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 Nurse. The 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!
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.
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.
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.