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.
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.
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.