Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Favourite movies: The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935)

Erie Canal Song

(Chorus)

Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,
Low bridge for we're com-in to a town,
And you al-ways know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ev-er navigated on the Er-ie can-al




Walter Edmonds (1903-1988) was the award winning author of popular historical novels and children's books. Edmonds brought the 19th century, in particular the 19th century of his home state of New York, to life for generations. He received the Newbery Medical in 1942 for The Matchlock Gun. His first published novel, Rome Haul, was his first commercial success. It was such a success that Frank B. Elser and Marc Connelly adapted it for the stage as The Farmer Takes a Wife and it played on Broadway for 104 performances.

The sentiment expressed in Thomas Allen's 1905 Erie Canal Song echo those feelings of the heroine of Edmond's story set a half century earlier. Molly Larkin is a young woman who loves everything about her life on the canal. She works as a cook on a barge owned by the rough and tough Jotham Klore. She loves the excitement of travel, of meeting different people. She loves the river and the land, and can picture no life for herself other than the one she knows.



June Walker (1926-1943) brought Molly to life on stage. Miss Walker enjoyed a 40 year career on Broadway with roles ranging from Myra in the original production of Waterloo Bridge to a concerned mother in Blue Denim. She can be seen in a few movies and popular television programs including Robert Montgomery Presents and My Three Sons. Her own son is actor John Kerr known for South Pacific and Tea and Sympathy.



Creating the role of Dan Harrow was young Henry Fonda (1905-1982). The Farmer Takes a Wife wasn't his first Broadway outing, but it was his first success. Dan is a fellow who knows all about the canal as it was his father's business. However, Dan has mapped out a different course for his life. He wants a farm of his own, and he means to have it by working on the canal to raise his needed capital. One look at Molly, and Dan means to have her as well, working the farm by his side.

It may seem a slight thing, this story of a stubborn gal and a sensitive fellow overcoming obstacles of their own making on the road to romance, but it is in the telling that we find the pleasure.



Fox Studios bought the rights to film the story for their number one leading lady, Janet Gaynor. It was thought at the time that Joel McCrea or Gary Cooper would be a suitable Dan, seeing as no one knew this Henry Fonda chap. When first and second choices were unavailable, it was decided that Gaynor was enough of a draw that a chance could be taken with Fonda. Victor Fleming (A Guy Named Joe, Captains Courageous, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) directed with a leisurely pace befitting the gentle, rustic setting and story.


Janet Gaynor was perfect as the appealing and spunky Molly Larkin. Her boss and Dan's rival Jotham Klore was played with all his blustery gusto by Charles Bickford. One of the "issues" Molly had with Dan was that he kept backing away from a fight with Jotham. To Molly's way of thinking this evinced a lack of character on Dan's part. Dan thinks himself a highly sensible fellow.

Packet Boat on the Erie Canal

Molly wanted Dan, but she wanted the life she loved on the canal. Dan wanted Molly, but he could foresee a time when rail travel would replace the mule drawn barges, and his love of the land and farming ran deep. Loving each other wasn't enough. That other had to love what she or he did. Compromise is a terrible thing to the young.


Cinematographer Ernest Palmer (Cavalcade, Charlie Chan in Paris, Broken Arrow) helps to create the sense of the past in this movie version of the story with the sumptuous feel of an old-fashioned print springing to life.

Just as important to the pastoral and small town setting are the faces who populate Molly and Dan's world. Margaret Hamilton, also from the Broadway production, recreates the role of widow Lucy Gurget, a woman of estimable pride and sense. This roll call of character names will give you an idea of the authenticity of look and feel achieved in The Farmer Takes a Wife: Andy Devine, Slim Summerville, Roger Imhof, Jane Withers, Kitty Kelley, John Qualen, Irving Bacon, William Benedict, Esther Howard, "Gabby" Hayes, J.M. Kerrigan, J. Farrell MacDonald, Eily Malyon, Zeffie Tilbury. These friends and neighbours support and chide our young couple, while going on about their own lives.

A very funny moment occurs when through a thick fog Andy Devine's character shouts a "good morning" to the barge and Janet Gaynor as Molly responds, "Who is it?" Now, Andy Devine, no matter who he is playing, sounds like Andy Devine. Somehow, I can imagine Victor Fleming looking at the script and saying "Janet, can you say that with a straight face?" The actress in her rose to the task.


