A solid mainstream hit for 1947, Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten’s political fairy tale maintains its charm despite the usual populist dodges — a spirited young woman finds both romance and The American Dream when she runs for Congress. But will the political system accept her?
The Farmer’s Daughter
KL Studio Classics
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 97 min. / Street Date September 25, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Loretta Young, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, Charles Bickford, Rhys Williams, Harry Davenport, Tom Powers, William Harrigan, Keith Andes, Harry Shannon, Lex Barker, Thurston Hall, Art Baker, Don Beddoe, James Arness, Anna Q. Nilsson, Charles McGraw, John Gallaudet, William B. Davidson, Cy Kendall, Frank Ferguson, William Bakewell, Charles Lane Forrest J. Ackerman, Robert Clarke.
Film Editor: Harry Marker
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Allen Rivkin, Laura Kerr, from a play by Juhani Tervapää
Produced by Dore Schary
Directed by H.C. Potter
This year would seem the perfect opportunity to revive any movie about politics that has a basis in good will, ethics, civility, the common good … sorry, I’ll write the rest of this review in English. 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter was a big hit for RKO and producer Dore Schary and a charming showcase for actress Loretta Young. Derived from a Finnish play, the politics-lite romantic comedy simplifies what it takes to run for congress, out-doing even the audience-pleasing populist nonsense in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The role even won Ms. Young an acting Oscar.
As in George Stevens’ later I Remember Mama, Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr’s screenplay exalts Swedish-American farmers as salt-of-the-Earth citizens that prize our country’s ideals. The same can’t be said for the Old Boy’s Club of jaded politicians that hold power. Political parties and a specific state aren’t mentioned, but crooked politics is present, in a big way. The film even pits a dastardly ‘American Firster’ organization against our happy couple, just so we won’t be confused about which is the good side in this Cinderella tale.
Farm girl Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) leaves her loving parents and happy, bovine brothers to head to nursing school in Capital City. She’s both delayed and fleeced on the road by the unscrupulous, lecherous Adolph (Rhys Williams), and thus she seeks work to earn back enough for her school tuition. Katie ends up working as a servant in the home of political kingmaker Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore) and her Congressman son Glenn (Joseph Cotten). The outspoken Katie first amuses and then impresses her employers and the party cronies who come to make decisions — she isn’t afraid to criticize another Congressman who’s just been re-elected. By the time Glenn leaves for a trip to Europe, he’s been infected by the Maria Von Trapp Syndrome: his affections have strayed from his reporter girlfriend Virginia (Rose Hobart) to the irreplaceable housemaid. Katie’s attentions to Agatha’s health and Glenn’s wellbeing are duly noted, especially an alcohol-based ‘medicinal’ drink she prepares called ‘Glogg.’
When a new Congressman must suddenly be elected, Agatha and the party powerful nominate Anders J. Finley (Art Baker). Having taken night classes in civics and economics, Katie quotes Finley’s miserable voting record at his first rally — and draws such attention that she’s asked by the opposition party to run against him. Agatha shuns Katie and her brothers come to the city to protect her during her campaign. When the rat Adolph shows up to sell lies about his night with ‘the farmer’s daughter’ on the road, Finley, Virginia and even Agatha consent to smearing Katie. She retreats to the farm. Agatha changes her mind after tricking Finley into admitting that he’s a white supremacist and part of a militant proto-Fascist group. Glenn crosses party lines: can he get Katie’s campaign up and running again?
Like most comedies about politics, The Farmer’s Daughter gets into trouble only when it tries to be serious. It hasn’t dated as badly as, say, Kisses for My President (1963), in which Fred MacMurray becomes First Lady Husband to the first woman President, Polly Bergen. In fact, we’re all for the fairy tale approach, the one that postulates that anyone can take public office in this fair and great country.
Katie Holstrom first proves her mettle as a domestic woman — she’s in fact a superwoman who can run a house and a family, cook for a mob and do all the farm work as well. She dazzles the Morley household with her skills. Things begin to get a little wonky when Katie is allowed to butt into cocktail party conversations with her opinions. The butler Clancy (Charles Bickford) tells her to be quiet once, but from then on Katie’s mouth is unfettered — she even calls Morley’s party ‘second rate.’ This behavior by a mere servant (1) doesn’t work in real life’s economic class system, even if one looks like Loretta Young; and (2) it makes the party muckety-mucks look like dolts. Even before she attends night school and recites an inspirational speech, Katie seems more qualified to run the country than the stuffed shirts and know-nothings in Glenn Morley’s political circle. The only one with brains is Agatha. Even Glenn admits that he doesn’t bother to study the fine details of various issues and bills — he wouldn’t last three minutes among the silver-tongued sharpies of The West Wing.
1947 was a powerful political time. Incumbent Democrats feared a swing to the right and incumbent Republicans screamed about national security. Various ideologues and opportunistic sharpies (Richard Nixon!) vied for public office alongside ambitious ex-servicemen running on their war records (John Kennedy!). That any party committee would have trouble finding fully-vetted candidates for national office is absurd; that any candidacy wouldn’t have to wade through outrageous accusations of radicalism, etc., is not believable.
