“STICKS NIX HICK PIX” proclaimed Variety on July 17, 1935, in one of the most famous headlines in newspaper history. The meaning was this: rural audiences were not turning out at the box office to see movies with rural settings and themes. One of the many films that contributed to the state of affairs was THE STRANGER’S RETURN (1933), which, seen freshly 81 years later, turns out to be a remarkably accomplished, mature, adult work — at least as seen in the cosmopolitan setting of Hollywood.
Another sold-out festival audience turned up to see what film critic Leonard Maltin described in his introduction as one of King Vidor’s most neglected pictures. “Why should a film directed by the great King Vidor be so unknown?” Maltin asked. Maltin was first introduced to the film by the renowned film scholar William K. Everson in the 1970s, and hadn’t seen the film in over twenty years. It seldom if ever turns up in revival. And it’s certainly one of the most obscure films to have been unearthed for this year’s festival.
The film is a comic-laced MGM drama about family relations on a rural farm. Miriam Hopkins plays Louise, a sophisticated, independent New York City girl who has left her husband and traveled to the farm in an effort to reconnect to her roots. The farm is presided over by the 85-year-old Grandpa Storr, played marvelously by the 55-year-old Lionel Barrymore. Grandpa Storr is an irascible, intelligent and candid presence, but his house is full of brooding relatives, notably the spinsterish stepdaughter Beatrice (Beulah Bondi), who has long expected to inherit the farm and does not take kindly to the growing warmth between Storr and Louise. With the offspring squabbling to succeed their regal overseer, who may or may not be losing his marbles, there’s almost a King Lear type of dynamic at play.
But the film also delves into a romantic attraction between Louise and Guy, the young, married, well-educated farmer next door played by Franchot Tone, who in overalls seems miscast here but still turns in a solid performance. In this conservative community, people notice the illicit romance, and Louise starts to endure all sorts of cattiness and criticism — especially from Beatrice, whom Beulah Bondi plays to the hilt as a character you love to hate.
With all these elements set into place, screenwriter Philip Stong and director King Vidor play with shifting character dynamics, pitting various combinations of characters together to reveal motivations, temptations and jealousies. Stong, a former Iowa newspaperman who specialized in rural dramas, was a novelist best known for State Fair, which was first made into a film also in 1933 and would be remade twice in the years ahead. Stong wrote The Stranger’s Return (the novel) immediately following State Fair. (In order to resurrect THE STRANGER’S RETURN for this screening, Warner Brothers tracked down the estate of Philip Stong and renewed the rights to the work.)
Vidor brings his extraordinarily vivid and authentic eye for farm life to the film. The house, porch, screen doors, fields, trees, lemonade outdoors on a sunny day… anyone can photograph these things, but Vidor proved in many films that he had a special sensitivity to this world. In a 1970s oral history interview with Nancy Dowd, Vidor said, “The farm has always been my favorite atmosphere. It’s proven by the fact that I now live on one. I used to be kidded a lot about some of the symbolism I used with the plow turning over the earth. It meant a new cycle of life, a new generation.”
For THE STRANGER’S RETURN, Vidor got to employ the great cinematographer William Daniels. “He was Garbo’s cameraman,” Vidor recalled. “She had first choice in using him.” But Garbo wasn’t working at the time, so Vidor’s request for Daniels went through. “I considered myself lucky to have him. He was a pleasant, charming man, and a wonderful cameraman. Delightful to work with.”
Vidor shot on location in Chino, California, “about the closest farm country you could get in Los Angeles,” he said. “We stayed at an abandoned country club.” Vidor remembered there was much trouble recording the sound properly in all the exterior sequences, as directional mikes hadn’t yet been invented. This required numerous takes.
Miriam Hopkins, who turns in one of the best performances I have ever seen from her, is hugely charismatic and sensual in this film, capturing the delicacy of emotions that are regarded so suspiciously by others, except for Barrymore. Vidor recalled that she was under contract to Paramount, where she had been working a lot with Ernst Lubitsch. Vidor privately sent her a copy of the script, for it was supposed to be a secret that they were even in negotiation. A few days later he met with her to discuss it, and he saw that on her last page someone had written: “King, if there’s any changes you would like to make, I’d be happy to do them for you.” Lubitsch had found out after all! (Vidor didn’t say if he took Lubitsch up on his offer.)
Vidor had a romance with Hopkins during this film, but, he said, “it broke me up and left me with a terrible torch.”
Lionel Barrymore is also a revelation here. Anyone who knows him only from his later, wheelchair-bound days will bowled over by the physicality and delight he brings to Grandpa Storr. In the oral history, Vidor remembered one anecdote that spoke to Barrymore’s seriousness as an actor. One day on location, Barrymore asked Vidor to be let go early because he had some important business to attend to. Later that afternoon, Vidor was driving through town and saw some old guys sitting on a bench outside a drugstore. He did a double take — one of them was Barrymore, still wearing his fake beard and old-man makeup from the film. He was attempting, successfully, to blend in with the locals without them suspecting he was an actor.
The print screened at the festival had an abrupt cut at the end, before the final image and credits. Maltin explained in his intro that a short scene was indeed missing, but it was merely a tag to the story, which has basically already concluded by that point. Maltin said that while the 35mm negative for THE STRANGER’S RETURN was lost in a fire decades ago, the missing footage does exist in a 16mm negative and will hopefully be restored at some point. In his oral history interview, Vidor said there were other scenes that had been cut from the film when he saw it again in the 1970s, including a love scene in the hay, and moments of Louise developing a “romance” with the land, and Grandpa Storr observing this — moments which no doubt contributed to their growing affection and respect. Perhaps those scenes will turn up as well.
THE STRANGER’S RETURN was very well reviewed in 1933 by influential outlets like Variety and The New York Times, which described Barrymore as “the season’s liveliest octogenarian. Shrewd and delightful.” But it died at the box office. Maltin theorized that perhaps Vidor got the chance to make this film because his previous work had been The Big Parade, “the first smash hit in the history of the newly formed MGM, which gave him a lot of clout and goodwill in the company… But the fact that no one seems to know it, that it’s seldom if ever revived, and even Vidor didn’t mention it [in his autobiography], says something to me. And it also says something to me that for his next film he left the studio system and made an experimental, independent film called Our Daily Bread. It may well have been a reaction to the indifferent response this film got.”
Maltin continued: “Vidor is a well-known figure, but at the same time I think his career is underrated and underappreciated. He made so many daring and unusual films. Not every one hit the bulls-eye, but he never settled into a rut, never wanted to repeat himself, always was trying something new and different and challenging. This film is a very deeply felt story, and I think it still resonates today for a grown-up audience.”
TCM Classic Film Festival-goers were lucky to see this film. Now that Warner Brothers has invested in renewing the rights, here’s hoping it will turn up again, including on TCM.