21 May 2009

The Miracle Woman (1931)

Released by Columbia Pictures in 1931, The Miracle Woman tells the story of a of disillusioned pastor's daughter (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who falls in with a con-man named Bob Hornsby and takes up evangelism for profit. Sister Florence Fallon (as she is called) soon finds herself the centerpiece of an immense evangelical movement, fueled by her fiery radio sermons. Florence and Bob rake in the cash, under the pretense of taking donations to build a tabernacle. Meanwhile John Carson a blind former aviator named turned songwriter, plans to commit suicide, but happens to overhear one of Florence's sermons just as he is about to take the fatal leap from his window. After attending (and taking part in) one Florence's sermons in person, John finds himself smitten with her, and volunteers his services as a hymn writer. Florence soon finds herself just as smitten with John, and becomes quite conflicted about the great scam in which she has involved herself. Florence tries to quit the racket, but being the cad that he is, Hornsby blackmails her into staying with the program (and thereby with him). How ever will the star-crossed lovers extricate themselves from this sticky situation?

The Miracle Woman is an unapologetic criticism of religious hypocrisy and those who would use religion for their own ends, so much so that a title card explains this to the audience rather bluntly at the start of the picture. Moreover, the character of Florence Fallon is a not particularly subtle jab at Aimee Semple McPherson, who conducted a similar mass-media religious campaign in the 1920s and 30s. In many ways, the picture's message is just as relevant today as it was in 1931. Florence's sermons carry with them all the bombastic pageantry and ritualistic spectacle of a National Socialist Party rally. Particularly interesting is the chorus of believers, clad uniformly in white with a large cross and an FF monogram emblazoned on their shirts. Although it all feels quite extreme and is perhaps somewhat exaggerated, the whole extravaganza nonetheless calls to mind images of modern day evangelical conventions and mega-churches.

The poignant social commentary is complimented by solid acting, in particular on the part of Barbara Stanwyck. Even though she had fewer than ten pictures under her belt at this point in her career, Barbara shows some astounding talent. Her tirade against the congregation of her late father's church at the outset of the picture is perhaps the foremost example--she begins as half-hearted and inwardly resentful, but soon explodes into outrage and just indignation as she lashes into the shocked churchgoers. It is a gripping and utterly believable performance; the sort of thing about which professors of acting must have wet dreams. David Manners turns in a sympathetic performance as the blind (yet multi-talented) John Carson, but he is naturally overshadowed by Barbara Stanwyck (along with pretty much everyone else who appears on the screen).

Finally, the cinematographic aspects of The Miracle Woman are just as solid as its thematic aspects. Even if he was prone to sentimentality in some of his pictures, Frank Capra made some of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, and The Miracle Woman should be counted among his best pictures (even if it is obscure by comparison to the likes of It's A Wonderful Life). The Miracle Woman features some quality camera work, and despite being an early talkie, never feels stiff or static. Capra does a particularly great job conveying a sense of chaos in the pictures final scenes.

All in all, The Miracle Woman is a quality landmark in the curriculum vitae of both Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra. It has been released on VHS and airs occasionally on TCM. Although it is not available on DVD in the US, in does appear in a British boxed set. Whatever the format, the picture is well worth watching if the opportunity should avail itself.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more. Stanwyck does a fine job (actually can't think of a time when she didn't) and the film is unerring in it's message.