1931 – Starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners, Sam Hardy – Directed by Frank Capra
Barbara Stanwyck made five movies in total with Frank Capra, four of which came between 1930 and 1931, and are some of my favorite Frank Capra films. He was the man who really helped her make the transition from stage to movies by patiently working with her and showing her how to act for the camera. Afterwards, she would never be anything less than a star who always elevates the movie she is in, no matter what the movie.
My favorite of the four is the Miracle Woman, about religious hypocrisy, genuine faith and religious charlatans who take advantage of the faithful, but it’s also a sweet romance. At Pre-Code.com, he calls the film a “romance movie with an issue, not an issue movie with a romance.”Barbara Stanwyck is Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher. At the beginning of the film her father has died after forty years in service to an unresponsive and hypocritical church that repaid him by firing him. After he dies, she is heartbroken and bitter gets up in front of the congregation to tell them exactly what she thinks of them; their hypocrisy, how shabbily they treated him, how she knows all the sins they commit in secret and how her father “preached to empty hearts.” When the deacons rise to leave and offer parting shots about how she is disgracing the house of God, she cries “What God! Your God?”
After the congregation flees her wrath (true, unbounded Stanwyck style wrath) the only person left is con artist Hornsby, who is impressed by her impassioned chewing out of the church and says that since the one thing she knows is religion and the Bible, she might as well use that for her own advantage.
And so she becomes Sister Fallon, healer and evangelist, drawing large crowds, managed by Hornsby who has hired people to pretend to be healed by her. She is even on the radio and John Carson (Manners) hears her. He is a former aviator, now blind, and a struggling composer on the point of suicide…until her hears her sermon on the radio and goes to one of her rallies. He manages to meet her; she prays for him and she promises him his sight again.
It’s a very sweet romance. John is shy, gentle. When she goes to his apartment, he doesn’t really know what to do or how to entertain guests and is awkwardly endearing. He completely believes in her and it touches her heart.Hornsby is cynical and worldly and an excellent villain. When an employee wants more money and threatens to expose them, Hornsby murders him. And when he discovers that Florence is falling in love with John and having second thoughts about the fraud, he threatens to expose her as a fraud.
The film neatly demonstrates the difference between religious hypocrites using their faith to cloak their misdeeds, hucksters using faith to con others and those genuinely seeking faith, who often are taken in by the hucksters and abused by the hypocrites. And then there is Florence, who has grown cynical in her belief, but retains a vestige of conviction (which is demonstrated when she turns her father’s picture face down as if she cannot bear for him to see what she is doing).
It’s not a clear-cut movie, but allows for all shades of faith. Even the motivations of her audiences are not clear cut. There are those genuinely searching and those who are just along for the ride: the curious, the desperate, the believing, the spectacle seeking.
John never criticizes Florence; he doesn’t have to because she already knows she’s doing wrong. He acts as a kind of mirror. His belief is what prompts her ti rediscover her faith. There is an interesting moment, too, at the end when she has joined the Salvation Army. Hornsby sees her and just cannot understand it, cannot wrap his mind around her decision to do something that brings no money. He has such poverty of soul he can’t see she’s found her salvation.
Notes: The Miracle Woman is the movie that started it all for me, at least in terms of becoming a Barbara Stanwyck fan. I had seen her in a few movies, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Remember the Night (1940), and even The Lady Eve (1941), but somehow I had failed to fully appreciate her genius. Then I saw The Miracle Woman and I was struck by what an honest and passionate actress she was at such a young age (she was only twenty-three in 1931) and I wanted to see more. I next saw Double Indemnity (1944) and that, of course, sealed it and I re-watched movies like The Lady Eve and marveled that I had not fully appreciated how good she was. She made 85 movies (this does not count the numerous television appearances and two television shows she did) and I’m up to 45.
The Miracle Woman was also a revelation in regards to Frank Capra. I had seen his famous films, namely It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), but he amazed me at how natural and exciting his direction was as early as 1931. Early talky films can be…well, talky and slightly stagy, but Capra’s direction looked fresh and exciting. He was also far more taut and less overtly preachy than in some of his later films.
It’s very much a pre-code film. Pre-code films are those talking movies between 1929 and 1934, before the Hays Code was truly enforced (though it was partially enforced) and lots of things slip through, like the chauffeur who flips off his boss. Blink and you miss it…which I’m assuming is what happened to the censors.
One cool thing about pre-code films is how real their special effects were. If Capra wanted real lions, he got real lions. If he wanted a fire, he set a real fire and put the actors in the midst of it. At the end, when a building goes up in flames, he told Barbara Stanwyck to stay on the burning stage until he came to get her, which she did. He filmed the scene, then ran into the flames and carried her out. He later said he could feel her heart pounding.
A good article on the movie can be found at Pre-code.com. He has an analysis of the visuals of the film at the end of his article, which is particularly interesting. Also, TCM has their usual article about the film, with bits like how they used real lions or the real fire.