I saw Barbara Stanwyck in movies before, some of her very best, no less: Remember the Night, The Lady Eve. But it was not until Frank Capra’s 1931 The Miracle Woman that I became a Barbara Stanwyck fan. There was something about that movie that sent me on a stampede to see all her films I could lay my hands on.
I’m still not entirely certain what it was about that particular film that so impressed me. Perhaps it was how sincerely and passionately she threw herself into the role. There’s nothing quite like a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck and in this film she ran through nearly every feeling in the book, displaying raw, naked emotion and passion that impressed me as being unlike anyone else I had seen.
The Miracle Woman is about Florance Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a pastor who died penniless and brokenhearted after years of unrequited service to a church full of unhearing parishioners. After lashing out at them in anger, she is approached by the con artist, Hornsby (Sam Hardy), about working with him. She becomes Sister Fallon, preacher and healer, and he manages everything from behind the scenes, paying people to pretend to be healed.
But when John Carson (David Manners – in a far more interesting role than he had in The Mummy and Dracula) is stopped from committing suicide when he hears her voice over the radio, they soon meet and fall in love. With John believing in her completely, she begins to have second-thoughts about what she is doing and Hornsby begins getting jealous and threatens to expose her. Her rediscovery of faith is gradual. At first she wants to stop the fake healings and simply do her stuff honestly, forgetting that it was through dishonesty that she got such a large following in the first place (not to mention the money that Hornsby is embezzling). It takes her a while to come to the place where she is willing to give it all up to do what is right.
Like Capra’s later Meet John Doe (starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper), Capra is exploring the idea of whether or not something is still true, even when that truth is used to exploit others. Florence may be intending to fleece people, but her words still touch them, namely John Carson. It changes his life. And he changes hers. Through all the abuse of faith by hypocrites and hucksters, truth still shines through.
Unlike Capra’s later film, however, The Miracle Woman is entirely Barbara Stanwyck’s film. She is at turns tough, vulnerable, tender, enraged, quiet, worldly, sincere, passionate, simmering, ashamed.
When we first meet Florence Fallon, she is at the pulpit, telling the parishioners that her father is dead. She starts out quietly, but soon builds to a crescendo. Like I said, no one can quite top pre-code Barbara Stanwyck for intensity. It’s the sort of intensity that seems borderline too much, except when it’s done sincerely. It almost became a running joke in Stanwyck’s early career that at some point in her movies she would start yelling at someone and tell them to get out. That is generally the sort of thing that gets toned down as actors become more polished and experienced, more measured in how they express emotion. But it was precisely that intensity that caught my attention – it can be thrilling to watch somebody give a performance their all, holding nothing back, similar to the thrill my dad describes in watching a football game where the players equally are striving to win with everything they have in them.
But she’s not running on all cylinders the entire movie. She can pull back and be still, talking with John, crying over her father. Then she’s back at it, exposing the truth in a burning building (and Capra really had her stand on a set that was burning). It’s her capacity to let it all out and then pull back that partly impressed me. And she was only 23 or 24 years old at the time, with most of her career still ahead of her.