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The Warner Brothers western Strange Lady in Town (1955) had its genesis in a high-octane 1953 dinner party, at which actress Greer Garson was seated next to screenwriter Frank Butler. The six-time Oscar®-nominated star (who had won the award for 1942's Mrs. Miniver), told the three-time Oscar®-nominated writer (who had won the award for 1944's Going My Way) that she would dearly love to act in an outdoor drama set in old Santa Fe, an area she loved.
Butler took the offhand request to heart; within a few months, he had written a story that he would eventually adapt into the screenplay for Strange Lady in Town, complete with a leading part for Garson. She played a spirited Bostonian doctor who, dismayed by condescension for being a woman, transplants herself out west in 1880, joining her cavalry lieutenant brother (Cameron Mitchell) in Santa Fe. There she makes an enemy of the local town doctor (Dana Andrews) and faces continued disdain as she tries to introduce modern medical ideas and instruments -- like a stethoscope. Eventually Garson and Andrews come to respect each other, and he even teaches her to ride a horse in a memorable scene in which he instructs her to "sit up straight" and to "try not to look like a sack of potatoes." Butler's script also finds ways to work in appearances by Billy the Kid (Nick Adams) and General Lew Wallace (Ralph Moody), the real-life Union general who became governor of the New Mexico Territory and wrote the novel Ben-Hur, which was published in 1880, the year in which this film takes place.
Strange Lady in Town was director Mervyn LeRoy's first film under a new producing-directing contract at Warner Bros., and it marked a reunion with Greer Garson. He had begun his career at the studio in 1928 and directed many fine films there through the 1930s, including Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). In 1940 he signed with MGM, where he directed Greer Garson in three pictures, including the grand weepie Random Harvest (1942). (He also worked, uncredited, on the Garson film Desire Me, 1947, a film released without any directing credit.)
For Greer Garson, Strange Lady in Town was her first film since leaving MGM after fifteen years under contract there. She had been discovered by Louis B. Mayer in London in 1938, who quickly signed her and put her to work in an extraordinarily successful run of award-winning prestige pictures. But in 1953, she was crushed when MGM canceled a planned production of Interrupted Melody, in which Garson was to play Australian opera star Marjorie Lawrence, who suffered an attack of polio in 1941 and later made a jubilant comeback. Garson had already started preparing for the role when MGM's Dore Schary, concerned about the spiraling budget, had second thoughts and postponed the film. Garson was crushed, and was placed in another MGM film instead -- Her Twelve Men (1954). After that, she left the studio and signed with Warner Bros. in early 1954 to make Strange Lady in Town.
But this picture, too, was not without some behind-the-scenes drama. Warners recreated frontier-era Santa Fe by building an elaborate 100-acre set near Tucson that included 34 structures. Studio chief Jack Warner was worried about the budget but decided to double down and have the film shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor, as a way of making it more attractive to audiences tempted by television. For five weeks in the summer of 1954, the cast and crew worked on location in scorching 100-degree heat. Mervyn LeRoy later called the shoot "a mess," citing Dana Andrews' drinking problem and Greer Garson's bout of appendicitis. Garson tried to work through her condition because she didn't want to inconvenience everybody and be the source of a shutdown. LeRoy recalled: "Every night, they piled ice bags on her abdomen. Every day, they fed her pills and the nurse was there, sticking a thermometer in her mouth between every scene."
Meanwhile, Jack Warner grew increasingly upset about the budget consequences and berated LeRoy in a memo, telling him "stop being a perfectionist" and shooting so many takes of the same scene. Finally, the location work ended, and the company shifted back to Hollywood. But Garson's condition had worsened, and she now had to have an appendectomy -- barely in time to save her life -- causing work to shut down for 27 days. During the hiatus, LeRoy filled in for director John Ford on the set of Mister Roberts (1955), as Ford had to undergo emergency gall bladder surgery.
Strange Lady in Town was eventually released in April 1955, becoming a modest moneymaker. Critics were lukewarm, with some calling the film too long and the characters too one-dimensional. The New York Times mocked Garson's part in the film, calling her "probably the most fine and gallant woman ever to turn up in a western film." Variety, however, praised her for maintaining "a ladylike dignity, a sort of grand dame quality... without necessarily seeming stiff or assuming a looking-down-the-nose attitude.... When LeRoy does cut loose with action, it is well-established and everything that the more avid fan could ask."
Critics all especially praised the work of young actress Lois Smith, who plays Andrews' daughter. Variety declared, "Miss Smith, who lifted a small part in East of Eden , gives a virtually perfect portrayal of a young girl merging into womanhood but not completely free of ties to adolescence."
Ironically, 1955 also saw the release of MGM's much-delayed Interrupted Melody, which ended up nabbing Eleanor Parker an Oscar® nomination for the role that Garson had so badly wanted. But Garson had a special fondness for Strange Lady in Town, describing it in a 1956 letter as "a richly corny period story which interested me particularly because I've been a carpet actress all my life in Hollywood. I wanted to do an outdoor role, one with horses and sunsets. The result of my love for the life and history of Santa Fe had been put on film, and I am proud of my little part in helping to create it."
by Jeremy Arnold
Carl Rollyson, Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews
Michael Troyan, A Rose For Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson