The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)

Actress Barbara Stanwyck is probably best-known for her roles in films noir like Double Indemnity, where she plays a cold-hearted femme fatale. But, great as she undoubtedly is in this kind of part, I tend to prefer her earlier films when she plays characters with more warmth – as she does in The Miracle Woman, one of Capra’s great pre-Codes. Her character, young bogus evangelist Sister Florence Fallon, must be the sweetest conwoman ever. Indeed, she casts her spell over the audience  just as she does over her swooning congregations within the movie.

This early Capra movie is one of many of his works centring on a charismatic figure who is taken up by cynical business interests and used to manipulate the public. Capra and his regular writer Robert Riskin, who adapted this film from his own play Bless You Sister, were not the only film-makers in the 1930s to be interested in this kind of story. (A similar scam is also the theme of William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea that he returned to time and again.

Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners

However, Florence is different from, say, the idealistic politician played by James Stewart in  Mr Smith Goes to Washington,  or the desperate and hungry sportsman played by Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe. The difference is that she knows from the start that she is taking part in a con. She goes into it all open-eyed, wanting revenge and money. This should really mean that this film is tougher and more cynical than Capra’s later works on similar themes – but Stanwyck’s sweetness, youth and beauty work against that feeling.

Barbara Stanwyck as Sister Florence

The start of the film is one of its most powerful sequences, as the young girl gets up and addresses a church, furiously telling the congregation that her father, their pastor, has just died after being sacked by them because he was old and poor. The congregation’s reaction is to be shocked – not at what has happened, but at her bad taste in mentioning it. Respectable worshippers beat a disapproving retreat, leaving a despairing Florence, who is not sure how she will pay for the funeral.

At this point, conman Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), who by chance walked into the church and heard it all, steps in to offer Florence a deal. If she will front up a travelling religious revival for him, he will not only pay to bury her father, but also ensure a good living for her in the future. “Religion is great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away,” he comments dryly. Soon Florence is pulling in enormous crowds and has them donating a fortune to build a non-existent temple. Each night she “heals” fake invalids, as well as putting on a circus-type act where she goes into a cage with tame lions.

However, one of her bogus sermons really does save someone when a blind war veteran, contemplating suicide, hears her words over the radio and decides to carry on living. The ex-soldier, John (David Manners) goes to one of the tent services and strikes up a friendship with Florence – but what will he think when he finds out what she is really like?

I’ve previously only seen Manners in a couple of films where he seemed rather insipid and was upstaged by other actors. However, here he gives a fine and moving performance as John. Also, even though he is suicidal at the start, it is actually one of the more positive portrayals of blind people which I’ve seen in 1930s films (which admittedly isn’t saying much!) He is charming, funny, romantic and able to manage his everyday life well. It’s just a pity that so many of his scenes involve him putting on a ventriloquist’s act. I can see that this is supposed to reflect how Florence is being used as a mouthpiece – but it pretty soon gets cloying, especially when John starts declaring his love via the dummy.

However, most of the film is compelling drama, and Stanwyck is great as the evangelist playing the crowd in outrageous style. I have read that the character was partly based on controversial evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who used radio just as Sister Florence does in the film, and who was at the centre of a real-life scandal. And it’s all still topical today, not just in terms of TV evangelists, but also because of the continuing fascination with celebrity culture in general.

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)

  1. You know Judy, you have a knack for picking up on movies that I have copies of but haven’t gotten around to watching. A few years back, I bought the UK Stanwyck boxset mainly because I wanted The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Golden Boy. There were a few double-dips involved but the price at the time was so low it was worth it. However, The Miracle Woman remains unwatched.

    I find I tend to blow hot and cold when it comes to Capra’s films. If I’m in the right mood then I love them, if not I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm. In that sense he’s a very curious director when you stop and think about it.

    Like

    • Thanks, Colin – I’d be interested to hear what you think of this one when you do get round to it. Must say I blow hot and cold about Capra too, and agree that he is a very strange and contradictory director, with his mix of cynicism and idealism from one minute to the next. Sometimes the level of corn gets a bit much, and I certainly found this in ‘Meet John Doe’, though I’ve been meaning to watch that one again and see if I was unfair to it… but, at his best, as in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, he is truly great. I love ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’, another great performance by Stanwyck, but haven’t seen ‘Golden Boy’ yet, though I hope to do so soon. Thanks again.

      Like

  2. Judy,

    You really dig up so many films lately that I have not seen! Stanwyck is a favorite, as you probably already know, so this film is a must. Hopefully it gets a Region 1 DVD release soon (Bootlegs seem to be an option from what I searched). As I was reading your review I was thinking this sounds a lot like Amiee Semple Mcpherson and you confirmed my thoughts at the end of your final paragraph. I always run hot and cold with Capra, loving some of his work and finding some a bit too cornball, but this one seems to have all the ingredients of a fine film. Sound like this film and ELMER GANTRY would make a good double feature. Great job!!!

