Charming, nostalgic romantic comedy/drama. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Farmer Takes a Wife, the 1935 Fox Films release based on the Broadway winner, directed by Victor Fleming, and starring Janet Gaynor, Henry Fonda (in his feature film debut), Charles Bickford, Slim Summerville, Andy Devine, Roger Imhof, Jane Withers, and Margaret Hamilton. A leisurely, amiable mid-19th century ride down memory lane, The Farmer Takes a Wife's Erie Canal setting is the backdrop for a familiar but still touching love story between a cook who never wants to leave the water, and a farmer working on the canal in hopes of one day buying his own spread. It's a delight. No extras for this okay transfer (more about that below).
1853, on the Erie Canal in New York State. Spunky skiff cook Molly Larkins (Janet Gaynor) is employed on the Emma by brawling bully Jotham Klore (Charles Bickford), the "champion" of the Canal. Once entertaining thoughts of marrying Klore, Molly admits to skiff owner Samson Weaver (Roger Imhof) she's not so sure she's willing to put up with Klore's drinking, fighting, and bossing around. The sight of tall, lanky, handsome Dan Harrow (Henry Fonda), new to the Canal, is more intriguing to Molly...even though the mild-mannered Harrow broke up a fight between two oldsters--a sacrilege for the fun-loving, two-fisted, scuffling denizens of the Canal. Harrow, whose father was once "champion" of the Canal, is working for Weaver as the pilot of his Sarsay Sal skiff, but only long enough to make money to buy his own farm. Fully aware that the canal system of transporting goods from East to West is eventually doomed by the nascent railroad system, Harrow doesn't share Molly's blind devotion to the Canal--and that makes her mad...but not mad enough that she doesn't pine to see again the gentle, handsome Harrow. Finally fed up with drunken lout Klore, Molly ditches him to work for Harrow as the young couple declare their love...but only after both agreeing never to mention their incompatible future plans. Klore, however, isn't going to take Molly's escape lightly.
An exceedingly simple, old-fashioned story (even back in 1935), with the unfamiliar Erie Canal setting as a backdrop, The Farmer Takes a Wife was based on the same-named popular Broadway play, written by "Algonquin Roundtable" regular Marc Connelly and Frank B. Elser (who are both credited on-screen for the script), which in turn was based on the novel, Rome Haul, by Walter D. Edmonds (whose Drums Along the Mohawk would provide another bit hit for Fonda). With urbane wag Connelly its chief architect, one might suppose that The Farmer Takes a Wife's comedic tone could be satirical in nature, what with simple girl Gaynor's repeated, fiery proclamations of the superiority of "the canal," vying against farmer Fonda's dreamy odes to wandering settlers heading West, and the loamy delights of Nature's bountiful dirt. Certainly anytime would-be frontier dentist Slim Summerville is on, perversely eyeing horse or cat or human for any opportunity to use his new found gadget and snatch out a tooth, or when Bickford puffs out his chest like Popeye and speaks in a flowery/bowery third person, you can hear Connelly's winking tone.
Aside from those more outward moments, though, The Farmer Takes a Wife has a lovely, sad, affectionate reverie for its well-mounted time and place, a genial, nodding acknowledgement of a long-passed (and surely romanticized here) period in American history where authentic rustics brawled and laughed and drank and sang in a 4mph world (the speed of a quick skiff traveling the Canal)--a world that was already fast-doomed by the approaching railroad. Of course it's all sanitized here: a poor woman's drunken tooth-pulling is played for laughs when the wrong one is yanked; conditions look positively antiseptic on those sound stage skiffs; and Fonda's farm "work" is only shown in key-lit tableaus worthy of Turner. However, there's no mistaking that elegiac undertone to the piece for its Depression-era audiences, many of whom still lived in rural--but rapidly changing, modernizing--bucolic areas. At the movie's start, pillar-of-the-Canal Samson Weaver is treated with respect as a sage, loyal defender of the Canal and its lucrative way of life (he's even given a parade when he hits the lottery). By the end of the movie, when he fussily upbraids the canal workers who are going to spend their first winter season working for the upstart railroads, he's laughed and jeered at, and completely ignored. His and the Canal's time, has passed.
Picking out that subtext first makes The Farmer Takes a Wife sound much more gloomy than it actually is; it's also quite funny (in a very quiet, leisurely way) and even touching at times. Whenever Summerville or Andy Devine begin to steal scenes, The Farmer Takes a Wife takes on a "American tall story" feeling that fits right in with the nostalgic tenor of the piece (Devine's whining monologue about hauling smelly hogs is priceless, while Summerville's snuff-sniffing is laugh-out-loud funny...and obnoxious little brat Jane Withers getting her rump paddled is pretty solid, too). Amusing, too, is board-up-his-ass Charles Bickford, who may be parodying his own real-life persona here as the hard-charging, loutish punch-up who once dared threaten fisticuffs with his boss, Hollywood sultan Louis B. Mayer. His character--a brute everyone hates--shouldn't be funny or sympathetic, but Bickford makes him so, when he hilariously threatens a phony swami who doesn't tell Bickford exactly the fortune he wants, or, SPOILER ALERT!, when astounded at the licking he takes from slight Fonda, he good-naturedly anoints Fonda the better man.
In terms of Gaynor's and Fonda's careers, The Farmer Takes a Wife is probably only known today as a small footnote in Fonda's resume (his first starring role), while Gaynor, the first Best Actress Oscar-winner, languishes in only hardcore movie-fan memories, with only Sunrise and A Star is Born screened on any kind of regular, widespread basis (and by that I mean TCM). This role was an attempt for Gaynor to "toughen up" her usual sweet, innocent screen persona, but it works best when she ditches that quavery orneriness (which she has a hard time pulling off), and lets her silent movie technique take over (watch how beautifully expressive she is, without a word, when she first fusses, then primps, then waits, then tears up in depression when Fonda fails to show up outside her window). As for Fonda, the debut of that soon-to-be-iconic screen persona is immediately engaging: the tentative glances, the long, slow gait, the stillness and inner resolve, and the romanticized plaintiveness of his speech as he quietly rhapsodizes about simple rural pleasures. No wonder he was a big hit right out of the gate with this turn. He-man-but-sensitive director Victor Fleming apparently gave Fonda some good freshman advice to stage actor Fonda (tone it down), and he's used quite well here by Fleming, who keeps the story moving along as languidly--and surely--as a skiff in a narrow canal. The Farmer Takes a Wife isn't very well known today, but it's a charming effort, and one well-worth seeking out.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.