When things go bad, one has to pick oneself up, dust off, and keep on moving. Americans used to believe and embody that philosophy in the past, even when it wasn’t clear whether they’d be met with great success or great failure. “You can’t have it all,” is another saying but for Loretta Young’s character in H. C. Potter’s charming 1947 romantic comedy, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” she sure will try!
Young plays Katie Holstrom, a young Swedish-American woman who leaves her parents and three brothers on the farm in order to take nursing classes in the city. Katie’s family supports this move as they are hard working Swedish immigrants who appreciate America and see it as a land of opportunity.
Katie immediately establishes herself as a character who is entirely self-reliant. She saved up the money to go to the nursing school, and she tells the local doctor that if anything goes wrong, she will not ask for anyone’s help but figure a way out of any bad situation herself. Although she doesn’t say this, it’s implied that, for her, this is the American way of dealing with personal troubles.
Even before she gets to the bus stop, however, things begin to go sideways. Adolph, the man who painted the Holstrom family barn, offers to give her a lift to the city. He assures her she will save a few bucks on the bus fare, but Adolph has other intentions, and ends up swindling Katie out of most of her savings. Not having much of a choice, Katie signs on with an agency that secures her a job as a maid for the powerful Morley family.
Katie is perpetually cheery and wide-eyed, but that doesn’t mean she’s naïve or a pushover. She gets things done, she’s fast and resolute, and she has strong political opinions. This makes her an interesting addition to the Morley household because it’s composed of Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), a U. S. congressman, and his mother, Agatha (Ethel Barrymore), a political matriarch and a power broker.
Naturally, there is a budding romance between Glenn and Katie, and the fact that she is considered “the help” is irrelevant. After all, this is America, not England. Katie accomplishes all of her tasks superbly. She’s used to it and has learned much from all the cooking, washing, and farming she did for her family. (It also turns out that she makes a really good hot glug, and gives a pretty good Swedish massage when Glenn gets sick.)
Things start to get more complicated, however, when Glenn, Agatha, and their political team learn that another congressman they’ve been working with has “dropped dead.” They need to find a replacement candidate quickly. They find this in Anders Finley, who is about as slimy and smarmy a politician as one can imagine. Katie is opposed to this, but her opinion in the matter is not of any consequence at this point.
As Finley is giving a rally speech (one the opposition party is observing), Katie is restless. Mr. Clancy, the Morleys’ butler, is with her, and encourages her to ask some questions. Being the strong Swedish-American woman that she is, Katie doesn’t require much encouragement. As she’s protesting Finley’s political record, the opposition is quietly observing.
Nursing school now seems to be a long way off as Katie accepts the nomination from the opposition party to run against Finley. Naturally, this puts a strain on her relationship with the Morleys, and her chances at love and marriage to Glenn are greatly diminished. But fear not! This is a comedy where happy endings are promised, and this one is no exception!
In the 1947 New York Times review of “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the critic Bosley Crowther writes that “Maybe ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ is a little too naive to be true, but it makes a diverting entertainment and it mentions a few important things.” Of course, the political backdrop is merely a literary device to get to the central tension at the heart of the romance between Glenn and Katie, but it’s impossible to ignore it.
The film is neither “Democrat” nor “Republican.” The parties are never named and it’s not really clear which party either the Morleys or Katie belongs to. Some issues do come up, like a living wage, and a League of Nations, but the characters who speak about the issues jumble the political points to the point of minor contradiction. On the one hand, Katie is firm about the importance of self-reliance, and on the other hand, she questions Finley as to why he stopped the “free milk” program in her district.
The Morleys are political fighters (Agatha informs Katie that she will fight her with all the might she has) but they appear to be good people, interested in praising and affirming American values. Once they realize Finley is basically a white supremacist, they withdraw their support for him for reasons that are principled, and not because they “got caught” in a myriad of political dirt.
Voting is held up as a sacred duty and right that every American has and should cherish—something Katie affirms in her campaign speech. In this sense, Katie and Glenn make up a composite of American political ideals as presented in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution.
Katie and Glenn do get married, and in some sense, they become the embodiment of all American ideals without regard to party. As they walk up the steps of the Capitol, newly married, Glenn looks at Katie: “I’m not quite sure the protocol in a case like this, but . . . ” and carries Katie over the threshold. It’s a story of an American Dream and a marriage that idealistically transcends the clutches of smarmy politicians. But a heavenly marriage it is not. We’ll have to accept that it’s a marriage made on American soil, both idealistic and imperfect.