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 would not have gone 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 Metro pulled the title in 1963, however, indicating The Stranger's Return as "withdrawn" in syndication listings.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
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
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Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for info/data on The Stranger's Return.