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A Rom-Com on the Canals

National Canal Museum - A Rom-Com on the Canals
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A Rom-Com on the Canals

Written by Martha Capwell Fox, DLNHC Historian

Official theater lobby poster for “The Farmer Takes A Wife”

Long ago, but not very far away, the Lehigh and Delaware Canals were a location for a Hollywood movie. A movie which, according to IMDb, is the only US movie ever made about a canal that isn’t a documentary. 

“The Farmer Takes a Wife” (1935) was also the first major film shot partly in the Lehigh Valley. It was based on a 1920s novel about the Erie Canal set in the 1840s, when canals were beginning to compete with the railroads. The Lehigh and Delaware Canals were stand-ins for the original Erie Canal, which was enlarged and modernized multiple times into the 20th century. 

Lehigh Valley residents pose aboard LCN Boat No. 222 transformed into the “Emma” in Lock 44 at Freemansburg. From left to right, extra Dorothy Wilker, Lorene Haas, double for Janet Gaynor, and LCN’s Warren F. Hodsall, double for Charles Bickford.

The film pairs a big star—Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Oscar for best actress, with Henry Fonda in his first movie role. Fonda plays Dan Harrow, who takes a job on a canal boat to earn enough money to fulfill his dream of owning a farm. Janet Gaynor is Molly Larkins, a cook on a boat owned by the film’s heavy, Jotham Clore, played by Charles Bickford. Molly is a spitfire who adores canal life and aspires to have her own boat. She mocks Dan’s dream of a settled life on land. 

Needless to say, they fall in love. 

All is not smooth sailing, of course. Dan and Molly argue and bicker and each assumes the other one will drop their dream in favor of his or hers. Molly and Dan split up; Dan gets enough money to buy a farm and leaves the canal. Fonda has his first movie fistfight with Charles Bickford (he wins) and leaves again. But the title of the movie gives the ending away– they reunite and live happily ever after. 

Director Victor Fleming was one of the most successful movie makers in Hollywood. This may be how he convinced Fox Films to let him send a film crew across the country in May, 1935 and hire local actors as stand-ins for the stars, and carpenters and painters to modify two LCN boats into Erie boats, all to get realistic images of two canals that still looked like they did in the 19th century.  

Dorothy Wilker at Lock 44 with Easton Dick and Allentown Dick, LCN horses who played Erie canal boat horsepower.

The actual stars stayed behind in Los Angeles, where they were performing the hit stage version of “The Farmer Takes a Wife.” Then they filmed their parts on Hollywood sound stages and backlots, often in front of screens while the canals footage played behind them. 

By 1935, navigation had ended on the Delaware Canal and all but stopped on most of the Lehigh Navigation. The two former LCN boats altered to look like Erie boats became the “Emma” and the “Sarsey Sal.”  (The boats’ name boards survive as part of the National Canal Museum’s collection.) The Willow Grove Hotel, the original mule barn at Lock 44, and Geissinger’s Mill provided background scenery. A Delaware Canal camel-back bridge appears, and various shots of the serene canals in springtime are the backdrop of Molly and Dan’s developing romance. 

For glimpses of the canals as they were in the 1930s, you can try to track down a DVD of “The Farmer Takes A Wife” that was released in 2013 by Fox Cinema. It is also available to either rent or buy on Amazon Prime. Just be sure to select the charming 1935 version; the musical remake from 1953 is (unintentionally) a historical horror show. 

“Erie” canal boat entering Lock 44 in Freemansburg in this official Fox Films still.

“Erie” canal boat on the Delaware Canal in an official Fox Films still.

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