    …and thanks for the kind mention on my article.

    Like

    • Yes, I knew you were a fellow fan of Stanwyck, John. I hadn’t realised this wasn’t available in region 1, which seems a shame – I picked up a secondhand region 2 DVD which I think is originally from the box set Colin mentioned, and has pretty good picture quality although the sound is rather quiet. I still haven’t seen ‘Elmer Gantry’ but would definitely like to compare the two. Many thanks!

      Like

  3. I’ve never seen this film and it sounds fascinating. I’ll pretty much watch anything by Capra – plus it stars a young Stanwyck – what joy! My, she looks so young in the screenshot.

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting, Robby – I am sure that as a Capra fan you would enjoy this and find it interesting, and, yes, Stanwyck is very young in it, and gives a great performance. Hope you can get to see it!

      Like

  4. Yes, John is right. This movie hasn’t been released in region 1 and it’s a shame because Stanwyck gives a great performance in it. I was able to catch it at an early Capra festival (everything before “It Happened One Night”) at a theater here a couple of years ago. I loved seeing his largely unknown early films like “The Miracle Woman,” “American Madness,” “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” and even some of his silents like “Submarine,” “The Way of the Strong,” and “So This Is Love?” These movies are less polished than some of his later work, but there is a charm and competence that makes it clear where the roots of his work are. (I especially liked seeing the similarities in the bank run scenes in “American Madness” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)

    You are right, though, “Miracle Woman” is more cynical, but Stanwyck saves her character with a strong, layered performance. It is certainly one of the top performances of 1931.

    Like

    • That early Capra festival sounds great, Jason. It must have been really something to see films like this one and ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ on the big screen. I haven’t seen ‘American Madness’ as yet but it sounds like a must – will hope to put that right soon. I also haven’t seen any of his silents, though again I’d like to – this period of film-making fascinates me more and more. Thank you.

      Like

  5. “The difference is that she knows from the start that she is taking part in a con. She goes into it all open-eyed, wanting revenge and money.

    That reminds me of Burt Lancaster’s character in ELMER GANTRY, though his motives may have been a bit different! Ha! Like John, I must say Judy I am bewildered, especially since I love Capra and Stanwyck, and respect Manners and Riskin. It seems that Capra was much like Wellman in negotiating Depression-era themes. But Capra is quite simply one of the greatest American directors by any barometer of measurement, and I can’t praise him enough here for his seminal body of work. I have seen BITTER TEA and some early films, but not yet this one. This is a wonderful review that serves as a wake-up call for those who love Capra and Stanwyck, and may not have yet gotten here. Wonderful review in every sense!

    Like

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Sam! As I said in my reply to John, I still haven’t seen ‘Elmer Gantry’ but definitely hope to do so before too long… and I also hope to see more of Capra’s early films.’Platinum Blonde’ is one of the great ones which I have seen, along with ‘Bitter Tea’. But itt seems as if the more films I see, the more I realise that I haven’t seen. Thanks again!

      Like

  6. Pingback: “Project Nim,” “The Double Hour,” “Planet of the Apes (1968)” and New York Asian Film Festival on Monday Morning Diary (July 11) « Wonders in the Dark

  7. I thought of Elmer Gantry too. The public con person was common in the US in the 1930s — there were a number on radio. This is well before the present spate of rightist ranters, and they were not quite the same as the religious fanaticism now seen on religious US TV. I wish I could remember some of the names. Father Conklin somehow comes to mind as one. Desperation to get something out of the take also could be behind this theme: and it’s again found in US life in recent movies and books.

    I do love that still of Stanwyck and Manners before the bars. They look like animals in a circus on display, people who’ve put themselves in a prison. She looks like a vision with that gauzy cape. No connection but the still puts me in mind of Kafka’s story, “The Hunger Artist” where a man puts himself in a cage for the public to come and gape at.

    Ellen

    Like

    • ‘Elmer Gantry’ quite often comes on TV here, so I will aim to see it soon. I’m glad you like that still of Stanwyck and Manners, Ellen – I love it too and agree that the combination of the gauze and the bars is amazing. In the film they also have the tame lions behind them, but I expect it was too difficult to include them for the still – anyway, as you say, the picture really turns the couple into the animals on display.
      This whole film has that feeling of putting yourself on display (and in prison) in order to make money.

      Thanks also for mentioning the Kafka story, which I have read but a long time ago.

