If there is one movie that I really wish TCM would play sometime in the near future, it’s The Farmer’s Daughter, an absolutely delightful comedy starring Loretta Young, Joseph Cotten, and Ethel Barrymore. The movie’s never been released on DVD as far as I can tell (drats!), and I’m seriously jonesing for a fresh viewing.
Released by RKO in 1947, The Farmer’s Daughter tells the story of Katrin (“Katie”) Holstrom, a somewhat naive young woman of Swedish heritage who leaves her family farm for the “big city” in the hopes of becoming a nurse. But when an unscrupulous man swindles Katie of her savings, she is forced to find work as a maid in the home of the Morleys–mother Agatha (Barrymore), widow of a United States Senator and a powerful, wealthy political player, and son Glenn (Cotten), a young Congressman in his own right. While working for the Morleys, Katie displays a surprising knowledge of the ins and outs of the political machine and does not hide her opinions, which amuses Agatha and causes Glenn to see Katie in a new light. Soon, the Morleys throw their support behind a new candidate, Finley (Art Baker), whom Katie knows and abhors. Her subsequent questioning of Finley’s voting record at a town hall meeting causes members of the opposing party to choose her to run against Finley, leading to a competitive political race that puts her friendship with the Morleys–and her budding romance with Glenn–in jeopardy.
This film is one of the great underrated comedies, featuring a wonderfully engrossing storyline and a magnificent cast. Young gives the performance of her career as Katie, winning a surprise Oscar for the role (I say “surprise” because many in Hollywood expected Rosalind Russell to finally take the award for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra–including, by most accounts, Russell herself). Her Katie is soft but steely, a force of morality and stalwart honesty in the face of corruption and greed, and Cotten is both foil (at least initially) and partner.
Cotten (whom I adore–sigh) is charming, but relatively one-note as Glenn–the show is truly Young’s, and he is merely along for the ride (though what a handsome ride it be … sorry, I can’t help myself). Also of note is Charles Bickford, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Morley family butler, Clancy, who tries–and fails–to instruct Katie in the proper behavior of a servant.
And Barrymore, as the shrewd, knowing Agatha, adds the necessary gravitas and a twinkle of motherly humor–something she carried over into her treatment of Young in real life, as she reportedly doted on Young after the actress suffered a miscarriage while filming. Aside from these major players, in smaller roles look for James Arness (of Gunsmoke fame) as Sven, one of Katie’s brothers; famed Swedish import Anna Q. Nilsson as Katie’s mother; and Harry Davenport (who, to me, will always be Gone With the Wind’s nosy Dr. Meade) as Agatha’s doctor.
The film presents an interesting look at “politics as usual” in the 1940s, and along with Frank Capra’s 1939 opus Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, shows modern audiences that the “good old days” were just as filled with corruption, scandal, and manipulation as today’s sometimes exhausting political races. When Katie’s candidacy is announced, the opposing party, endorsed by a reluctant yet determined Agatha, engages in a series of public attacks on Katie’s character, insinuating that she is not the moral paragon her party pronounces her to be. Not much different from our modern electoral process, is it? There are faint shades of “Joe the Plumber” here, too–taking an ordinary citizen and putting them in the political spotlight to further a party’s cause.
The more things change, apparently, the more they stay the same.
The movie tries to maintain a somewhat partisan balance by choosing not to define outright which political party is which, but it’s easy to infer that the Morleys are longtime bastions of the Republican Party, while Katie and her compatriots are unmistakeably Democrats. And though the makers of The Farmer’s Daughter are obviously, painstakingly attempting not to place value judgments on either party, the differences are clear: the Morleys’ party is depicted as overly corrupt and manipulative, while the more liberal opposition, as embodied by Katie, is compassionate, self-sacrificing, and kind.
In the end, however, the movie does not overly exert itself in the direction of making a political point. It is, first and foremost, a romantic comedy, heavier on the romance than the laughs, but equally delightful in both respects.
So play it already, TCM!!!