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Postwar MGM became famous for its explosion of fine Technicolor musicals featuring the best singing, dancing and composing talent of the century. The studio's dramas were on a less steady footing. Production head Louis B. Mayer maintained his prewar preference for sentimental family shows and period dramas. When darker film fare began to sneak in, MGM followed instead of led the Hollywood trend toward more socially minded fare. Then Dore Schary moved over from RKO, and MGM began turning out its share of films noir and politically progressive pictures.
The Romance of Rosy Ridge sees Mayer accepting a social issue as part of a family oriented entertainment, even if the issue is a toothless dispute from the American Civil War, ninety years in the past. The results are awkward but well intentioned, and the movie succeeds by the grace of a likeable cast. The popular wartime discovery Van Johnson is quite good (he doesn't skate through this show with his looks and a smile) and Thomas Mitchell does fine work with a grumpy characterization. The happy surprise is of course young Janet Leigh in her first film role. Plucked for stardom practically off a ski slope, Ms. Leigh is both a natural actress and a stunning dream girl -- no Missouri hill daughter ever looked as good in a form-fitting pioneer dress.
As scripted by Lester Cole, the story by MacKinlay Kantor (author of Gun Crazy) reduces the problems of immediate post- Civil War Missouri to simple North-South hostility. Although the North has won, both factions remain bitter enemies. Mysterious midnight riders are burning the barns of farmers who held allegiance to the South during the hostilities. The result is a labor shortage that threatens the harvest. The MacBean family stands to lose everything, but Gil MacBean (Thomas Mitchell) is dead set against associating with "them that wore blue britches." Storekeeper Cal Baggett (Guy Kibbee) wants everyone to get along, but hardheads like the Dessarks Charles and his son Badge (Charles Dingle & Jim Davis) break up any move toward solidarity and forgiveness. Gil can only hope that his son Ben will return from the fighting... which ended months ago. Amiable drifter Henry Carson (Van Johnson) shows up instead, ingratiates himself into the household with his musical talent and proves himself a worthy field worker. Gil can't get Henry to reveal what he's really after, and he also can't get the young man to declare which side he fought for. The womenfolk would like to drop the issue, and Henry cleverly sidesteps Gil's inquiries. The handsome, healthy stranger enchants Gil's daughter Lissy Anne (Janet Leigh), and hopes to begin a new life with her on some nearby back acres. But the barn burnings continue, and the valley is ready to erupt in added violence.
1947 was one of the biggest years ever for the movie business, what with millions of new families looking for entertainment and widespread TV availability still a couple of years away. The Romance of Rosy Ridge did very well despite being filmed in B&W, when MGM was routinely shooting Lassie pictures in color. The rural locations in Santa Cruz stand in fairly well for Missouri, and technically the picture is quite accomplished. The picture is packed with sing-alongs, with Van Johnson doing rather well entertaining the MacBeans on a banjo. In some ways the basic story seems similar to the concept of the play Oklahoma!: the warring rebels and Yankees align with the play's "farmers and the cowmen" , and young love must wait for the outcome of the dispute.
Thomas Mitchell fusses and grumbles as he does the heavy lifting of making the grudges seem real. Unheralded Selena Royle and Elisabeth Risdon are long-suffering frontier wives, hoping for the best for the new generation. Popular child star Dean Stockwell has a substantial part as young Andrew MacBean, for added appeal. MGM peppers the large cast with familiar faces: Jim Davis, Russell Simpson, Paul Langton, James Bell, O.Z. Whitehead (good as a traveling musician, and the first actor to speak to Janet Leigh on-screen). Although one must look fast to spot them, Barbara Billingsley and Marie Windsor can be seen dancing at the big party scene.
The movie finds an acceptable, if slightly pat, finish, and then continues with a back-story explanation that involves third-billed actor Marshall Thompson. Not only do we feel as if a new movie is beginning, the added scenes spoil the feeling of absence created when a soldier doesn't return from the war. Viewers will likely be reminded of Saroyan's wartime almost-classic The Human Comedy, a show that spoils the impact of harsh reality by allowing the dead to return as comforting ghosts. Maybe there's a connection, as Van Johnson more or less takes the opposite role in Rosy Ridge that he played in Human Comedy.
The flashback epilogue also has perhaps the lamest Civil War image ever: two young men think they're marching off to the same army, until they take different sides of a fork in the road, helpfully labeled "North" and "South". The scene belongs in a Civil War book for pre-schoolers. Otherwise, the dispute remains unexamined, probably in the interest of selling more tickets in the South. The color of uniforms seems the only problem between the former enemies, as no blacks free or slave are visible anywhere.
And don't forget, conservatives, that The Romance of Rosy Ridge was written by an unregenerate American communist. Rightly or wrongly, Lester Cole remained committed to the cause of liberating the power of the pen in Hollywood movies from the producers. As one of the reviled Hollywood Ten, just two movies later he lost his career and went to jail. Is Rosy Ridge tainted by subversive content? I couldn't say. Store owner Guy Kibbee's pleas for tolerance might offend some ears. The real villains turn out to be crooked land speculators using the North/South grudge; quick verbal exposition reveals that they planned to buy cheap land after the barn burners drive out the local farmers. The happy ending includes a legal lynching, also dispensed in a verbal-only reference. It's true that in the HUAC years, any movie blaming social ills on money-grubbing businessmen was considered suspect. Setting The Romance of Rosy Ridge in the distant past probably minimizes that ideological problem.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Romance of Rosy Ridge is a flawless Remastered Edition encoding of this once well-known show, which dropped off the radar for the crime of being in B&W and not featuring bigger actors. Historically, the show has some of the most hygienic-looking backwoods folk on film. We're surprised that the story places so little emphasis on Bible teaching or church culture: Missouri was home to many God-fearing German immigrants and a breeding ground for dedicated preachers.
The WAC's presentation comes with an original trailer, also in flawless condition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Romance of Rosy Ridge rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.