On holiday from a day job as justice of the Supreme Court in Washington, John Josephus Grant (Frank Morgan) travels incognito to the small town of Crown Port. Looking to unwind with a spot of duck-hunting, Grant is instead slapped with an unjust fine for lacking the right permit by crooked Judge Austin Hartley (Porter Hall). He soon discovers this is just the tip of the iceberg. For Hartley is only part of a ring of corruption led by Mayor Connison (Robert Barrat) who has everyone from the cops to local businesses on his payroll. Only honest lawyer Bill Adams (Richard Carlson) seems willing to take a moral stand. But his attempt to run against Connison in the local election leaves him a target for all kinds of dirty tricks. Lucky for Bill he has Grant in his corner and no-one knows whom the wily old stranger really is.
Frank Morgan, the affable character actor who will forever be remembered as The Wizard of Oz (1939), lands one of his best lesser known roles in this MGM comedy-drama with a surprisingly overt political message. Surprising at least for the notoriously conservative Hollywood studio. It might have helped that this was intended to play on the lower-half of a double-bill and that director Roy Rowland was married to the niece of studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Rowland went on to secure a place in cult film fandom with The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), the bizarre musical fantasy scripted by iconoclastic children's writer Dr. Seuss. The rest of his filmography was no less eclectic including film noir Witness to Murder (1954), Cyd Charisse musical Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), opera singer Mario Lanza's penultimate movie Seven Hills of Rome (1957) and The Girl Hunters (1963) wherein crime author Mickey Spillane portrayed his own creation: hard-boiled private eye Mike Hammer. True to form Rowland bowed out co-directing Italian swashbuckler The Fighting Corsair (1966).
Co-writers Isobel Lennart and William Kozlenko spin a spry and disarmingly subversive portrait of small town life that goes against the usual cosy picture painted at MGM. Justice Grant discovers Crown Port is riddled with corruption at every level. Even the town barber is a money-grubbing crook. Add to that those not directly involved with Mayor Connison's unsavoury antics adopt a love this town or leave it mentality. Swindlers and bully-boy tactics are labelled part of "the American way of life" and locals denounce anyone that dares challenge the crooked system as dangerous radicals. As Morgan's belligerent hero badgers Bill to stand up for what is right the film's message is clearly aimed at least in part at young men then fighting overseas. Don't let the cancer of fascism take root in small town USA. Lennart and Kozlenko tread a clever line between progressive and conservative political ideals with a scenario both groups can get behind.
It is a hard task making a seemingly dry legal drama brisk and compelling. A Stranger in Town succeeds by virtue of a warmhearted script with vivid, well-drawn characters that plays like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in reverse. There folksy, small-town wisdom solves Washington corruption. Here Washington wisdom solves small-town corruption. The film even weaves in a sweet love story. Justice Grant brings his secretary Lucy (Jean Rogers) together with Bill who slowly thaws her frosty heart as they bumble through various cute mishaps. While the ensemble cast are solid across the board Frank Morgan excels as the judge whose crusty exterior hides not only a first-rate legal mind but thoroughly decent human being. It builds to a rousing conclusion that proves patriotic in the best sense.