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Thursday, October 23, 2014

TCM Unearths Another Gem

The Stranger's Return (1933) Is Back On Television

Warners has quietly cleared another out-of-circulation title and put it back on view. The Stranger's Return played last week on TCM without fanfare, no mention in Robert Osborne's intro that this was a first time showing in the over twenty years since TNT, according to online posters, had a run. History of The Stranger's Return in terms of spotty sightings is fascinating in itself. There certainly were 16mm prints made up for television when MGM's "Pre-48 Greats" became available for broadcast in August 1956. Sixty stations would within a first three years purchase the entire package of 716 features, including The Stranger's Return, so it did not go unseen during that period. Metro pulled the title in 1963, however, indicating The Stranger's Return as "withdrawn" in syndication listings. The flag was result of underlying literary rights (source novel by Phil Stong) that had not been renewed. Other titles taken out of TV circulation at the same time included Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Mr. and Mrs. North (1942), among others, some of which still remain to be cleared for broadcast. There would later be rental access to The Stranger's Return on 16mm, through Films, Inc., whose 1977 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue listed the 1933 feature, suggesting that MGM still had non-theatrical, if not TV, rights.

William K. Everson ran a 16mm print to his NYU class on 10/14/77. He probably rented The Stranger's Return from Films, Inc., but on the other hand, it may have been his own print, which hopefully is still around and might supply a scene missing from the final reel. What TCM played looked to be from 35mm with low contrast, reminiscent of grayish 16mm local stations used to lease from syndicators. There seems not to be multiple prints of The Stranger's Return around, the camera negative having burned years back. So question as applies to any oldie brought out of hibernation: Is it worth the wait? Being a King Vidor project automatically confers interest. The theme was one he liked and would return to, being rural-based and close to soil. Location is generous, and thanks-be, these farms aren't built on Metro stages (Stranger's was shot "about an hour or so" from Los Angeles, according to Vidor in a later interview with Nancy Dowd). Characters live off the land, so there's no Depression reference other than Miriam Hopkins mentioning fact she couldn't find a job in the city she's recently left.

I don't gravitate to sticks-set stuff as a rule, finding them usually clichéd or oppressive, as in beat-down of Lillian Gish in The Wind or harsh Mountain Justice as meted in that Warners ordeal directed by Mike Curtiz. Worse is when they go all-out poetic with stunner imagery but caterpillar pace, like City Girl. Every farm patriarch is a hard case, it seems, Lionel Barrymore no exception in The Stranger's Return, but good writing lends wit enough to dialogue to make his character engaging, a third act twist on expectation being for me what's best and most memorable about the show. LB talks of long ago when he "went to the Civil War," and there's a real sense of battles having once been fought on ground he now tills. North Carolina had Confederate vet parades well into the 20th century; my mother recalled ones taking place each year in Kings Mountain, where she grew up, so The Stranger's Return and Barrymore's role must have rung especially true for many who saw the film first-run in 1933.

There's also importance of food to these people. They eat, and talk a lot of eating. Lionel is served cereal, "cardboard" according to him, at breakfast (for Grandpa's health) and rebels by going outdoors to collect eggs and do ritual of frying these plus bacon in extended action where we can almost taste result. He later balks at lemonade and cookies served by neighbor Franchot Tone and wife because they'll "spoil our lunch," while his threshing crew after a morning's work rushes to table like starved animals. Their attack on loaded plates seem like comedy to sedentary moderns who've lost sight of what it is to be really hungry after honest-to-goodness work outdoors. Stranger's extended feast with Miriam Hopkins unable to keep pace with demand for seconds, salt, and what-not, is a highlight that's staged beautifully by director Vidor.

Hopkins has a part so well conceived as to make her for once appealing as an actress. She's a modern woman having been around, married, and then split from that, but not jaundiced by experience. Her developing romance with Franchot Tone is believable, suffused with good dialogue, and played splendidly by both. He has a wife, who thankfully isn't a shrew or doormat we wish would clear out for sake of new-found love. There's real sense that Tone would give up much by letting her go, no matter novelty's attraction in Hopkins. The situation is adult, sensitively handled, and reflective of benefit Vidor had for getting his cast/crew well away from Culver to shoot. The Stranger's Return was pre-Code, but not aggressively so, having not the sort of theme we'd associate with the category, and yet ... Vidor did refer to a haystack love scene between Hopkins and Tone missing from a print he saw in the late 70's (his first screening since the film was new). There was no such footage in TCM's broadcast last week. Had it been Code-cut at some point? Many features of the period were, with trims never put back. What we have of The Stranger's Return may be incomplete beyond short business lopped from the end.

