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Rachel and the Stranger

by Glenn Erickson Apr 21, 2020

Here’s a pleasant surprise: one of RKO’s most popular releases of 1948 has suddenly emerged in an uncut version that’s a full twelve minutes longer than anything most of us have seen. The gentle, family-oriented frontier tale has an attractive trio of star performers, excellent location work and a thoughtful, teasing script. I must have seen the truncated version five times, and yes, it did seem a tad abbreviated here and there. Loretta Young is the bondservant/un-kissed bride with a roving eye. William Holden is the initially unimaginative husband, while good old, Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as a potential sexual fox-in-the-henhouse.


Rachel and the Stranger
Blu-ray
The Warner Archive Collection
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 92 80 min. / Street Date April 21, 2020 / available through The WBShop / 21.99
Starring: Loretta Young, William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Gary Gray, Tom Tully, Sara Haden, Frank Ferguson, Walter Baldwin, Regina Wallace.
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Original Music: Roy Webb
Songs lyrics: Waldo Salt
Written by Waldo Salt from the stories Rachel and Neighbor Sam by Howard Fast
Produced by Richard H. Berger
Directed by
Norman Foster

RKO’s major release Rachel and the Stranger opened in New York on September 18, 1948, just seventeen days after a particularly scandalous Hollywood arrest: the film’s newly-minted star Robert Mitchum was busted for posssession of Marijuana with starlet Lila Leeds. Mitchum’s hepcat persona and changing values reversed what just a couple of years earlier would have spelled career death for most any other actor. Perhaps Errol Flynn’s legal travails smoothed the path for Mitchum, but the attendant publicity helped rather than hindered the box office for this lively frontier romance.

Rachel and the Stranger is a worthy niche western that takes place around 1820, long before the post- Civil War genre standard. The time frame might even precede by a few years RKO’s superlative early Louisiana Purchase epic The Big Sky (1952). Howard Hughes took posession of RKO sometime in the Spring or early Summer of 1948, so he might not have had time to interfere with the release of Rachel. But he likely had a lot to do with keeping Robert Mitchum’s neck off the Hollywood chopping block. With industry veterans being smeared and ostracized for offenses ‘moral’ (Charlie Chaplin) and political (Communist sympathizers and progressives), Mitchum’s timing was impeccable.

 

Production chief Dore Schary left RKO soon after Hughes came aboard, but he had brought a full spectrum of liberal (and leftist) writers, producers and a director or two to the studio. The stories Rachel (1941) and Neighbor Sam (1942), were taken from a 1945 book by Howard Fast, a Communist party member who later went to prison for three months for refusing to cooperate with the HUAC. Fast is best known as the author of the source book for Kubrick/Dougas’s epic Spartacus. Screenwriter Waldo Salt would be blacklisted in 1951 for likewise refusing to testify before the HUAC; twenty years later he would stack up screenwriting Oscar nominations and wins: Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home.

The light romantic triangle Rachel and the Stranger is mostly Early Americana with no telltale political taint whatsoever. It’s about gentle, God-fearing frontier folk that keep the Sabbath and respect the institution of marriage. Well, maybe there is a faint leftist tilt, if one takes the notion of a bondswoman being something like a slave… contracted into servitude in a forced marriage with (potential) sexual servitude as well. Loretta Young doesn’t share the debasement that Jean Simmons endures in Spartacus. But the tease is certainly there, a very mild tease.

After losing his beloved wife to sickness, frontier farmer Big Davey (William Holden) grieves for a full winter with his son Davey (Gary Gray of The Next Voice You Hear…). In the Spring he takes off to the local stockade (a communal fort for protection from Indians) to find a wife. He buys out the contract of the bondswoman Rachel (Loretta Young). As they’ll be sleeping under the same roof, the local preacher (Tom Tully) decides that they need to be married, so as not to outrage decency. Rachel has no choice in any of this. She walks back to the farm behind Big Davey’s horse, not knowing what exactly her duties as a wife will be in these odd circumstances.

