The Farmer’s Daughter, starring Loretta Young, is a Capra-esque film about a young farm girl who stumbles into politics. The film values the American democratic process and stresses the importance of being politically well-informed so that one can play an active role in that democratic process. Katie, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, knows her local politicians and their policies, and has a pragmatic, on-the-ground understanding of how those policies play out in people’s lives. Her argument in favor of the minimum wage feels quite current; she believes in personal responsibility, but “I also believe that everyone has a right to a living wage.”
The film is also progressive in its views on gender, class, and race. While many characters in the film, especially entrenched party bosses, dismiss Katie because she’s a woman and an immigrant farmer, it’s clear that her level of civic engagement, her forthrightness, and her genuine interest in improving people’s lives are the valid qualifications for public office. I also appreciated the fact that, even though it briefly looks like it might, marriage (to Joseph Cotten, no less!) doesn’t supplant Katie’s newfound political ambitions, as though heterosexual romantic resolution was the ultimate goal all along.
The film even takes on nativist and white supremacist ideologies that seek to disempower racial and religious minorities. Mrs. Morley, played by the stately Ethel Barrymore, is a party leader who has doubts about a congressional candidate whom her party has been supporting. To confirm her suspicions, she draws him out about the “national organization” he belongs to, an organization that wants to “educate” people about “100% Americanism for 100% Americans,” i.e., “white, no foreign-born, the right kind of religion.” Once the man’s views become clear, Mrs. Morley’s butler (a wonderfully no-nonsense Charles Bickford) kicks him out of the house, throwing his hat after him and yelling, “Mr. Finley, you forgot your hood!” What catches my attention in this scene is the explicit naming of white identity, which is typically so dominant and normative that doesn’t even have to be named; only deviations from it need to be identified as Other, as minority identities. Granted, there are no people of color in The Farmer’s Daughter, but the apparent awareness of white privilege itself makes the film seem remarkably progressive to me.