The world is full of big and little people, Louise. And Guy isn’t one of the little ones. -Grandpa Storr
Lionel Barrymore seemed to portray nothing but grumpy old men during the 1930s. Perhaps falling more in the mold of grumpy and sweet, but with a purpose is his role as Grandpa Storr in 1933’s The Stranger’s Return. As a pre-code film it of course runs a bit close to the edge with situations which would soon be taboo. Here it is that his granddaughter Louise (Miriam Hopkins) has come from New York City after separating from her husband. On meeting the Storr’s neighbor in Guy Crane (Franchot Tone) they of course begin a relationship. Oh, let’s not forget to mention that Guy’s married to Nettie (Irene Hervey). Nothing like a little marital separation coupled with adultery to titillate.
But in spite of Miriam Hopkins’ attempt to steal the picture with an infectious smile and seemingly flirting with everyone, it is Lionel Barrymore’s picture from beginning almost to the end. Playing the aging 85 year-old third generation patriarch of the Storr clan, early one it’s introduced that his health is starting to decline.
But Grandpa shrugs them off, saying that he’d rather have a few moments to do what he wants to do as opposed to a century of doing what he doesn’t want to. He’s also quirky and strangely endearing, especially during a lengthy scene where he debates who should repair a boundary fence with his neighbor Guy Crane.
During the debate you’d think these two absolutely hated each other as they accuse each other (and their families) of just about every indignity. Perhaps best is when Grandpa agrees to bring Louise over for Sunday lunch, Guy replies, “Good. That’ll give us time to hide all the valuables.” But as they continue you realize they have a respect for each other and that this is a peculiar game they play with each other. Finally as he and Louise leave, he admits his respect for Guy and says, “And he’s a good farmer.” The land means everything to Grandpa Storr.
The love story between Guy and Louise continues to develop, culminating in a dance where the two dance with each other for one dance too many, drawing the gossip from the village’s shrewish mother hens. Following this Louise again visits their farm, whereafter Guy drives Louise home where he abruptly kisses her, admitting finally that he’s wanted to do it for some time. Rather than refuse his advances, Louise (in true style) is flirtatiously noncommittal, which surely only encourages Guy’s thinking.
Though more might be implied, the relationship rather stalls, perhaps because of some awkward moments with Guy’s wife Nettie. Making the situation tougher for the audience is that Nettie is the model wife, standing by and supporting her husband in spite of knowing that their paths are a little bit different. Evidently the two were high school sweethearts and he went off to college and she didn’t, changing his perspective markedly.
All along the way we feel that Louise the city girl is slowly coming into her own as Louise the country girl. Yet even still she bring her flirtatious ways as seen during the Storr’s hosting of a group dinner during harvest season where she brings milk, coffee and other items to the helpful farmers who are surely looking for just another excuse to interface with her. Wondrously she’s managed to merge the best of her two worlds.
As it seems The Stranger’s Return‘s romance story has to reach the next level it suddenly stalls out and Grandpa Storr comes back to the fore. He’s lost his mind and sees Confederate soldiers everywhere and demands that defenses be built to repel them. Just as it appears that he’ll be committed to a home against his will, he confesses that it was all a ruse to expose his families true intentions. Quickly he updates his will, cutting most of them out and leaving the bulk of his farm to Louise.
The next morning he passes and Louise reluctantly takes his place at the head of the table for the morning blessing. Next we cut to her supervising work in the fields when Guy pulls up. The news isn’t good for our new heroine and he tells her that he’s decided to take a renewed offer from Cornell to teach. “Nettie’s was….happy,” he says. “And neither of us want to break her heart,” Louise replies.
Rather abruptly the curtain falls and we’re left with an image of a plow turning earth.
The Stranger’s Return is an extremely good picture, with Lionel Barrymore being a primary ingredient in its success. Though extremely tame by today’s standards, perhaps then the love story between Louise and Guy was something to think about a bit more. Director King Vidor has taken a great script and empowered an extremely good cast all around – especially the aforementioned Barrymore coupled with Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone- provide powerfully dynamic performances.
Overall though The Stranger’s Return surely done on a studio lot, there’s the impression that much of the picture was filmed on location. This is done through the surprisingly unusually effective rear projection. Better still is that the picture ‘feels’ right. Perhaps the slower pace of more rural life with its implied closer communities and more structured relationships. The Stranger’s Return also has a bit of a moral in it, though to be honest you have to squint just a little bit to realize that the message here is that good people come in all shapes and sizes.
Though Louise is presumed perhaps tainted by her separation and dalliance with Guy, in the end she’s given Grandpa’s most valuable possession to safeguard: his family’s legacy in the physical form of the family farm. Guy too, who wanders a bit from the path (at least emotionally) come back to the straight and narrow knowing that the only way for he or Louise (not to mention Nettie) silence the village gossips is to make the only right decision and take the Cornell position.
From today’s perspective the plot has in fact faded a bit and one keeps asking themselves what else is coming. Can this be it? Yes, it is and that’s fine. Everything doesn’t have to be explosions and action heroes. This is one of those that should be shown more often.