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Although no one knew it at the time of production, the release of Rachel and the Stranger (1948) turned out to be anything but a routine business matter for its producing studio, RKO, thanks to a potentially career-destroying scandal around one of its male leads.
The picture started uneventfully enough. In 1947, Robert Mitchum, whose star was on the rise, and William Holden, back from the war and looking for a career re-charge, were cast opposite screen veteran Loretta Young in a pleasant frontier story about a recently widowed man (Holden) who buys a servant girl (Young) as his wife to help him care for his home and raise his young son. With their grief still fresh, the two won't accept the new woman in their lives as anything more than a servant. They treat her coldly until a waggish roaming scout (Mitchum) comes along and begins to court her; the husband soon begins to see Rachel in a whole new light.
With Rachel and the Stranger and two others in the can, Mitchum was poised for major stardom. But a little past midnight on September 1, 1948, the actor and a friend paid a visit to the home of starlet Lila Leeds. Relaxing on the sexy blonde's couch, puffing on what was later described in court as "medium-grade" marijuana, Mitchum and friends soon found themselves staring into the faces of a couple of LAPD narcotics officers. The arrest made national news, and as Mitchum was hauled off to jail, he expressed more than once his conviction that this was the end of both his career and his already shaky marriage.
The more righteous in the industry were all too eager to help him along the road to obscurity. Showbiz columnist Jerry Fidler called for a boycott of all Mitchum films, and in its weekly publication the Associated Theater Owners of Indiana expressed the skittishness of many exhibitors. Sparing Mitchum the rod, the association targeted "those who rush in to grab off a few dollars as the result of the publicity" and urged other exhibitors conscious of their "own local public relations" to pass on all Mitchum films until the matter was forgotten. But with three productions ready for distribution, pragmatic executives decided they couldn't afford to risk the millions they'd poured into the films and released Rachel and the Stranger immediately. The gamble paid off; the film got favorable reviews and did very well at the box office, even in conservative Boston, and during its Los Angeles engagement earned loud and lengthy applause at the beleaguered star's first moment on screen. Mitchum's career was not only saved, he got to show another side of himself in the movie, which included singing the Roy Webb/Waldo Salt folk song, "O-he, O-hi, O-ho." "I got a change in Rachel and the Stranger, some good grade sardonic comedy plus some 'corn,'" he said later. "I enjoyed doing it." He often named it as one of his three favorites among the many pictures he had made.
Part of Mitchum's enjoyment came from working with Loretta Young, whose Academy Award that year for The Farmer's Daughter (1947) didn't hurt the box office either. Everyone expected that the two would clash; on the surface, the highly disciplined and devoutly Catholic Young was not, to borrow the title of a later Mitchum picture, "his kind of woman." Young gave some stern advice to both her male leads about their excessive drinking habits (for which Mitchum good-naturedly called her "mother superior"), and this may have been the first appearance of her infamous swear box. Cast and crew alike were directed to drop a coin in the box for every curse, priced according to severity. It was a sign of Mitchum's sly and offbeat respect for his co-star when he told a columnist that after paying Young a nickel for every "damn," a dime for "hell" and a quarter for "goddam," he asked her, "What if I say "f***"?" He claimed her response was "That's free!" (Young later insisted the reason for the box's creation was not her objection to cursing, only blasphemy.) Apparently the two stars weren't as far apart as their images presented. According to a staffer in the office of Mitchum's agent, Young was "basically an earthy lady" beyond her "language hang-ups," and Mitchum was considered by those who knew him best to be a very intelligent and sensitive man, despite any efforts he made to present himself otherwise.
One final note of interest about Rachel and the Stranger: the screenplay and the lyrics to the five songs in the movie were written by Waldo Salt, who later won Oscars® for his scripts for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978).
Director: Norman Foster
Producer: Richard H. Berger
Screenplay: Waldo Salt, based on stories by Howard Fast
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Editing: Les Millbrook
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Loretta Young (Rachel), Robert Mitchum (Jim), William Holden (Dave), Gary Gray (Davey), Tom Tully (Parson Jackson), Sara Haden (Mrs. Jackson).
BW-80m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon