By Alan Hurst
William Holden and Robert Mitchum have always been two of my favourite film actors. They were just so deceptively easy to watch, and not just because they were both extremely good looking. They were both fine actors – Mitchum in his more laconic, subtle way and Holden in his more straightforward approach, but despite Mitchum’s early acclaim and Holden’s Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953), I don’t think either of them got the credit they deserved. They were two of the most dependable and interesting screen stars of the late forties through to the seventies.
The only time the two appeared on screen together was in director Norman Foster’s amiable frontier western Rachel and the Stranger in 1948, just as they were about to become major stars. It’s an interesting yet nicely low key film match up. Rachel and the Stranger revolves around the Rachel of title, played by Loretta Young, and the fact that the film is ultimately one of the most slyly sexy and romantic movies of the period is due to the unique courting dance that both Holden and Mitchum do around Rachel.
The story is set in the mid-1800’s in Ohio where a recently widowed settler (Holden as Big Davey) is trying to raise his son (also named Davey) but concerned that without the influence of a woman he will grow up wild. After a winter on their own, Big Davey heads off to the local settlement where the local parson convinces him to purchase an indentured servant (Loretta Young) and then marry her for the sake of propriety. The young Davey, still mourning the loss of his mother, rejects Rachel and Big Davey treats her as a servant – comparing her unfavourably to his deceased wife. Rachel is determined to learn the ways of frontier and she does, which eventually impresses the father and son. Things really start to shift with the arrival of hunter Jim Fairways (Mitchum) who becomes smitten with Rachel, and we see the jealously start to rise in Big Davey.
This is all presented in a fairly innocent way, but it’s also surprisingly adult when you realize what’s going on. Holden has “bought” a wife that he isn’t in love with for the purpose of cleaning, cooking and schooling his son. He’s clearly still in mourning for his wife, but you can see the sparks of attraction begin to pop and he’s not sure how to handle it, so he ignores it. But once the equally handsome Mitchum shows up, more overtly flirtatious and friendly, he brings Rachel out of her shell which makes her even more interesting to Holden.
The film has a light, comic touch that is sustained throughout – interrupted only when the homestead and surrounding community are attacked by a Shawnee tribe at the climax of the film. The threat of attack on pioneers was real – and that’s communicated throughout the film – but it feels like an unnecessarily violent way to bring these the two Daveys and Rachel together. Still, it’s an exciting few minutes of story telling and I guess a bit of a reality check for a story told from the pioneer point of view.
Loretta Young was in the midst of the most prolific period of her film career when she filmed Rachel and the Stranger. After a series of run of the mill films she gave a strong performance in Orson Welles’ Nazi drama The Stranger (1946) and followed that with a surprise Oscar win for her subtle comedic work in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). The Bishop’s Wife (1947) was next, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture and one of the all-time classic holiday films with a beautiful, melancholy performance from Young. Two other strong dramas – The Accused (1949) and Come to the Stable (1949) – would follow Rachel and the Stranger. Young’s performance as Rachel is among her best – she let’s you know she’s resigned to her fate and makes Rachel both endearing and interesting. She just wants to belong, and you can see she’s falling for both men, but you just know Holden has the edge. There’s also a nice streak of independence in Young’s character. Being Loretta Young, Rachel doesn’t look like she’d survive in the back woods, but she certainly is determined to make sure she does.
Mitchum is wryly amusing as Jim, proving to be both a breath of fresh air with his carefree and very likeable approach to the character. It’s one of Mitchum’s more atypical roles and if the character came across as threatening, the story wouldn’t have worked. Instead, we can immediately see why Rachel is attracted to him and why he and Davey remain friends despite some physical sparring and honest jealousy.
Holden was just a couple years away from Sunset Boulevard (1950) when we would see what he was truly capable of, but this is a nicely judged performance that balances grief for his dead wife, the stress of being a parent, growing attraction to Rachel and his desire to create a family again. He’s not as deft in his approach to things as Mitchum is, but his character is equally likeable.
Aside from the performances and the beautiful, almost idyllic locations, the script by Waldo Salt is the film’s strongest attribute. It’s a very well-crafted and multi-layered look at a way of life that few of us can relate to, with interesting, everyday characters at its centre. There are no extreme personalities here, just a group of decent people trying to create a life for themselves with limited options. Salt also co-wrote the songs that we hear Mitchum sing (and sing very well). Many years later writer Waldo Salt won Academy Awards for his screenplays for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978).
An interesting side note: Julie Andrews tried to get a remake of this one off the ground in the seventies and early eighties, seeing it as a good vehicle for herself, but it didn’t happen.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.