Note Clark Gable As Originally Having Been Cast

"My audience in North Dakota ate it up," said one showman. "The answer to the small town exhibitor's prayer," said another. This was typical of grassroots reaction to The Stranger's Return. Of multiple opinions I read, none were negative, and all reported good business. It was, in fact, "a picture that sends them away smiling," according to one manager who'd report pleased patrons he'd not have to duck the next day (bad pictures had a way of keeping managers off small-town streets until stench died down). Some playing The Stranger's Return used the "Personal Assurance" gag that was always chancy, unless you had something truly good to sell. In this case, they did. 100% customer satisfaction was reported in numerous situations. Agricultural centers were a natural, Variety reporting that Lincoln, Nebraska's same named venue "has the town to itself" while playing The Stranger's Return. Overall rentals were fine, with nice gains for Metro thanks to reasonable negative cost ($288,035). Domestic rentals were $439,000, foreign $191,000. Final profit was $117,964.

Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for info/data on The Stranger's Return.


Blogger Michael said...

Great writeup, I'm really glad you got to this one which (as you know from NitrateVille) is a personal favorite.

The haystack scene notion is interesting, it's tough to see where it would go in the finished film. The climactic moment in their romance is the scene where she's on the hammock-- a nice choice of suggestive but still-deniable venue, that-- and it's hard to imagine how the plot's progression would have accommodated anything more explicitly suggestive that they'd done more than pine. My suspicion is that that's a memory failing, not a scene that was ever really shot.

I think I tried twice to book this from Films Inc. I think once I got a print of a spaghetti western called The Stranger Returns, or at least had to go to trouble to make sure that wasn't it. (Films Inc. was notorious for, if you ordered any title that had more than one film to it, you WOULD get Ingram's The Magician rather than Bergman's, or vice versa.) Anyway, by the time I got it ordered correctly for my series in Wichita, the report from their lab came back that it was no longer in showable shape, and I had to substitute Street Scene as roughly the closest similar thing.

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot, Michael, for this background on Films, Inc. and rental efforts re "The Stranger's Return." Funny you should mention "The Stranger Returns" circa 1968, starring Tony Anthony. I saw that when it came out, but haven't seen it turn up anywhere since. Another lost classic!

10:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

This wasn't a bad movie at all. After being used to Barrymore in a wheelchair, my wife was shocked to see him walking. Looked a little like Rasputin, didn't he?

I'm kind of confused about Gable being part of the original cast. We he supposed to have played the Stu Erwin role? Or Hopkins' estranged husband?

That abrupt end took me by surprise. It looked like there might have been a few more lines -- or a kiss?

You're right about Tone's wife being a decent person. Most movies, especially today, take the easy way out by making the spouse easy to hate. Here, you were kind of forced to choose between the two, as was Tone.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I can't imagine Gable playing anything but the Tone role, if that, so they must have both been in contention for it... or this is simply a mistake.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

By the way, isn't that "adopted child" caption under Hopkins' photo Hollywood-code for "illegitimate offspring"?

4:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon passes along some thoughts on "The Stranger's Return" and changed landscapes where it was filmed:

The LONG blog about "The Stranger's Return" is interesting but I'm at a slight disadvantage, never even having heard of it. The reference to filming rural scenes "about an hour away" (from MGM) is absolutely credible for the year in which it was made, as most of greater LA county was only slightly developed in the sense of suburbs, let alone urban-style centers. In fact, where I live today, it was mostly farm land or open, unincorporated (no city) land. (That'd be the Conejo Valley; it's on view constantly in Milestone pictures, e.g., as he liked filming out here apparently, and shot "Of Mice and Men", "The Red Pony", "A Walk in the Sun" here, and many characteristic profiles of the surrounding hills and mountain ranges are often very recognizable. What's NOT recognizable is anything on the valley floor! That is transformed beyond comprehension today.) Miriam Hopkins is very good in that hard-luck movie that recently got some new play...I'm going blank on the title...where she's ill-used by Jack LaRue. It's a simmering pot-boiler, pre-code. To see her in that or in "Design For Living" reminds us that people were recognizably people back then, after all, until the religious Nazis stepped in and sprinkled everything with fairy dust. Certainly not to infer that people were all having affairs, or consorting with criminals, etc. That should be obvious. But it was most definitely fair grist for the mill of moviemaking, that is, until a relatively small faction of self-righteous kooks wagged the dog for the next 30 years. My contempt for bullies--which is what they were--and censorship, both, probably come through loud and clear here. My attitude is always, "Don't go see it", or, "Change the channel"...if you don't like something. But, I don't think it's necessary to raise a war party and fight to have things suppressed, at least as long as the thing in question has some basis in reality and real human behavior, which is reliably complex at any given time. Hopkins as an actress dealt with extreme stuff extremely well, for a woman who otherwise always gave off a whiff of the cliché "suthun belle". I thought she was fantastic and disturbing (and therefore, very brave!) in that unforgettably-nuts episode of "Outer Limits" in 1964, written by Joseph Stefano, about the box that vacuumed human beings into itself at a wedding party. I know you must remember that, even from re-runs, as unlike me you're unlikely to have seen it when it was new as I did (and went to bed that night considerably creeped out by it!)

2:56 PM  

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