Audiences surely preferred the film’s Cinderella angle — how long will it take the dreamboat Congressman to realize that Katie is the most luscious morsel on the planet? The key time-out-for-romance break is a pleasant ice skating scene on a fancy interior/exterior set (did Frank Capra borrow this set for It’s a Wonderful Life?). After slaving for 22 years on that farm, Katie Holstrom not only has perfect hair, a perfect complexion and delicate hands, she also ice skates like Sonja Henie. She’s too good for Congress, and ought to enter the race for Supergirl. Interestingly, never does the show lean on ‘Swedish humor’ for laughs. Katie and her family have mild accents, but they don’t repeat sing-song phrases. Her brothers are a bit bucolic yet are presented with respect — no ‘yumpin’ yimminy’ El Brendel humor.
By the midpoint we realize that excellent acting by charming stars is what’s keeping The Farmer’s Daughter afloat. Charles Bickford’s Clancy isn’t above bullying the bad guy, with his employer Agatha’s tacit approval. He demonstrates the stupidity of the body politic by proving to Katie that a rally crowd will cheer anything shouted from the floor. Joseph Cotten’s politico isn’t really all that decisive, which allows him to be continually surprised by his new girlfriend. Ethel Barrymore’s Agatha is a serious political hatchet-woman. Both Morleys and their party seem incompetent for not giving Anders Finley’s political record even a token investigation — one would think that a white supremacist would leave a conspicuous slime trail. Morley and Co. look equally slimy when they even consider smearing Katie’s campaign with a sex scandal.
The halfway smart comedy-drama almost segues into slapstick territory toward the end, when Anders Finley’s goons kidnap Adolph to make the smear stick, and Katie’s brothers are enlisted to bust down doors and get him back. The chief ‘America First’ goon is none other than an un-billed Charles McGraw, still playing bits a year after what should have been his breakthrough in The Killers. McGraw is so ‘in character’ that the comedy momentarily feels like a Film Noir.
With pernicious populism at present rearing its ugly head, the benign/suspicious edges ofThe Farmer’s Daughter become more salient. The film doesn’t overly exaggerate rural values, even though one would think that Katie’s stalwart and righteous father (Harry Shannon) would be well acquainted with farm issues like tax dodges, farm assistance, water fights, etc.. Glenn fires Katie’s hired speech coach and urges her to instead address the public in her simple, honest way. Her delicate schoolmarm palaver is already perfect; the message is that an ‘elitist’ speaking style would cloud Katie’s intrinsic integrity — she’s Longfellow Deeds in a skirt. The fact that this relatively simple fable must pull in a Keeper of the Flame– style fascist for a villain seems forced, and wrong — it’s the so-called simple working people that are exploited by America-Firsters like Anders Finley. Katie Holstrom not only defeats evil, her purity cleanses Glenn and Agatha Morley of their political cynicism. When she reaches Washington, this magic quality will either rid the Capitol of corruption, or she’ll start her own political movement, The Glogg Party.
Ten years previous, actress Loretta Young had been embroiled in hot love affairs with stars like Clark Gable, and was still associated with racy pre-Code dramas about sex in the workplace — Employee’s Entrance, She Had to Say Yes. By this time her image had done an about-face, playing virtuous farm girls, a Bishop’s wife, a nun. She’s the same drop-dead gorgeous looker whether dressed in dungarees or a nun’s habit. Curiously, the most memorable scene in The Farmer’s Daughter is when Katie and Glenn climb a hill on the farm, to talk to her father. The Morley mansion is just another ho-hum movie set, but the image of Cotten and Young climbing that hill, looking so clean and wholesome, suffices for a vision of the best of the American dream.
This must be Dore Schary’s ‘safest’ RKO production. He didn’t fully initiate it, as it apparently started life several years earlier as a David O. Selznick project, put off because Ingrid Bergman didn’t cotton to playing another naïve Swede. Other Selznick contractees clearly stayed attached. Schary’s other early productions for RKO were The Spiral Staircase (politically neutral), Till the End of Time (socially conscious) and, after he became head of production, the prime ‘social statement’ hit Crossfire. Interestingly, three of these pictures have themes warning about the threat of white supremacy. Was the issue given such prominence anywhere else but Hollywood? Monogram’s Violence, also from 1947, features the crimes of a political hate group that exploits unhappy veterans. The Victory years were anything but harmonious.
The Farmer’s Daughter supporting cast is packed with familiar faces: Tom Powers, Thurston Hall, Don Beddoe, Anna Q. Nilsson, Frank Ferguson, Charles Lane. Forrest Ackerman is said to be visible as an extra in the Finley rally scene, and Robert Clarke is fleetingly present as well, as an announcer. Katie’s three brothers are played by three strapping blondes, just staring out: Keith Andes of Clash by Night and Back from Eternity, future Tarzan Lex Barker, and young James Aurness (Arness), who actually was from Minnesota, and beat his brother Peter Graves into films by a full four years.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Farmer’s Daughter is a very good encoding of this long-ago favorite. I know I sat through it at least once as a kid. It has either been out of circulation, or I’ve simply missed it for the last thirty years or so. It wasn’t as perfect as I thought it might be, but the stars’ charm hasn’t diminished.
The image is solid and rich, which of course means that the close-ups of Ms. Young will bear close attention. At age 34 she’s still very much in her prime, as elegant as ever and even more polished in her performance.
Kino offers a stack of trailers plus a spirited commentary. Lee Gambin is yet another glib spokesperson associated with Diabolique magazine, a Melbourne- based writer who has penned a book on The Howling. The enthusiasm in Lee’s conversational ramble will appeal even as he free-associates himself through parts of the talk. This may be perfect for readers not interested in dry facts and analysis. He’s particularly worshipful of the vintage goddess Loretta, which is not a bad starting point.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Farmer’s Daughter
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Historian Lee Gambin, Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson