Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only covered one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this series we’ve covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), and Ten Cents A Dance (1931). Today…
The Miracle Woman (1931)
A phony faith healer fights the temptation to go straight when she falls for a blind man. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners, and Sam Hardy. Screenplay and dialogue by Jo Swerling. Continuity by Dorothy Howell. Based on the play Bless You Sister by John Meehan and Robert Riskin. Directed by Frank Capra.
“Florence Fallon, the daughter of an elderly minister, chastises his congregation for their hypocrisy when her father, dismissed so a younger man could take his place, dies of a broken heart. The ashamed flock flees, except for Hornsby, a slick promoter, who convinces her to turn her anger into cash. Soon Florence becomes Sister Fallon, leader of the popular Temple of Happiness, where she performs fake “miracles.” One day, John Carson, a blind former aviator, becomes so depressed that he attempts suicide, but Florence’s radio sermon strengthens him. When John goes to hear Florence, he is skeptical, especially when she preaches from inside a cage of lions, but he does go to the stage when Hornsby’s pre-arranged shill does not answer her call. After the show, Florence sneaks out and comes across John standing outside, hoping to meet her. She goes to his apartment, where they have a grand time laughing at Al, John’s ventriloquist’s dummy. After leaving his apartment, she goes to Hornsby’s place, where a riotous party is underway. Hornsby’s general sales manager, Bill Welford, threatens Hornsby and Florence with press exposure unless he is given more of the money he and Hornsby are fraudulently collecting. Hornsby acquiesces and Florence leaves in disgust, her eyes opened to Hornsby’s shady deals.
“As time passes, Florence and John’s relationship blossoms. One day, Hornsby shows Florence a newspaper article about Welford’s apparent suicide, then tells her he loves her and forces a kiss. After Florence warns him never to touch her again, he steals her keys. Later, when she returns home after spending the evening with John, she finds Hornsby, who shows her newspaper articles he planted, describing their future trip to Palestine, which he really intends as a romantic tour of Monte Carlo. She refuses to go and is stunned when he reveals that he embezzled the donations. The accounts are in her name, he tells her, and she will be held responsible, just as she will for Welford’s murder, which Hornsby arranged. Some time later, when Florence and John are saying goodbye, she tells him the truth about her phony preaching, but he says he loves her nonetheless. The next day, John tries to convince Florence that he has regained his sight, in order to build her morale, but he does not succeed. Florence is so moved by his compassion, however, that she resolves to tell her followers the truth…” (This summary, edited by yours truly so as to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Frank Capra directs Barbara Stanwyck, in their second of five cinematic collaboration, as a thinly veiled parody of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (whose name, you’ll notice, finds its way all over the entertainment of the early ’30s) in this brilliantly complex film about false prophets and talking dummies. Finally, after weeks of mediocre films, The Miracle Woman “blesses” (pun intended) us with nuanced performances, multi-dimensional characters, and the iconically Capra formula of breathtaking beauty juxtaposed with harsh reality. More than that, it’s a film with a unique premise — one that contends with both faith and integrity. In fact, the script would have been difficult to make under the Code, for the decided irreverence in which the characters — including our heroine — treats religion would have likely gotten Joseph Breen’s knickers in a twist. Only in a Pre-Code film would a protagonist be allowed the moral complexity Stanwyck’s character is afforded here. For the film is really about Florence Fallon’s journey from someone who exploits others, lured by a shyster who manipulates her intense grief, to someone who helps them. Needless to say, the character is a fascinating one.
But it’s the players, aided of course by Capra’s knack for drawing out unspeakably human performances, who make this film come alive. Stanwyck is perfect for her role as the knock-off McPherson because she has that metaphorical fire in her presence — seductive enough to make a congregation believe that she is, in fact, a miracle woman — that matches a heretofore unseen vulnerability, which imbues the film with its emotional gravitas, its original conflict, and its resonant thematic constructs. In short, Stanwyck is divine (pun intended). But she couldn’t do it alone, and David Manners turns in another sensitive performance as her blind love interest, whose uncloying earnestness (his attempt to convince her she’s healed his sight is powerful) is then paired with his quirky penchant for ventriloquism. And Sam Hardy is appropriately reprehensible as The Miracle Woman‘s antagonist — made all the more unlikable by his humanity, which brings everything closer to the audience’s realm of relatablility. In short, the film is perfectly cast.
I love this fantastic film, which I recommended not just to Stanwyck junkies, Pre-Code experts, and Capra aficionados, but to film lovers — and human beings — everywhere.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!