One of the many lovely things about RKO’s Rachel and the Stranger is its confident refusal to pin itself to one particular genre. It’s a comedy, no doubt, yet it’s more of a smile-inducer than a laugh riot. Though it’s set in the backwoods of the early nineteenth century, it’s some kind of western, since it features a fiery Indian attack on a homestead. It certainly contains scenes of tender drama that deal with the paralyzing effect of grief on a family after the death of a loved one. It’s very definitely a piece of Americana, a hearty tribute to the backbreaking lives of our forebears. And it almost has enough musical interludes to qualify as a hybrid musical. But, first and foremost, Rachel and the Stranger is a love story because that’s the way in which its story builds and blooms, the way in which a viewer becomes invested in its characters, and the way in which its plot must find resolution. And within its love story, the film offers one of the more satisfying—both funny and sexy—love triangles of the screen. There are no scenes of physical love, but the romantic and erotic tensions stimulate in their suggestiveness. The reason it all works so beautifully is the casting. Loretta Young, at the apex of her film career, stars as Rachel, and her leading men are two up-and-comers, William Holden and Robert Mitchum, each as talented as he is good-looking, and both about to become superstars of the next decade. This trio works together astoundingly well, each very different from each other yet perfectly in tune. (This was the only time that any of the three appeared together.) As with other blessed Hollywood match-ups of one female alongside two males—Test Pilot, The Philadelphia Story, The Talk of the Town, Bull Durham—spending time in their company is exceedingly pleasurable.
excerpted from John DiLeo’s
Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery
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