Rachel finds herself hiking to her new home, never having had a conversation with her husband and not knowing if she’ll be sharing a bed with him that same night. She makes herself useful even though little Davey doesn’t accept her and Big Davey mostly ignores her. Trying to measure up, she practices shooting, as the first wife was apparently a good shot. The unrewarding living arrangement for Rachel changes when the family friend Jim (Robert Mitchum) drops in, talking polite, playing his guitar and showing a big interest in the un-kissed bride. He even brings Rachel a dress as a gift. After not giving the woman a thought, Big Davey suddenly feels jealous. A lively love triangle forms, and Jim is more than ready to simply walk away with another man’s (sort-of) bride. But what does Rachel think of all this?

 

Gentle could be the key word for Rachel and the Stranger. The usual violent Western concerns are not present for most of its running time, which makes the last act wild Indian siege all the more unexpected. We’re instead caught up in the marriage arrangement, the details of which are neither avoided nor exploited. The amusing aspect of this is that, well, Rachel clearly enjoys being fought over. Looks-wise, both men are prime catches. By 1948 young William Holden was established as a leading man but had been acting for ten years and not getting plum parts. He’d wait two more years before his big opportunity with Billy Wilder.

After his Oscar nomination for The Story of G.I. Joe and a solid hit with Out of the Past Robert Mitchum was riding high. Howard Hughes considered him RKO’s most valuable asset. Although it went against his tough-guy image, Robert Mitchum is no slouch as a singer. His faux-guitar fingerwork is weak, but he’s quite good warbling the novelty tunes. I still say there’s a bigger story in Mitchum’s marijuana bust exploit … which didn’t harm his image, or impede the success of this confirmed family picture. Where were the ‘decency’ picketers that plagued Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux?

Loretta Young was flying higher than either of her male co-stars, thanks to a pair of big popular successes in a row. The Bishop’s Wife was an instant Christmas classic, and for The Farmer’s Daughter she earned a Best Actress Oscar. Around this time, Loretta Young had undergone a full persona overhaul; instead of the brazen actress who took up with Clark Gable on location, fifteen years ago, she was now associating herself with spiritual themes and patriotic politics.

Competent director Norman Foster (Woman on the Run) and ace cameraman Maury Gertsman rose to the challenge, as Rachel and the Stranger is put together with the kind of sensitivity we ascribe to director Jacques Tourneur. The storytelling isn’t rushed; time is allotted to just let characters behave. Holden’s big Davey seems rather clueless, not being instantly aroused by Young’s Rachel. No matter how modestly she dresses, Rachel’s lips could mesmerize most males at forty paces. We stay alert because we know that sooner or later Mitchum’s Jim will drop by, and the romantic fireworks will begin.

 

Mitchum’s Jim enters strumming a guitar and singing. He’s so good that we make no associations with singing cowboys. He ends up strumming while Rachel plays piano and little Davey sings along, with Big Davey sulking in the background. Not only didn’t Big Davey invite his wife to bed, he didn’t even ask if she played a musical instrument. The carefree second act with both men competing for the female is both funny and instructive. To the men, the deal soon becomes a matter of dollars and cents. Rather than just seducing Rachel into high-tailing it into a new relationship, Jim tries to buy out Big Davey’s investment, with profit. Hey, maybe there is a Communist influence at work here… we know perfectly well that all American marriages are 100% love, and never made for something as base as economic security.

When Rachel and the Stranger resolves in a standard action scene, we’re almost a little disappointed. The Shawnees attack, serving as figurative marriage counselors. Naturally, the defenders somehow shoot a score of them, in the dark of the night. Mad magazine once lampooned frontier women clichés by joking about a ‘frontier wife’s gun’ that, when fired into the air by a woman with her eyes closed, killed an Indian on a galloping horse fifty yards away. Rachel has already earned little Davey’s respect by shooting a marauding cougar, and for the final firefight she becomes a regular Annie Oakley. This must be the original NRA household.

The stars are great, the dialogue is smart, and Rachel and the Stranger makes us smile. It therefore comes out way ahead of the curve. 1948 audiences were likely charmed by its positive attitude, in a year of ever-darker films noir.

