Establishing shots often get a bad name for their bland or token quality, but it’s true when done well, they can set the tone and create an instant impression on the audience. King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return instantly accentuates this rural milieu. It feels like a stable and equestrian existence, a supremely serene safe haven.
As the movie progresses, we are privy to marvelous pictorials feeling akin to Jean Renoir or John Ford. There is a bit of that pastoral sense of space where the landscapes feel untarnished and beautiful down to their very compositions. Regardless, the land is nothing if not punctuated by human beings meant to till the soil and cultivate it.
Inside a farmhouse, we meet a family of grown-ups sitting around the breakfast table with their patriarch. Beulah Bondi is among them, and they aren’t mean-spirited folks by any means, but they’re generally dutiful and reserved.
I am reminded of the moral tale in the Book of Virtues from my childhood where the adult children care for their dying mother and the chest under her table — just waiting to swoop in and get their due. They can only imagine what treasures she will bequeath them upon her death. It’s the same unspoken undercurrent in this film because Grandpa Storr isn’t oblivious. He knows what’s going on. The difference is, that he’s not ready to go down without a fight.
Lionel Barrymore is bearded like you’ve rarely seen him before. He plays Storr as an ornery man of the old world — giving his healthy cereal to the chickens and proceeding to cook himself up some steak and eggs. He grumbles about how he would rather do something he likes for a few minutes than have to live a hundred years hogtied. We understand him and appreciate his convictions in minutes.
He’s rich with recollections of the Civil War and his childhood exploits on the farm he still maintains. There’s this curmudgeonly bluster about him that is the perfect façade for an obvious heart of gold. As he’s advanced in years, he’s aided by his trusty cowhand Simon who’s known to take a nip of the corn liquor but also remains steadfast when it comes to working Grandpa’s land. The elder Storr also keeps up a good-natured feud with this closest neighbor (Franchot Tone). He’s built himself quite a life of contentment.
The entire movie develops out of the momentous return of his granddaughter — just recently divorced and living back east — who’s prepared to pay her grandfather a visit and go back to basics. Louise (Miriam Hopkins) becomes quite the talking point in the household seeing as she doesn’t live with her husband. That just isn’t done. Of course, Grandpa operates outside of the typical small-minded hypocrisy. He’s radically individual-minded and stubbornly prodigal himself.
Barrymore and Miriam Hopkins cultivate what feels like an instant rapport. Consider the moment where they sit outside on the hanging bench together — their conversation so easy and amicable. She might come off a bit like the prodigal daughter, but if this is true, then he’s more than generous in spirit to be the father figure who welcomes her back to her roots.
Together they strike up a fine friendship with Guy Crane (Tone) and his sympathetic wife Nettie, who both live just down the road. Crane’s the old story of a charming young man who went off to college and then wound up marrying his childhood sweetheart and returning to farm life.
It happens rather organically but Guy and Louise strike up an instant chemistry — at first, it’s good-natured and innocent. It comes to a head at a local dance where they spend plenty of time in each other’s arms and people will talk. One, because Louise is a divorcee and totally alluring, and, two, because Guy dances divinely and is spoken for. If the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter is the crux of the storyline, Tone and Hopkins do much to augment the film. He’s deeply charismatic and there’s always a wry twinkle of mischief in her eyes bringing them together gaily.
There’s nothing dismissive in the simple observation that Louise doesn’t seem like the churchgoing type, but it’s a delight when Grandpa is concerned. After all, as a faithful parishioner, he hasn’t missed a Sunday in years. It gives him peace being there.
The preacher gives his fitting message on 1 Corinthians (Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls). Far from being an implicit indictment of Louise and Guy, it seems to be aimed all the more at any snooty-nosed hypocrite who feels affirmed in their own preening self-righteousness. Grandpa is hardly one of their ilk even as he nods off perfectly at ease.
In the tradition of communal farm life, the Storrs put on a huge spread in exchange for local labor. The bountiful feast the women whip together makes the eyes bulge in its sheer extravagance. Hopkins does her duty gallantly by going out to the pump for water and passing around the plates and coffee, turning the heads of all the farmhands as she goes about her work. Grandpa couldn’t be prouder of his kin.
In what look to be his waning hours, Grandpa’s mind gets overtaken by fanciful delusions about the Civil War, and his children look to cart him off away from the farm for his own good. Could it signal the end of Grandpa or is it a ruse to divvy up the goats from the sheep? Metaphorically speaking, he knows the ones who love him will take care of his sheep. That person is Louise.
The Stranger’s Return lingers over an illicit theme as the two lovers have their affections grow deeper by the hour. It’s such an obvious outcome, and yet the story never succumbs to anything. This is never its intent. Instead, it finds meaning and sincerity dancing sensitively around all of this. In the end, it slates itself as an archetypal tale of a city girl destined for the farm and the farm boy who chose the city as an act of preservation.
What sets the movie apart is this amiable quality — how it is blessed with both humor and integrity of character. People don’t want to hurt one another because they’ve forged relationships cutting deeper than convenient altruism. As someone familiar with two worlds, it makes me hold a deeper affection for rural and urban lifestyles. They both have pros and cons, but what makes them impactful are the people you forge bonds with.