The film hasn’t been completely hidden from view: it had one exposure on Turner Classic Movies in 1999 and was part of a Janet Gaynor touring program in 2006 featuring brand-new 35mm prints, sponsored by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. But for anyone who missed these isolated opportunities, the new DVD is exceedingly welcome.
The picture’s main claim to fame is that it marks Henry Fonda’s screen debut, in which he recreates the role of a shy farmer that earned him acclaim on Broadway.
What impresses me more is its attempt to create a tangible, authentic sense of time and place. The story takes place in 1853 along the Erie Canal, before the coming of the railroad—a dirty word to those who make their living by hauling goods on the riverway. Producer Winfield Sheehan, toward the end of his tenure at Fox, supervised construction of an enormous canal set on the vast Fox back lot, which director Victor Fleming supplemented by location filming in Sonora, California.
The result is a feeling that impressed movie newcomer Fonda, who later recalled the pleasure of working outdoors “and there’s real dirt here and there’s water in the canal and there are real horses pulling the canal boats and there’s a real fire in the blacksmith’s forge—it’s not fake, it’s real. And if it’s real that helps me, because in the theater you have to make reality out of papier-maché, so to speak.”
So when burly Charles Bickford bounds into the office of the transport manager, Fleming doesn’t cut to an interior soundstage: he lets the scene play out in a set built on location, where we can see the natural flow of activity outside the pane-glass windows of the office. There is still use of rear projection, but Fleming’s compositions are artful, and he and cinematographer Ernest Palmer make impressive use of a moving camera.
The familiar, even formulaic, story—with Bickford as a bully who uses Gaynor as his slavey and challenges any man to fight him—is based on a novel called Rome Haul by Walter D. Edmonds (author of Drums Along the Mohawk), and its Broadway adaptation by Frank B. Elser and Marc Connelly. The movie opens with a heavy-handed (but still effective) expository speech, and much of the remaining dialogue is old-fashioned and declamatory. But the flavorful performances of its cast, including strong supporting turns by Slim Summerville (displaying an adeptness with dialogue I’d never noted before), Margaret Hamilton, Andy Devine, and young Jane Withers, makes it well worth seeing. And, of course, it’s enjoyable to see Fonda in his screen debut, and Janet Gaynor playing against type as a forthright young woman who chooses her male employer (and partner), not the other way around.
The Farmer Takes a Wife may not be a great film, but it’s an interesting one for a wide variety of reasons, and I’m glad it’s now available on DVD. (It was remade as a Betty Grable musical in 1953.)
Fox has just announced a new array of 23 titles being released between now and late August, including Romance of the Rio Grande, A Walk with Love and Death, Hilda Crane, Mardi Gras, A Flea in Her Ear, No Highway in the Sky, Ramona, April Love, Sweet and Low-Down, Wake Up and Dream, American Guerrilla in the Philippines, The Fiend Who Walked the West, Dante’s Inferno, White Fang, Four Sons, Private Number, Me and My Girl, and Three Little Girls in Blue. You can order and find complete listings at www.classicflix.com and such broad-based outlets as www.amazon.com.