Have You Heard Of?… returns with Jonathon Dabell examining Rachel And The Stranger (1948) starring Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum.
Rachel And The Stranger is an excellent, if largely forgotten, film from 1948 which focuses on the under-used theme of the role of the woman in the pioneering days of the American West. It is absolutely NOT a western, and viewers should not come to it expecting such: the West merely forms a backdrop to a rather diverting and well-developed domestic story. The star trio of Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum give exceptional performances which really command attention. In fact, this was RKO’s biggest money-maker of ’48, helped in part by the fact that Mitchum was arrested for possessing marijuana soon before its release. Rather than distancing themselves from him, RKO took advantage of his notorious shenanigans, and moved the release date forward to capitalise upon the public interest in the scandalous media storm surrounding this new Hollywood bad-boy. Like the saying goes: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The story concerns pioneering homesteader David Harvey (Holden), who lives in the wilderness with his son Davey (Gary Gray). Jim Fairways (Mitchum), a travelling man, occasionally visits the homestead on his travels. He happens to be passing by at the start of the story, and asks after David’s wife only to discover that she recently died from fever, despite being in her 20s. Jim is as upset at the news as David, since he too once courted the deceased woman.
As time passes, David realises he is too busy farming his land and running the homestead to keep his young son occupied and educated. Needing someone to keep the boy on track, he heads to the nearest town and buys an indentured servant named Rachel (Loretta Young). Considering it inappropriate to have a woman under his roof, he also feels obliged to marry her… but it is a marriage in name only. He sleeps on the floor in the front room, rarely speaks with her; shows little interest or affection towards her – in effect, she is little more than his servant. Young Davey also acts coldly towards the new woman, seeing her as nothing more than a pretender brought in to replace his dead mother.
Eventually, Jim returns again during his yearly travels. Jim shows more interest and warmth towards Rachel, and she comes alive with happiness and vivacity around him. Suddenly David realises he has not been a good husband, and notices for the first time that Rachel is invaluable, honest, hard-working and attractive. But has he left it too late to appreciate what he has? Now he has a serious rival on his hands in the shape of Jim, who openly declares his love for Rachel and begs her to leave David to run away with him.
Young is top-billed in the film, though it’s Holden who gets the greater screen time. The whole film is splendidly acted, with Holden playing the mourning homesteader – too busy and brooding to notice how fortunate he is to have found Rachel – with just the right amount of misguided selfishness. It’s a tough role, because he has to portray a lousy husband while somehow maintaiing a degree of sympathy and compassion from the audience. Holden nails it, proving again what a fine performer he always was. Mitchum is terrific too as the wandering man of the wild, charming and friendly and completely at ease in the company of others. It’s easy to see why people gravitate towards him, why he is so appealing to women, and why Holden’s character feels threatened (and romantically inadequate) in his presence. Young is also excellent as Rachel: loyal, proud and determined, yet thoroughly miserable and unloved. This is another tricky role, as she has to convey a sort of patient, dutiful suffering without becoming too much of a martyr. Like Holden, she too nails it – her nuances and reactions are spot-on. A mention should also be reserved for Gary Gray as Holden’s son – it’s often the case that a child performer surrounded by fine actors ends up the weak link in a movie, but not so here. Young Gray is compelling and believable as the jealous little tyke trying to prove to the new woman in his life that she will never hold a candle to his mother.
The injustices and flaws of the indentured servant labour system are quite neatly explored, with the plight of Young’s character showing how an essentially decent person could end up trapped in a meaningless and empty existence. While not treated as cruelly or inhumanly as slaves (both the owner and the indentured servant had contracts, and were expected to keep their end of whatever bargain had been drawn up), the system still failed in the main to acknowledge basic values and the need for man to show humanity to his fellow man (or woman). In the case of Rachel, there is ultimately a happy ending (this is a 40s RKO crowd-pleaser, after all) but the issue is at least raised and explored with more than just a cursory nod.
Photographically, the film is sound if unremarkable, and Roy Webb’s score fits events on-screen without being memorable in any way. The story, character dynamics and the road to resolution and redemption are the key ingredients here, and almost universally they come up trumps. A fine little movie, not seen half as often as it deserves these days which is a real shame.
MoM Rating: 8/10