      Like

  8. Judy, another great review. I was able to watch this not too long ago on YT. I can’t say if it’s still there b/c YT recently canceled a spate of channels. Nonetheless, I was so struck by this movie that I did a mini-blog about it on my FB page. I watched the movie more for Stanwyck than anything else; she’s one of my favorite actresses. And I do like Capra and want to give another thumbs up to AMERICAN MADNESS. But back to MIRACLE WOMAN—I found the cynicism towards religious racketeering very up to date and relevant for today. It was interesting to see Riskin and Capra tackle this theme.

    The m.o. of religious racketeers hasn’t changed; the light show, the emotional music, the empty cliches, the push for money, the large venues, the sham miracles. As a Christian, I look around and see this going on in my own city, and certainly it’s on TV. It’s distressing to me personally. I often sarcastically wonder how in the world did the Lord Jesus or the Apostle Paul teach w/o a guitar, amps, speakers and a light show?

    I thought Stanwyck’s performance was tops and I also liked David Manners here. It was good to see him with something to do for a change. He was also good in MAN WANTED with Kay Francis.

    I’m glad you mentioned Aimee Semple McPherson; she came to mind immediately as I watched the movie. I think I had read somewhere that some of the plot was inspired by her antics.

    On Capra’s cynicism: I found FORBIDDEN very cynical. And I have to add that I really like MEET JOHN DOE, which is also very cynical, as are many of Capra’s movies.

    Another stellar review! Hope you’re having a good summer.

    Like

    • Thanks very much for your kind comment, CagneyFan. Stanwyck is one of my favourite actresses too, and I definitely want to see more early Capra, including ‘American Madness’. I will also hope to see ‘Forbidden’.

      I don’t think there is as much of this religious racketeering (great phrase) in the UK as in the US, but I’m sure there is some of it – and also that desperate people are being taken advantage of in other ways. I definitely agree that the film is still relevant to some of the things going on today, anyway.

      I am having a good but busy summer, thanks – hope you are having a good summer too!

      Like

  9. Pingback: Pre-Code Festival, “Tabloid,” Harry Potter and Buster Keaton on Monday Morning Diary (July 18) « Wonders in the Dark

  10. Judy, I skimmed this, as I have it in my DVR queue right now, but want to go in with few preconcieved notions or too much knowledge of hot it unfolds. I do love watching Stanwyck’s early films – she’s tough but sympathetic.

    Like

    • Thanks very much for dropping by and commenting, Pat – and glad to hear you are another fan of Stanwyck’s early roles. I don’t think I’ve given all that much of the plot away, though to be honest you can probably guess what is going to happen as you watch anyway – the real joy of it is the quality of the acting from Stanwyck and Manners, together with the sharp dialogue.I think you will enjoy it when you get to see it, and would be interested to hear what you think.

      Like

  11. Sadly, this will never come on Region 1 US DVD due to the one politically incorrect use of racial terminology when Manners refers to Stanwyck’s “coon shouting” over the radio. That is unless they ruin the film by dubbing over a slound-alike saying something else, like they shamefully did with the later DVDs of The Dam Busters because the dog was called Nigger. ACF.

    Like

  12. Pingback: 14 Film Pre-Code Bonanza, Life Above All, The Woman with the Five Elephants, Captain America and Buster Keaton on Monday Morning Diary (July 25) « Wonders in the Dark

  13. Pingback: 13 Pre-Coders including ‘Public Enemy,’ ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ ‘The Mouthpiece,’ ‘Red-Headed Woman,’ ‘Call Her Savage’ and Buster Keaton on Monday Morning Diary (August 1) « Wonders in

  14. Pingback: 13 Pre-Coders, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and Buster Keaton on Monday Morning Diary (August 8) « Wonders in the Dark

  15. Judy –

    I finally got around to seeing this tonight -it took me that long to get to this point in my DVR queue! Anyway, wanted to come back here and let you know that you did fine justice to this film in your post. I’m in total agreement with your assessment of Manners’ performance. I found it compeeling and mostly well-acted. And to one of the earlier posters’ points, the offensive-to-contemporary-ears term “coon shouting” was preserved in the TCM showing that I recorded.

    Like

    • Glad you liked the film, Pat, and I’m flattered that you remembered my posting on it. This has now reminded me in turn that I haven’t got round to seeing ‘Elmer Gantry’ yet – so many films, so little time! I do wish we had the US version of TCM in the UK, as they show such an amazing selection of films – their channel here is a very pale shadow and only very occasionally shows anything from the 1930s.

      Like

  16. Barbara Stanwyck giving her sermon to the church congregation, full of fury, turning into rage, emptying out the entire church in 60 seconds flat is among my most very favorite scenes from any movie, period! Her address is so powerful, she is in complete command of every faculty she possesses, she puts every fiber of her being into her oeuvre, and that voice! Like a resonating thunder of passion! Young Barbara Stanwyck was so gorgeous OMFG!

    Like

  17. Pingback: The Miracle Woman (1931) Review, with Barbara Stanwyck | Pre-Code.Com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s