A hit Broadway play is brought to the screen with its leading man along for the ride, with one of America’s most popular actresses as his co-star, and with one of the screen’s great directors at the helm. And yet, Victor Fleming’s The Farmer Takes a Wife doesn’t always stand the test of time very well. The writing makes the female character to be very unpleasant but is being played by one of American cinema’s most likable stars, so one’s attraction to the material is constantly thwarted by the love-the-star/hate-the-character conundrum. But a star was definitely born in the film, and Victor Fleming presented Henry Fonda beautifully to a very welcoming public in this, his first movie.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 480I/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DD
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 31 Min.
Package Includes: DVDAmray case
Disc Type: DVD-R
Release Date: 04/16/2013
Obsessively in love with her life on the Erie Canal, Molly Larkins (Janet Gaynor) serves as a cook aboard a barge commanded by Jotham Klore (Charles Bickford), the tough, unofficial head of the Erie Canal skippers. Young Dan Harrow (Henry Fonda) wants more than anything to be a farmer, but in order to earn money to buy a spread, he takes over helming the boat owned by Sam Weaver (Roger Imhof) who gives him half interest. When Molly becomes disgusted by Klore’s drunken binges, she leaves his boat and becomes the cook on Harrow’s boat where the two fall in love. But Molly not only isn’t interested in farm life, she also disparages any man who would give up the Erie Canal for laboring in the dirt. So to keep the peace, Dan and Molly don’t talk about their own individual feelings on the subject, but with the end of the season, Dan has saved enough money to buy a farm. Will Molly’s feelings for him be enough to override her distaste for any life away from the water?
The Production Rating: 3.5/5
Based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds which was adapted for the stage by Frank B. Elser and Marc Connelly, the screenplay by Edwin Burke does not do a good job developing a logical, sensible character for Molly. She loves the Erie Canal but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that railroads are taking over the long distance transportation game; she demands that her man to be a fighter but doesn’t want him fighting for fear of being hurt; she loves Dan but refuses to meet him even half way on fulfilling his dream, demanding he concede to her way of thinking despite his being miserable. Being stubborn is one thing but being foolhardy and selfish is quite again something else, and the play and film’s happy ending doesn’t really seem to be reasonable in light of all we’ve seen. The movie is not a musical (it was musicalized for Betty Grable in 1953 to lackluster response), but there is plenty of period 1850s music all around: the spirited stevedores sing everything from “The Erie Canal” to “Buffalo Gal,” “Loch Lomond,” and “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” The process shots on the Erie Canal are all too obvious, but Victor Fleming does his best to integrate them with location shots of the boats on the canal seen in long shots. He also stages a great climactic brawl for the two leading men. There’s even an eerie moment when a young actor in passing takes a look at the upcoming senator Abraham Lincoln being featured in the newspaper and mentions he’s looking for his own fame. His name? John Wilkes Booth.
Henry Fonda’s first screen role allows him the comfort of recreating what he did on Broadway for the movies, and the camera captures his lustrous eyes as he waxes poetic about his love of the land better than any stage performance ever could have done. He’s also very relaxed for a screen newcomer and doesn’t ever overplay (not that he ever did) for the camera. Janet Gaynor is stuck with the simply impossible chore of making her unreasonable, lunkheaded Molly someone for the audience to root for. She’s only halfway successful never convincing us that Molly has really learned anything (after all, she only returns to Dan after he’s won that fight with Klore, and she never believed that he wasn’t a coward until he had that fight). Charles Bickford inhabits the role of the brawling Klore with great authority, and Fleming has also packed the film with many beloved character actors who do beautifully with their moments in the spotlight: Andy Divine as the rasping Elmer Otway, Slim Summerville as newly-turned dentist Fortune Friendly (he won a pair of pulling pliers in a poker game), Margaret Hamilton as the town’s most sensible female, and little Jane Withers as a town tot who just loves to watch a good fight.
The film is presented in its theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and much of it looks surprisingly good for a film now almost eighty years old. The rear projection is obvious, of course, and some medium shots aren’t as detailed and crisp as others, but the grayscale has been nicely brought forward on the transfer with finely adjusted contrast that gives the image some sparkle. However, the film element used for the transfer is plagued with missing frames (one sequence is nearly incomprehensible due to them), and there are dust specks and scratches along both left and right edges occasionally though not as much as might be expected. The film has been divided into chapters every ten minutes, so this transfer has 10 chapters.
Video Rating: 2.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. More than any prior Fox Archive release (and almost all of them that have been reviewed are prone to this), the volume levels set for the transfer are at disconcertingly elevated levels and will require massive readjustment in order not to damage your equipment or present a distorted listening experience. There are constant hiss, crackles, and pops throughout the presentation, not surprising since there was no digital clean-up performed on these ancient sound elements. Still, dialogue is always discernible when there aren’t missing frames, and music and sound effects never get in the way of understanding what’s being said.
Audio Rating: 2.5/5
The Fox made-on-demand discs do not contain bonus features, not even a trailer.
Special Features Rating: 0/5
Henry Fonda makes a splendid impression in his first film role in The Farmer Takes a Wife. This dated comedy-drama still holds some appeal despite less than understandable characters and a video and audio presentation which does the film no favors.
Overall Rating: 3/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
Support HTF when you buy this title: