The Purchase Price (1932)

In interviews with William Wellman included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set, he suggests that he sometimes had problems working with actresses, recalling arguments with some of his leading ladies when he refused to let them look glamorous. (To be fair, he also mentions falling out with male actors for similar reasons – he always wanted people to look as real as possible, rather than being smothered in make-up, and he didn’t go in for his stars wearing designer gowns and smart suits in unlikely contexts, as happens in some other directors’ movies!)

However, from the early movies of his I’ve watched so far, one of the main things that strikes me is what strong lead roles he had for women – from Clara Bow as an ambulance driver in Wings and Louise Brooks as a teenage runaway in Beggars of Life through to Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as nurses in Night NurseThe Purchase Price, made the year after Night Nurse, has another strong role for Stanwyck, this time as a torch singer who decides to get away from it all by taking a friend’s place as a mail order bride.

Adapted from the story The Mud Lark by Arthur Stringer, with a screenplay by Robert Lord, this  is is a lighter film than the others by Wellman I’ve written about here so far. There are many comic scenes, though there is some melodrama too. Also the whole film has an early Warner grittiness to it, though set in the country rather than the city. I’m amused by how misleading the sexy advertising poster  with Stanwyck and George Brent is – the words are just about true, I suppose, but give a completely false idea of the film, especially when combined with the glamorous picture. You’d never think from this poster that most of the movie is set on a freezing cold farm in the wilds of North Dakota, with Brent in an overall and Stanwyck in an apron!

Barbara Stanwyck as a torch singer

Stanwyck is briefly glimpsed in glamorous dresses in the opening scenes, which show her character, Joan Gordon, working as a singer and involved with a racketeer, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot). She also sings a number here and has a fine, slightly husky voice – I don’t know if she sang much in other films. Joan is hoping to get away from her tough life by marrying into a wealthy society family, but she is rejected by her prospective bridegroom when he discovers her past.

Desperate to get away from Eddie, Joan  learns that Emily, a maid at the hotel where she is staying (Leila Bennett, playing exactly the same kind of talkative character she plays in Taxi!) is about to become the mail order bride of a farmer.  However,  Emily has sent off a picture of Joan instead of one of herself (shades of internet dating, where people might also be tempted to use more glamorous pictures, instead of revealing what they really look like!) After briefly glimpsing a picture of the farmer, Jim (Brent) Joan impulsively asks to take Emily’s place and pays her 100 dollars which she had paid to fix up the match – the “purchase price” of the film’s title. Joan travels out to the remote farm by train, and meets up with other mail order brides, who joke raucouslyover photos of their intended husbands – there is quite a lot of sexually knowing conversation between women in Wellman’s pre-Codes.

Brent does actually wear a tuxedo in the opening titles of the film – but that’s the only time you’ll see him looking like his usual elegant self. For the rest of the film he is completely cast against type, as a shambling, weary young farmer with little money and his farm falling apart around him. (I was interested to note that he has a slight but noticeable Irish accent in this film, which must be his original voice – I knew he was Irish, but have never noticed an accent in other movies.) In his opening scenes, where Jim meets and immediately marries Joan, he has a cold and sniffs loudly and constantly all through the ceremony – worlds away from Brent’s usual suave screen personality, and also a way of at once suggesting how cold it is in his home area and making him seem less than attractive.

Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent share an unglamorous scene

I’ve seen one article about this film which suggests that their wedding must be the least glamorous one in any movie, and I think that is probably true – as well as the groom having a cold, the bride’s ring is much too big for her finger, and actually falls off into a bowl of cake mix being clutched by a woman dragged in to act as witness. As soon as they get back to the farm, Jim suggests they should have an early night, and makes a clumsy lunge  towards Joan – who is horrified and quickly shuts him out of the bedroom. He spends their wedding night sleeping in the barn.

However, by the next scene, presumably some days or weeks later, where a group of hard-drinking neighbours call round to celebrate their wedding, it’s clear that Joan is falling for Jim – who, however, now sees the match as a big mistake and is determined to keep his distance. The film piles on the hardships of rural life, with some farcical incidents, but I must say I rather enjoy seeing a less than blissful picture of domestic life, and a recognition that running a home is hard work – a sort of flipside to the wonderful home life Mary Astor’s character has in her country cottage in Wellman’s Other Men’s Women. Both these films are very good at putting romance in an everyday domestic setting, although one home is so much more appealing than the other. Here, the farmhouse and the surrounding land seem very bleak and grey, at least to start with, before Joan starts to fall in love with her tough life.

However, the grimmest picture of domestic life comes when Joan visits a neighbour who has just given birth, and finds the woman, deserted by her husband, in a scene of squalor and despair, with a terrified, cowering daughter (an uncredited Anne Shirley), who has no idea how to look after her mother, and asks: “It’s a terrible thing to have a baby, isn’t it?”  Joan puts the home to rights with unbelievable swiftness, but the haunting glimpse of untold misery remains, and stops the film seeming like a soft-focus portrayal of rural life.

Barbara Stanwyck in 'The Purchase Price'

Most of the movie is much lighter than this episode, though. There is an appealing humour between the couple, and I like the way their relationship is seen as growing naturally as they live and work together, facing a number of crises. They are almost driven apart by a shortage of money,  and then by Eddie tracking them down and revealing that Joan has a past.  Jim coldly rejects her – but comes to realise he was wrong when the two of them are forced to fight a wheat fire together, in the climax of the film.

All in all, I love this film and will watch it again in the future – and, after seeing Stanwyck in this and a number of other films, including Night Nurse and Frank Capra’s  The Bitter Tea of General Yen,  I’ve realised she is now probably my favourite classic movie actress apart from Bette Davis. I’d like to see a lot more of her films in future.

19 thoughts on “The Purchase Price (1932)

  1. Judy, this is very much a Depression movie, but the rural landscape seems like a setting that would have been just as squalid in the previous decade. That would make it consistent in a way with Heroes For Sale and Midnight Mary; these films are Wellman’s way of saying to Depression audiences that many people had it bad long before you did. However you read it it’s another entertaining Wellman film, though in lighter mode than a lot of the stuff from his incredible early-30s run.


    • Thank you very much, Samuel – I agree it is very much a Depression movie, especially in that whole bleak scene with the neighbouring mother and her baby. Interesting that even a lighter movie like this one is still so gritty and still largely focuses on the tougher side of life.


  2. Judy, I love this review. I saw this movie last year and enjoyed it very much. As you said, b/c it’s an early ’30s Warner’s flick, we can expect some grittiness in the movie, and it’s there, sure enough. It was fun to see Geo Brent play totally against type. Stany, of course, was wonderful. You mentioned her singing. She also sings in BALL OF FIRE and LADY OF BURLESQUE. Great review!


    • Thanks, Cagney Fan – I haven’t seen either of those as yet, but have just seen Stanwyck in another Wellman film, ‘The Great Man’s Lady’, which I don’t think is very good, though she is great in it, but interesting for me as a fan of the actress and director. I agree it was interesting to see George Brent cast against type. Wow, he must have cringed at Bogart’s Irish accent in ‘Dark Victory’!


  3. Watched this on TCM a long time ago and being a Stanwyck fan loved it. It is a bit of an oddity, at least to me, but it is certainly entertaining. Wellman certainly made some good pre-code films. Outstanding review.


    • Thank you, John, glad you liked it too, and I definitely agree with you that Wellman made some good pre-Codes. I’m a Stanwyck fan now too, so look forward to seeing more of her movies.


  4. “You’d never think from this poster that most of the movie is set on a freezing cold farm in the wilds of North Dakota, with Brent in an overall and Stanwyck in an apron!”

    Ha! Indeed, Judy!

    Of course the magnificent Ms. Stanwyck gave superlative performances afterwards in BALL OF FIRE, THE LADY EVE, STELLA DALLAS, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, MEET JOHN DOE and most famously in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. She was a personal favorite of De Mille, Lang and Capra, and as I’ve stated in a previous comment she’s one of those actresses (much like Cagney as an actor) where it’s pretty much a given that her every performance must be seen.

    Alas I haven’t seen this film, but I thoroughly enjoyed your traditionally exhaustive approach. Interesting to see George Brent playing against type, and also to the “lighter” side of Wellman, who as you rightly note always seemed to elicit great performances for distinguished women…i.e. Joan Blondell, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and of Stanwyck.


    • Thanks very much for all the encouragement, Sam, which is very much appreciated. I agree Stanwyck is great in ‘Meet John Doe’, though it’s not a film I warm to much – I have been meaning to watch it again, though. I definitely intend to watch more of her movies in future. I’ve just watched yet another early Wellman film with a strong central performance by a woman, ‘Frisco Jenny’ with Ruth Chatterton – I do think the melodrama in that one gets a bit much by the end, but Chatterton is wonderful in it.


  5. I find the stills of Stanwyck appealing, especially the second of her in the fields. It is so curious this persistent misleading advertising — it does on today as much as ever. I wonder if people simply don’t take advertising at all seriously and are content to come in and see a movie, knowing nothing about it (on the assumption the ads are lies), or, if they do come to see a movie thinking they will get X, why don’t they become angry to see it’s Y?



    • Glad you liked the stills, Ellen.:) I agree the misleading advertising still goes on – some trailers bear no relation whatsoever to the actual movie, and I think sometimes a film ends up being slated because it had been promoted as something completely different from what it actually is!


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  11. I think The Purchase Price shows Barbara Stanwyck at her most pretty, in the bedroom scene when she takes her clothes off she looks ravishing with a real woman’s body, so healthy, no skin and bones. It’s hard to picture George Brent as a farmer, and Brent’s acting he’s usually pretty much a stiff, but this is the best that I’ve seen from him, he’s really very good. I like Stanwyck’s 1930’s movies the best, what a great actress she was, it’s a shame that people today mostly remember her from The Big Valley, instead of when she was young, beautiful and so vital, the best actress to never win an Academy Award. I hope you’ll write a review of Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About soon, thanks.


    • Bill, so sorry I failed to reply to this comment! Thanks very much and I agree that Stanwyck made a lot of great movies in the 1930s – hope to review some more of them soon.


  12. Saw this movie last night, DVR’ed from TCM and thought it much better than the star and a half it got. Fetched pretty far for sure, but Wellman gives it a brisk and lively treatment and the three main actors are at their best. The pre-code feeling of free and loose is exhilarating; the basic plot being when will the two stars bed down. Stanwyck is quite sexy in her honest way, (everything she did was honest), and I don’t remember ever seeing George Brent quite like this. It’s also fun to see Stanwyck’s character as a seen-it-all Broadway babe eagerly adapt to the rigors of depression era farm life in North Dakota. She must have really wanted fresh air badly. Lyle Talbot plays the quintessential Lyle Talbot part and well. Recommended to any classic movie lover.


    • Thanks, J.R. … I’m not sure what you mean about the star and a half – I don’t give star ratings here, and don’t have access to US TCM as I live in the UK, but am guessing it was in their TV guide? In any case, if I did give stars it would get a lot more than a star and a half from me! Must agree with you that the free and loose feeling of the film is exhilarating, Stanwyck is great, and Brent is very different in this from any of his other roles that I’ve seen, with a lot more humour. And a great comment on Lyle Talbot there.


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