Friday, 8 January 2016

Film Friday: "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947)

In honor of Loretta Young's 103th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of my favorite films of hers and the one that gave her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by H. C. Potter, The Farmer's Daughter (1947) tells the story of Katrin "Katie" Holstrom (Loretta Young), a Swedish-American farm girl who moves to Capitol City to attend nursing school. Barn painter Adolph Petree (Rhys Williams), who had completed a job for Mr. Holstrom (Harry Shannon), offers Katie a ride, but ends up stealing her tuition and expense money. To rebuild her savings, Katie takes a temporary job as a maid in the home of young Congressman Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten) and his influential mother Agatha (Ethel Barrymore). Glenn is immediately attracted to Katie and she soon impresses Agatha and her loyal butler, Joseph Clancy (Charles Bickford), with her openness and refreshing common sense.

In the meantine, the Morleys and the other leaders of their political party select the unscrupulous Anders J. Finley (Art Baker) to replace a deceased congressman. During a rally for Finley, Katie, who has been taking night classes in economics and politics, embarrasses him by questioning his dubious voting record. Reports about her behavior soon attract the attention of the opposition party, whose leader, Ward Hughes (William Harrigan), invites Katie to run against Finley in the coming election. When Katie accepts, she reluctantly has to quit her job, much to Glenn's annoyance. As her campaign picks up support (with Glenn's coaching), Finley tries to discredit her on the eve of the election by paying Petree to claim she spent the night with him during their trip to the city. Distraught by this, Katie runs home, but Glenn, who has learned of the trickery, follows her and proposes, which she accepts. After hearing of the engagement, Agatha, with Clancy's help, gets Finley drunk enough to admit that not only he bribed Petree, but also that his fascist cohorts are hiding him. Katie and Glenn track Petree to Finley's lodge and, after a fight with the men that are watching him, force him to issue a public retraction. With Agatha's endorsement, Katie eventually wins the election and is carried by Glenn across the threshold at the House of Representatives.

Katie Holstrom: This power and right to vote is something you must cherish and guard with courage and dignity. When someone asks you for your vote, you must be jealous of that vote. You must ask yourself, who is it I'm voting for, what kind of a person, what does he stand for, what does he believe in. Nothing wrong can happen to you, the people, if you will use your vote properly. And no one man or group of men can hurt you, if you will use your power of a free and honest election. 

In the mid-1940s, independent producer David O. Selznick came upon an obscure play called Hulga for Parliament, authored by a Finnish female playwright writing under the male pseudonym Juhani Tervapää. Hulga was a politically astute woman from a Swedish farming community who succeeded in getting elected to parliament. After buying the rights, Selznick assigned the adaptation to Laura Kerr and Allen Rivkin, instructing them to "Americanize" the plot. They entitled their first draft "Katie for Congress," in which a young Swedish woman from Minnesota runs for Congress and wins, despite an unsuccessful attempt to defame her. "Katie for Congress" underwent a name change, becoming The Farmer's Daughter, and was designed as a vehicle for the Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman, who was then under contract to Selznick. Bergman, however, turned it down, claiming that she could do more than act with her accent, especially after it had become a plot point in Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

Once Bergman bowed out, Selznick struck a deal with RKO that included the rights to the original play, Kerr and Rivkin's script and the services of his contract players Joseph Cotten and Ethel Barrymore, in exchange for partial ownership of the property. Selznick also put Dore Schary, a former writer and producer at MGM who was now heading the mogul's Vanguard Films, in charge of producing The Farmer's Daughter. To replace Bergman in the lead role, Selznick tried to convince Schary into hiring the Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie, believing that she could pass for a Swede. When Schary refused, Selznick suggested one of his newest contract stars, Dorothy McGuire, who had made her screen debut in the successful comedy Claudia (1943). Schary once again disagreed and insisted instead on casting Loretta Young, convinced that she "could approximate much more of what we want."

Joseph Cotten and Loretta Young in a
publicity still for The Farmer's Daughter
While Young was working on The Perfect Marriage (1947), Schary visited her on the set and offered her the part of Katie Holstrom in The Farmer's Daughter. Although the role was a big departure from the glamorous women she usually portrayed, Young liked the screenplay and accepted the offer right away. She did, however, expressed doubts about her ability to master a Swedish accent, suggesting that she do a Southern one instead. Since Schary considered the Swedish background to be essential for the character, he decided to hire voice coach Ruth Roberts to help Young with her accent.

