Friday Film Review: Rachel and the Stranger
Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Genre: Historical frontier romance
Here’s another movie from ‘way back when’ that I first saw years ago courtesy of the AMC TV channel. In my quest for movies to write Friday Film reviews on, it came to mind. When I noticed that it’s going to be shown on TCM in early November, I hauled ass to my stack of old VHS tapes and pulled it out. Thank goodness it’s being broadcast as I’ve learned the hard way that VHS tapes are not eternal.
The film could also be called, in true romance book fashion, “The Indentured Bride.” We’re on the Ohio frontier – exact time never specified – and David Harvey (William Holden) is in need of some feminine influence around the cabin. His beloved wife Susan died recently and since then, the homestead is going to hell and his young son (Gary Gray) is taking full advantage of the lack of supervision to ignore his schoolwork in favor of going fishing and playing with his hound dogs. But it’s not until his friend, and former suitor for Susan’s hand in marriage, Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum) takes a break from his wandering ways to pay them a visit, that David finally acknowledges how bad the situation is.
After Jim heads off hunting, David, and a complaining Davey, ride in to the stockade to see who might be available. Pickings are slim but there is one prospect, an indentured woman named Rachel (Loretta Young). David is really just looking for a servant but caves into the lectures from the preacher that decent folk don’t live together unless they’re married. Rachel doesn’t have much say in all this but the look on her face as David puts the ring on her finger testifies to the fact that she’s not immune to marriage and the chance of a home of her own.
They arrive back at the Harvey homestead where Rachel is treated as little better than a servant. David is considerate but definitely views their relationship as more practical than romantic while Davey is dead set against anyone taking his ma’s place. It’s not until Jim arrives back on the scene, and sees Rachel for the lovely and desirable woman she is, that David wakes up to what he’s got. But is it too late for him to win her back?
The movie is fairly short in its current length (80 minutes vs the original 95) but it packs a lot into those minutes. This is the hard life that people lived on the frontier and which no one complained about. Fetching firewood, milking cows, churning butter, cooking over a fireplace, warding off hawks that are after your chickens – the fun just never ends. But it also shows how dependent upon each other couples were then. It was definitely sink or swim. Just watching Rachel – in her Edith Head designed costumes – fake this for the camera makes me want to hug my kitchen appliances.
I also enjoyed a movie with no sex, no sexual innuendoes and no swearing. The look in Jim’s eyes as he admires Rachel is enough to convey what he’s feeling as is the startled realization of David that he’d better get with the program or risk losing Rachel. His entreaty to Rachel after she’s decided she’s had enough and is on her way back to the stockade is enough to make me roll my eyes – just as she does – at the stubbornness and stupidity of men no matter what the era.
All 4 lead characters are excellent in their roles and that includes young Davey. He’s supposed to be a somewhat whiny young boy who doesn’t want to stop playing in order to get any kind of education and that’s how he comes across. I can see Rachel come to life from Jim’s attention and cheered her on when she chewed out all the males for the way they’ve treated her – including Jim whom she’s pissed at for wanting to buy her indenture ($18 down and 4 owin’).
There’s a Shawnee attack on the homestead towards the end of the film but it’s not un-pc, unlike other films of the time, at least not IMO. I did have to wonder what Rachel thought she’d accomplish by riding back when she could have reached the safety of the stockade but she and David have to be brought together under fire to realize they have genuine feelings for each other. An added bonus is getting to hear Robert Mitchum sing (yes, he could) and play a good guy while Holden shows he could play what amounts to an anti-hero.
This is another movie that baffles me as to why it hasn’t been released on DVD in the US. Maybe someday but until then, catch it on TCM November 3rd or in installments on youtube.
FTC discloser – I watched this on television.
I’ve always loved this film for exactly the reasons you stated. But, lordy, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen it.
It’s a shame it hasn’t come out in dvd. It would be on my buy list as a comfort movie for the next time I drag in from work.
@Maria Zannini: Wow, I didn’t think there would be as many comments on this movie as there usually are on my others but it looks like you and I are the only ones who’ve seen it.
Oh, I’ve seen Rachel and the Stranger easily a dozen times. It was probably the first movie I ever saw Loretta Young in. She didn’t make a lot of movies that interest me, I guess, but she’s very warm and watchable. And William Holden’s best roles were antiheroes, almost without exception.
This movie sounds just like a romance novel! I bet it inspired some of them.
@Janine: It’s been a long time since I read a good mail-order bride book and I don’t recall ever reading one about an indentured heroine. But that’s what Rachel is.
@Jayne: I don’t recall one exactly like your description of this movie, but there have been elements of that premise in various romances. The aspect involving the hero who takes the heroine for granted until a friend of his shows his respect for her reminds me a little bit of Elizabeth Lowell’s Only Mine. Karen Robards had a book, set during the Colonial era, (I don’t remember the title) where the hero (not the heroine) was an indentured servant. Candice Proctor’s excellent Night in Eden, set in Australia, had a heroine who was a convict as well as indentured to the hero. And I have fond memories of Jude Deveraux’s The Invitation, a funny western/Americana romance about a mail order bride.