mordaunt Hall. New York Times. August 6, 1933

Farm Setting For Romance. John Scott. Los Angeles Times. October 23, 1933