Only years later would we learn that movie tough guy Robert Mitchum also wrote poetry and sang songs; perhaps we should have realized that his recording career wasn’t a novelty stunt. In addition to the classic pop single he recorded for his production Thunder Road, he cut at least one Calypso album. For Rachel he recorded several folksy songs, that work very well in context. A 78rpm record with six songs was released; at least one of the tracks includes the singing voice of co-star Gary Gray. Writer Waldo Salt wrote the clever lyrics for Roy Webb’s music.

The movie is one of several RKO westerns from 1948. Besides three or four Tim Holt series entries, there was Return of the Badmen, Robert Wise’s noirish Blood on the Moon (just out from the WAC), John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, plus Station West, with tongue-in-cheek dialogue for Dick Powell that could have been written for Philip Marlowe. Rachel appears to share an exterior set with Howard Hughes’ The Big Sky, which wouldn’t go before the cameras for four full years. The stockade/fort where Big Davey buys Rachel looks exactly like the one that Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin invade in Sky to rescue their Indian scout Pore Devil (Hank Worden) from rival fur traders.


 

The The Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray of Rachel and the Stranger will be a happy surprise for many — a well-known movie is suddenly an entire reel longer than anything we’ve seen before. George Feltenstein told me the happy story about a year ago. The show was 92 minutes upon release in 1948, but cut by twelve full minutes for a later reissue. The shorter version is what made it to TV, and is all that most of us have seen. Because the movie has those six Webb/Salt songs, I imagined that the cut material would mostly be musical. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Perhaps one song is added, or is longer, but I think most of the new footage is dramatic. This really improves the second half of the show — in the old cut, the story advanced to the Indian attack in a big rush.

Even better is the news that the missing parts of the movie were reconstituted using a perfect vaulted element (found in England?). Picture and audio are excellent throughout, it’s like a new movie. As most of us caught up with Rachel through 16mm prints on old TV broadcasts, the Blu-ray image will likely be revelation.

The one extra is a trailer, in weak condition like most RKO trailers. The packaging makes no mention of the ‘rescued’ status of this title. Original poster art is on the cover. RKO put out beautiful stone litho posters, but the quality of the art varied. Did anybody care if the actors depicted even looked like the film’s stars?  Robert Mitchum vaguely resembles himself, but William Holden looks more like James Mitchell, or Dean Jagger. I’m not sure who the image of Loretta Young reminds me of … Margaret Sullavan?

 

Restoring movies cut for reissue.

A few years back Warner/Turner revitalized the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty with a newly uncovered perfect source element. But movies that were chopped down for reissue become the biggest surprises. Unfortunately, many pre-Code titles were scissored to appease the censors for reissue, and original cuts may not exist anywhere. One example is Rouben Mamoulian’s musical comedy Love Me Tonight, which lost fifteen minutes. Perhaps some of that cut-down was just for time, but visible jump-cuts reportedly skipped some racy dialogue by Myrna Loy.

But plenty of later features were cut, just to cut down the running times of theatrical double bills. In 2017 the great Michael Curtiz picture The Sea Wolf was reconstituted, gaining back thirteen full minutes. The WAC released a full-length The Thing from Another World just last year, although there’s still room for improvement with that title should a better source surface.

Other desired RKO restorations are subjects for further research. When I first learned about Rachel and the Stranger, George Feltenstein said that the company was also on the trail of a good printing source for the full-length film noir They Won’t Believe Me (1947). That very good movie stars Susan Hayward, Robert Young and (sigh) Jane Greer, and was cut by a full fifteen minutes for reissue, and never reconstituted. That makes sense; I’ve seen Believe Me at least four times, and now I have an excuse for not really following the storyline very well.

Finally, still MIA is a prime remastering source for Howard Hawks’ original full-length The Big Sky. The chopped reissue cut is eighteen minutes shorter. We can at least see the long version on TCM, even if Turner had to use 16mm inserts to put it back together. To be as visually complete as possible, the TCM version has ended up with two separate opening narration voiceovers.

Yes, Kirk Douglas fans, get in there and pitch for the full The Big Sky to be found … it’s the classic western that I wish Major Dundee was. Are there more movies carved up in re-issue, that are in need of tender loving restoration care?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Rachel and the Stranger
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 18, 2020
(6249rach)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.