Rachel and the Stranger—William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Loretta Young, Gary Gray (1948; Dir: Norman Foster)
Set on the Kentucky-Ohio frontier, either before or shortly after the American Revolution—the exact time is not clear. There are references to being in the Northwest Territories, and Jim Fairways sings a song about Ohio, so that’s where this takes place. David Harvey (William Holden) is a still-bereaved widower with a young son Davey (Gary Gray), isolated on a remote farm. Prodded by his hunter-friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), Harvey decides to travel to the stockade and see if he can find a new wife.
He finds Rachel (Loretta Young), now a bondservant because of her father’s debts, with whom a Mr. Green is willing to part for $18 dollars plus $4 more in the fall, even though that’s a very steep discount from what he paid. Since it would be inappropriate for the man and woman to live under the same roof otherwise, they are married before leaving the stockade. The problem is that Harvey is still grief-ridden over his first wife’s death and thinks of Rachel as a bondservant more than as a wife. He doesn’t try to talk with her much or develop the relationship. The marriage is not consummated, with the two parties sleeping apart.
The plot bears noticeable similarities to Young’s better-known (and more complex) The Bishop’s Wife, in that her husband fails to notice her good points until Fairways returns and finds her interesting. Whereupon she blossoms; she was always beautiful (being Loretta Young), but it now comes out that she’s educated, has musical talent (she can play the piano) and has taught herself to shoot as well as Harvey’s first wife did, for whom Harvey and Fairways were once romantic rivals. Pushed by Fairways’ interest, Harvey is more open about his own developing romantic interest, leading to a fight between the two males.
Rachel decides to leave, but fate intervenes in the form of a Shawnee war party. Together the three of them hold off an attack by Shawnees on the homestead and it looks like they’re about to succumb to fire. We know how all this romantic (or determinedly non-romantic) stuff will turn out; the interest is in how the characters will get there.
For a similar setting with a more rollicking story, see Many Rivers to Cross. This is better than that one, and better than average, mostly because of the excellent (if small) cast. Young really makes it all work by her restraint, although she seems older than the 25 she gives as her age. (She was 35 at the time, and had been in movies for twenty years. A year past The Farmer’s Daughter, for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award, she was at her peak.) There is also a question about whether Fairways is completely serious in his interest; he may just be prodding Harvey to help him out again. Still, it’s one of those situations where there would be no plot if these people (Harvey and Rachel) would just talk with each other.
Fairways romancing Rachel with music.
Mitchum comes off as a more attractive character here than Holden, who spends most of the film seeming stiff and grumpy. Maybe part of that’s how the parts are written. You could easily see Van Heflin in the Holden part, too. Mitchum’s singing voice proves to be pleasant enough. It’s unclear who the stranger of the title is—presumably Fairways? One poster seems to make it clearer that the stranger is Fairways. But Rachel’s new husband is also a stranger to her. And Rachel is never given a last name, other than “Mrs. Harvey” once she is married. If you like Loretta Young in this western, try her in the 1945 sort-of-comedy with Gary Cooper, Along Came Jones. She plays a strong woman in that one, too.
Some see similarities to Rebecca, with a new wife living in the shadow of the now-deceased first wife and a conflagration at the end. There might also be thematic similarities with The Sound of Music. But that could also be over-analyzing a fairly simple and straightforward film. Based on a story by Howard Fast; screenplay by Waldo Salt. In black and white. Filmed around Eugene, Oregon. Short, at 83 minutes. Despite its low budget, the film became RKO’s most successful film of 1948, making over $350,000. Released briefly on DVD in 2008, that DVD now has very limited availability. As of April 2020, it is now available on blu-ray from Warner Bros. Archive.