The sister of director George Seaton, whose films include Miracle of 34th Street (1947) and The Country Girl (1954), Roberts was of Swedish descent and had been working as a dialogue coach and speech teacher for Hollywood's European imports since shortly before the outbreak of World War II. When Bergman had come to Hollywood from Sweden to star in Intermezzo (1939), Selznick had hired Roberts to help the actress lose her accent. Roberts played a reverse role with Young: "We always said Ruth took away Ingrid's accent and gave it to me," Loretta later recalled. On the set of The Farmer's Daughter, Roberts proved to be even more valuabe than expected, always giving Young precise instructions on how to enounce her words correctly. "If Ruth had been a man in this era, she could have been a director, and a superb one at that," Young said.

Joseph Cotten, Loretta Young, Charles Bickford
and Ethel Barrymore
The Farmer's Daughter marked the first time Young worked with Joseph Cotten; the second was in the Technicolor comedy Half Angel (1951). Cotten, a "courtly Virginian and connoisseur of beauty and talent," was in awe of his beautiful co-star: "Her knownledge of her own technique as well as the offstage mechanics of movie makeup, is enormous. She can never be unglamorous, and her beautiful eyes are as innocent today as ever." The legendary Ethel Barrymore, who had recently received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Clifford Odets' None But the Lonely Heart (1944), also charmed everyone on the set by talking about sports with members of the crew and performing vaudeville routines with Cotten. When Young returned to work after being hospitalized for suffering a miscarriage, Barrymore served as her nurse, sitting guard outside Loretta's dressing room (with a portable radio so she could listen to baseball games), to make sure the young actress would not be disturbed while resting.

Joseph Cotten and Loretta Young on the set
The Farmer's Daughter was filmed between early May and early September 1946 under the direction of H. C. Potter, whose credits included The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle (1939) and Mr. Lucky (1943). Some scenes were shot in Petaluma, California and other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in the MGM studios on Culver City. Although RKO had originally planned to release The Farmer's Daughter in time for the Congressional elections of November 1946, the film's premiere was ultimately postponed until March 25, 1947.

Upon its opening at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, The Farmer's Daughter received positive reviews from critics. Although Bosley Crowther of The New York Times considered the film "a little too naïve to be true," he described it as "a thoroughly pure and pristine examination of the vagaries of romance, mixed in with some healthy observations upon the chicane of politics," which Potter "has kept [...] moving at a quick and envigorating pace." Variety wrote: "The Farmer's Daughter [...] rolls irresistibly along in a light romantic comedy groove. One of the pic's chief assets is the political tilt given to the storyline which, with its rapidly glossed over liberal democratics shibboleths, will give patrons a right-minded feeling in their hearts without disturbing their brain too much [...] Difficulty with the Swedish accent, which occasionally collapses into straight Americanese, is the only flaw in Young's performance."

For her portrayal of Katie Holstrom, Loretta Young received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Charles Bickford was nominated a third time for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the admirable butler (he eventually lost to Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street). Young's competition that year included Joan Crawford for Possessed (1947), Susan Hayward for Smash Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), Dorothy McGuire for Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and her close friend Rosalind Russell for Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). Although Young was thrilled with the nomination, she was convinced she did not stand a chance of winning, especially after the industry had all but awarded the Oscar to Russell, who had already earned the Golden Globe for her performance in the same film.

Loretta Young gazing at her Oscar

At the 20th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on March 28, 1948, Fredric March, the Best Actor winner in the previous year for William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), was entrusted with the task of announcing the name of the best actress of 1947. When he opened the envelope, he looked shocked. Meanwhile, a confident Rosalind Russell, sitting at the rear, was about to rise, until she heard March say, "Loretta Young for The Farmer's Daughter." To avoid public embarrassment, Russell made it seem as though she had risen to lead a standing ovation to her friend. A euphoric Young, wearing a green silk taffeta dress, her neck encircled by a gorgeous diamond necklace, then swept down the aisle to accept her much-awaited award. She graciously acknowledge the other four nominees, but could not resist adding, as she kissed the statuette, "And as for you, at long last." 

Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young by Bernard K. Dick (2011) | Excerpt from Forever Young by Joan Wester Anderson (2000) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

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