By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
For the past few months I have been on a rather unshakable Barbara Stanwyck kick. I have always been aware of her gifts as an actress and have always enjoyed her work, but over the past few months I have not been able to get enough of her. All this was simply expanded when I had the honor to interview Victoria Wilson, the author of the new Barbara Stanwyck biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940–and when my book arrived, I devoured it almost as quickly as it reached my hands. I’ve gone mad for Missy (the nickname given to her by a maid in the 1930s that stuck), and there seems to be no turning back now.
Thus, I have decided to make a post on what is one of my favorite Stanwyck films that does not seem to get enough credit. It is The Miracle Woman, co-starring David Manners and released by Columbia in 1931 under the direction of Frank Capra. This was Stanwyck’s second film with Capra after 1930’s Ladies of Leisure, and would be followed by three more collaborations over the course of 11 years.
The Miracle Woman draws much of its material from the life of popular preacher Aimee Semple McPherson and from the hit 1927 novel Elmer Gantry. A scathing critique of popular Christianity and revival meetings featuring charismatic preachers, Elmer Gantry was banned in several cities across the United States for denouncing popular preachers as frauds and false prophets. Several key components in the book are reflected in The Miracle Woman, not the least of which seems to be the similarity of the names of the main female characters, “Sharon Falconer”in Elmer Gantry and “Florence Fallon” in The Miracle Woman.
Florence Fallon is a preacher’s daughter who calls out the sins of her father’s congregation after they cast him out shortly before his death. Her impassioned speech scares the congregation out of the church, but one person remains–an out-of-towner named Hornsby who sees the fire in her soul and teaches her how to make money preaching.
I must digress from the plot a bit to tell you to watch how Barbara Stanwyck, age 23 and still a novice in Hollywood, plays this scene. A true testament to her gifts, and to Frank Capra’s understanding of her as an actress. In his autobiography, Capra states that in his films with Stanwyck, he rehearsed with the entire cast before he brought her in. Stanwyck gave her best performances, he said, on the first take. If he tried to do multiple takes with her, the subsequent performances would merely be carbon copies of the first. That fact makes this scene even more astounding.
Florence teams up with Hornsby to create a veritable preaching empire, beginning with broadcasts over the radio and branching out into revival meetings for her loyal followers. One man named John Carson, a veteran who was blinded in battle, hears Florence’s voice over the radio just as he was about to commit suicide over the misery of his condition. Her voice and words make him find new light in his life, and he decides to attend one of her revivals. There, he volunteers to sit in the cage of lions to prove that one cannot be hurt with “love and understanding in your heart.” We soon learn that, much to Florence’s disillusionment, he is the only volunteer that has not been pre-selected by Hornsby and paid to feign healing.
On her way out of the theatre, she runs into the man again. She offers him a ride home in the rain, and he offers to bring her into his home. They start to talking, and cultivate a close friendship. Soon, it turns into romantic love. Florence begins sending him notes, assembled tirelessly in raised letters so that he can “read” them.
At a party, one of the staff members of Florence Fallon’s revival show demands a share of the profits, and threatens to expose her as a fraud if he doesn’t get it. In the paper a few days later, we see that the worker has been found dead. The staff suggests that they move to a different town to get away from the scandal. When Florence refuses telling him that he doesn’t own her, Hornsby claims that he holds a sort of “first mortgage.” Then he assaults her, grabbing her body and kissing her on the lips.
This scene shows more evidence of Stanwyck’s magnificent acting abilities. When Hornsby grabs her and she eventually pushes him away, the horror on her face is real, palatable. She holds a hand to her mouth, and her eyes show legitimate fear. As she begins to warn him of what will happen if he ever does that again, her voice quivers with shock. This is an incredibly nuanced, emotional moment, one that requires intense emotional depth from its 23-year-old actress. And Stanwyck delivers.
It is also this scene that establishes Hornsby as a malicious character. Shortly thereafter, and following a birthday celebration with John in which they declare their love for each other, Florence sees a newspaper article that says she is going to the Holy Land. When she asks Hornsby to retract it, he refuses–saying that his idea of the Holy Land is Monte Carlo, and they will go together. Florence resists him, until Hornsby says that it’s either Monte Carlo or jail. He plans to frame her for embezzlement of funds, or pin on her the death of the staff worker.
This leaves Florence no choice but to go with him–and when she sees John to tell him that she is going away, she exposes herself as a fraud. John does not care, and hatches a scheme to make her think that she really can perform miracles. Before Florence’s farewell tour, he pretends to be able to see to make her think that she has performed a miracle on his eyesight. She is not fooled, but credits him with a miracle nonetheless–that he “made [her] see.” It is at this moment that she officially separates herself from Hornsby, just before she goes onstage. Hornsby sees that John is the catalyst for this, and knocks him out after Florence leaves the room.
As Florence goes onstage, Hornsby gets his revenge. He allows an electric fire to start, and the tabernacle burns. John is awakened by the smoke, makes his way down to the stage and rescues Florence from the fire. He spends a few days in the hospital, where they begin to repair his eyesight. Florence gives up preaching and instead joins the Salvation Army. A telegram at the end of the movie shows that she and John are to be married, delivered as Florence marches with the rest of the Salvation Army, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the movie ends.
The ending of The Miracle Woman is taken almost entirely from Elmer Gantry, but differs slightly in an important way. In the latter story Sister Sharon Falconer perishes in the fire, prompting the main character, Elmer Gantry, to give up his religious ways. In The Miracle Woman, religion is treated with more reverence. Florence is rescued from the fire and simply finds a new and better outlet for her religious convictions.There was an official production code in place in 1930, but its enforcement did not begin until 1934 (incidentally, following a string of risque Barbara Stanwyck films. I wrote a post on the subject nearly a year ago, click here to read it). One of the restrictions outlined by the Production Code of 1934 was that religion was to be treated with nothing but reverence–thus this film likely would not have passed the censor board had it been made under the Code due to its questioning of the legitimacy of religious revivals, regardless of Florence Fallon maintaining her religious devotions at the film’s conclusion.
Though The Miracle Woman was made several years before the strict enforcement of the Production Code, filmmakers were still limited by common standards of what the public would accept. In order to appease the influential masses of Christian viewers, Capra and Columbia played it safe with this story, avoiding the issue of religious denouncement that was the hallmark of Elmer Gantry. In doing so, they created a unique film–one that both celebrates religion and questions it. The Miracle Woman really makes us think, which is a sure sign of a well-made film.
See you next time!