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Lionel Barrymore and Miriam Hopkins were among the brightest stars in Hollywood in 1933. He already had one of the first Best Actor Oscars in his cabinet for A Free Soul (1931). She had just come from Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). But that kind of star power wasn't enough to draw audiences for The Stranger's Return, a pre-code film from director King Vidor. This rare film hadn't been seen in years before it was screened at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival before a packed audience.
While it is easy to see why audiences in the darkest days of the Great Depression may not have rushed to see the film, the moment it began, it was immediately clear why this is an important film that needs to be out on DVD. It is a key work by Vidor, an underrated master director who was more interested in the gritty life of the average worker than the glossy art deco fantasy that dominated movies at the time.
The story of The Stranger's Return starts out like a traditional fish-out-of-water tale. Hopkins plays Louise, a city girl who has just divorced her husband. She goes back to the farm where her father grew up, where Grandpa Storr (Barrymore) is the only blood relative she has left. That sounds like the set up for a story about a girl who will get frustrated by the hard-working life and runs back home. But that's not the case. Instead, she embraces the life and it certainly helps that she has a handsome man – Guy Crane (Franchot Tone) – to look at. She falls in love, but he's married, or course.
Meanwhile, the members of the extended Storr family are scheming about how they can take control of the farm. These roles are filled out by an impeccable group of character actors. Grant Mitchell, who is better known for roles in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) or Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), plays Allen, a small-town lawyer and stepson of Granpa. Beulah Bondi, eternally playing old women, is here as Beatrice, a stepdaughter who is leading the charge to get the farm. There's also a good performance from Stuart Erwin as the hired hand Simon and Grandpas' only real friend on the farm. Essentially, this is one of those great movies that could only be made in the Studio System, where great character actors get moments to shine alongside powerful stars.
As for the leading trio, these are among their best performances. Hopkins is best known for doing the sophisticated comedies with Lubitsch, like Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living (1933), but she had a knack for overacting in dramas. She doesn't do that here at all though. There are moments of levity where chemistry with Tone and Barrymore are evident and darker scenes with Bondi. She moves easily from scene to scene, capturing the evolution of a character.
Franchot Tone can also seem a bit stiff in his early roles, but here, he is more at ease. Barrymore is also in full command as Grandpa. He is hilarious – just watching him reject the disgusting cereal bowl served to him and silently making bacon and eggs tells you everything you need to know about the character's relationship with the people in his house. This again brings up genius directing from Vidor, who works so economically in that moment and in others. In jut 89 minutes, he has a lot of story to get through and that scene at the beginning establishes so much with no dialogue.
Another important aspect of the film is Vidor's use of documentary-style footage to establish location and the importance of farming. It continues the theme of The Crowd (1928), but puts moves to a rural situation. Like that film, in which we see workers working, we see how difficult farming work is. That the movie ends with a shot of nameless workers in a field almost gives the story an 'everyman' quality, like this could happen to anyone, not just glossy Hollywood stars.
Vidor was disappointed that the film flopped and wound up leaving MGM and went independent for his next feature. It's clear that The Stranger's Return would not be a hit in a market populated by escapist musicals and comedies or gritty gangster movies. But it's obvious that Vidor and writers Brown Holmes and Philip Strong weren't really making this movie with the box office in mind. For them, it was telling a story of how hard farm life could be from the perspective of a city girl.
The Stranger's Return is more like a symphony of feelings than your standard three-act story. Personally, I had never even heard about it until I saw it on the festival schedule and after reading the cast, I just knew I needed to see it. Now that it's in the Turner library, Warner Archive has got to put this out on DVD.