Henry Fonda credits Victor Fleming for kindly and patiently introducing him to the concept of scaling back his stage mannerisms for the prying eye of the camera. With this first movie, Fonda established himself as an earnest screen presence - a young man of ideals and integrity. He would appear in two other films based on Edmonds' novels, Chad Hanna and Drums Along the Mohawk.

The Farmer Takes a Wife is a true time machine of a movie, transporting us to a unique time and place, with an undeniable charm for the viewer of today.


The Farmer Takes a Wife was made into a musical film in 1953 with songs by Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields. Betty Grable played Molly, Dale Robertson was Dan, Thelma Ritter played Lucy and John Carroll was Jotham Klore. If I have seen it, it didn't leave a major impression on my memory. I'm fond of Betty, and she certainly has lots of spunk, but I always see her as a city girl. Somehow I can't see her pining for life on the Erie Canal.

18 comments:

  1. Great history of the movie that I didn't know. It's a great older movie - however the Betty Grable movie is not so much so!

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  2. I respect your opinion on such matters. I would expect more from Arlen & Fields, but it seems they weren't inspired. I like the idea of a musical from this story, but it's probably not flashy enough for today.

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  3. CW,
    This was a great review. I can't picture Cooper or anyone else in Fonda's role so glad they were busy with other projects.
    I'm a fan of all things Gaynor even though my favorite of hers is A Star is Born and Tess of the Storm Country.

    I haven't seen the musical version much later so I don't have a comparison to the original.
    Page

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  4. Thanks, Page.

    I can see Joel McCrea more than Gary Cooper as Dan, but I really wouldn't want anyone other than Henry Fonda.

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  5. I've never seen either version, Caftan Woman. The original sounds wonderful, and what a cast! I was also interested to hear that June Walker, whom I remember as Myra in Waterloo Bridge, was John Kerr's mother!

    You know, it's possible that if I saw this movie title, I confused it with "The Farmer's Daughter", the movie Loretta Young got an Oscar for, and which I never liked! I'm definitely going to watch this one! Good post!

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  6. Becky, I saw "The Farmer Takes a Wife" on TCM a while back, but it doesn't look as if they have any plans to screen it in the near future. So far, it's not available on DVD. Looks like we have to wait for the movie gods to smile upon us.

    I haven't seen "The Farmer's Daughter" in a long time. I don't recall being thrilled with it and have been thinking it deserves a second chance - if only to see young Jim Arness again.

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  7. This is a totally charming film! Janet Gaynor was perfectly perfect (as always) and, with Fonda and the rest, the casting was "devine." Terrific post - this is truly a neglected gem (as are Gaynor and Fonda, it seems).

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  8. I've got to see this one now. Love this stuff. You hooked me with the Erie Canal song. I admit to singing it in odd moments of emotional ecstacy. But that's just for your ears.

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  9. Oh dear, Jacqueline -- I was eavesdropping and I heard you! LOL! Don't feel bad -- after I saw Young Frankenstein, I sang "Oh Sweet Mystery of Life At Last I've Found You" at a most opportune moment -- but don't tell anybody...

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  10. "...this is truly a neglected gem (as are Gaynor and Fonda, it seems)."

    Sadly, FlickChick, I think you may be right about that. Fonda doesn't always seem to garner the respect I think he deserves, and it's been a long time since anyone made a connection between Miss Gaynor and my daughter's name.

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  11. I can understand the singing, Jacqueline. I think I can also understand the choice of song. There is a free and easy way about it. However, I won't tell a soul.

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  12. Becky, I'll never be able to look at Nelson and Jeanette the same way again!

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  13. What a great review, to what I think is Henry Fonda's, very first film performance.

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  14. Thanks, Dawn.

    I don't think Henry Fonda could have asked for a better movie debut. He displayed an individualistic integrity that would be his main screen image.

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  15. This is an absolutely wonderful post! I really enjoyed and was completely absorbed by your thorough (and intelligent and entertaining) look at "The Farmer Takes a Wife" - from it's very beginnings (and before), through its life on film.

    I believe I've seen the 1935 movie - but not for a long, long time. Now I'm really curious to see it again. Thanks for the a great read and the motivation to revisit a movie I'd forgotten.

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  16. I appreciate the compliment, and I hope the opportunity to enjoy "The Farmer Takes a Wife" is sooner rather than later.

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  17. As others have said, this was a fascinating account of the evolution of book to stage play to film. As for the remake, I can't imagine Dale Robertson in a musical.

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  18. Yes, Dale Robertson in a musical does give one pause. Rather like Jeff Richards in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", he's there for his non-musical attributes.

    Maybe, like John Payne or Dana Andrews, he really could sing?

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