SPOTLIGHT: Sizzling Pre-Code Stanwyck (VIII)

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 featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931),  Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932) and So Big! (1932). Today…

 

The Purchase Price (1932)

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A night-club singer on the lam becomes a farmer’s mail-order bride. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Lyle Talbot, Hardie Albright, and David Landau. Screenplay by Robert Lord. Based on a story by Arthur Stringer. Directed by William A. Wellman.

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“Singer Joan Gordon breaks off her relationship with married gangster Eddie Fields in order to marry Don Leslie, a man from a good family, only to discover that Don’s father has had her investigated and has found out about Eddie. Don no longer wants to marry her, but rather than go back to Eddie, Joan runs away to Montreal, where she takes another singing job using an assumed name. Before long, one of Eddie’s men recognizes her. Learning that the hotel maid has used her picture to meet a man through a matrimonial service, Joan decides to take her place. She travels to North Dakota and marries farmer Jim Gilson. The first night, put off by his awkward love-making, Joan insists that they sleep separately.

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“Later, Joan tries to apologize, but Jim does not respond. Nonetheless, they continue to live and work together. When Jim’s farm is to be repossessed, another farmer, Bull McDowell, offers to buy it if Joan will keep house for him. Jim hopes to hang on somehow, because he has developed some excellent wheat seed that he believes will recover his losses. On New Year’s Eve, Joan, who has come to love Jim, tries to mend the rift between them, but Jim still is bitter. Joan rides out to visit a woman who has just given birth and stays to cook a meal and clean up a little. After making her way through a snowstorm, she returns to find that Jim has taken in a man who became lost in the storm. By coincidence, the man is Eddie. Eddie tries to drag Joan away, and when Jim sees that they have a past, she tries to explain…” (This summary, shortened to withhold spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Unfortunately, it’s the middle of the film that suffers the most, for despite the inherent chemistry between Brent and Stanwyck, he’s simply too wooden and unlikable to earn our sympathy, which he is somehow able to get from Stanwyck’s character. Thus, while we end up rooting for Stanwyck by the sheer force of her celluloid existence, the emotional investment that should come from their pairing isn’t cultivated, and as the story becomes more dramatic, the film loses its air and energy. It’s almost a thrill when Talbot returns, for at least the picture is getting some conflict to divert the narrative away from the shortcomings of the promoted love story. (And I must admit to rooting for Stanwyck to get back with him. THAT would be unexpected.) Whether it’s Brent’s fault or the script’s, this fundamental component of the film fails to gel, ruining what otherwise could have been a delightful picture. Still, because The Purchase Price makes little demand on its audience and doesn’t take itself too seriously, its flaws are not condemnable. Recommended to Stanwyck fans.

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