Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Stranger's Return (1933), King Vidor, with Miriam Hopkins, Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone

It would be easy to call King Vidor's 1933 pastorale, The Stranger's Return, a kind of corn-pone Volpone, except that crochety patriarch Grampa Storr (Lionel Barrymore) feigns madness as part of his inheritance games and not death itself. That, he knows, is coming soon enough, and what remains is getting his house in order. That it's not cornpone -- despite the moral underpinnings and rural setting -- is due to the film's greater interest in the working out of unresolved issues among its characters than in its concerns about conventional right and wrong. Arming the likes of Barrymore with a long stiff beard (that makes him look as fearsome as old John Brown) as well as a cane and a chance to play a Civil War vet off his rocker might not be a great idea except that here he's paired with a great leveler, Miriam Hopkins, a screen diva herself and not inclined to let someone else steal the show. Her strategy is to slyly underplay it as New York City girl Louise Storr, the daughter of Barrymore's oldest son and estranged from her husband, seeking respite on old man Storr's farm. She's fourth generation, and in his vivacious granddaughter Storr sees a chance to get that house in order. Until that comes along, the best he's got is a drunken but good-natured farm manager played by doughy Stuart Erwin, who we know instantly cannot be an object of desire for the newcomer but rather the typical screen eunuch; although here he is not totally shorn of sexuality. His offer to strangle the girl he's dancing with at the Saturday night social allows him a kinky side that otherwise seems drowned in corn likker. Storr's battles with his live-in potential heirs--none of them directly related to him by blood---take on Fieldsian dimensions, particularly with his nattering nephew's widow, Beatrice (Beulah Bondi). Until Louise arrives, she is the most logical heir to Storr's respectable estate, and she knows it. Problem is, the old man cannot stand her or his other weaker-kneed in-house relations, including the bland lawyer (Grant Mitchell, perpetually typecast in these kinds of roles) who is married to his guileless and slow stepdaughter, Thelma. Louise's arrival sparks things in the sleepy community; her affect on Storr and the farmhands is almost magical. And she proves quickly she can hold her own with the boys. These un-ladylike tendencies in Louise seem to give Beatrice part of the ammo she needs to discredit Louise's moral values as she jockeys for position in the estate fight. So too does Beatrice have an ace in the hole when Louise falls immediately in love with Guy Crane (Franchot Tone), a gentleman farmer and semi-sophisticate who also is married. His wife Nettie, a good-hearted girl, knows she lacks the education to keep her husband engaged, and almost welcomes Louise's visits. The fierce independent streak Louise possesses almost makes her defiant to the point of heating up the affair, gossips be damned, but it's that contrarian nature that most closely bonds grandfather and granddaughter. In the end, everyone does the right and moral thing, though what happens to Beatrice seems rather harsh. I never hate her as much as the script wants me to. Hopkins' performance in this movie is highly acclaimed by a small coterie of cineastes who've managed to see this rather hard-to-find film. She is very good, but it's hardly a better performance than she'd given before in films such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here, she does have a chance to cry, and it's an affecting moment. Recognizable is her tendency to wring her hands frequently, an affectation seen in several of her other films (every time I see her do it I think of her angry kiss-offs of "Eaglebauer!" to Edward Everett Horton in Design for Living). The movie is probably too molasses paced for most of today's viewers, which of course means shit to me. It's a lovely piece, rather unusual; deftly avoiding mawkishness when the very spectre hangs over nearly every minute. Grade B-

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