Tag Archives: barbara stanwyck

BABY FACE (1933) and Pre-Code Hollywood Morality

In a scene cut from the original theatrical release, Barbara Stanwyck breaks a beer bottle over the head of a man trying to assault her.

When discussing classic film with those who may have little knowledge of its history, a common grievance I hear is that people take issue with the contrived storylines and docile women that they perceive to make up the cinematic landscape of classic Hollywood. “The stories are all the same,” they often state, “and the women are so wholesome and pure. It’s not real.” When I hear statements like these, I try to give as much historical context as is appropriate for the conversation, and then…I almost always recommend a pre-Code.

Before the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood was the antithesis of what most people consider “old movies” to be. A far cry from the sweet, obedient women who always ended up married to the good guy at the end, women in this era of filmmaking were often driven, manhunting, sexual creatures who lived their own lives, their own way. They got divorces, slept their way to the top, and weren’t afraid of the power of men.

This was the world of pre-Code Hollywood.

Norma Shearer in THE DIVORCEE (1930), a story of a woman’s divorce and illicit affairs that won Norma Shearer an Oscar for Best Actress.

In 1922, following a series of Hollywood scandals that culminated in the accusation and ultimate acquittal of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 in the famous Virginia Rappe rape trial, Hollywood realized that its morals were coming into serious question by certain political factions. The studios hired Will Hays, Presbyterian clergyman and former head of the Republican National Committee, to try to tame what they perceived to be an industry spiraling out of control. He drafted a series of “Do’s, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls” that ultimately morphed into the first Hollywood Production Code, put into effect in 1930. Jason Joy was employed as the chief enforcer of the new mandate, holding the post until 1932.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose 1921 trial and acquittal for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe called into question the morality of Hollywood.

Though the code existed as a technicality, Jason Joy was not too keen on its enforcement and the first film that was reviewed under the new system, The Blue Angel (1930), was passed through with very few changes. The story of an elderly professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer is one that has become a classic of German cinema, but in 1930 it was branded as indecent by a California state censor. As there was poor communication between Joy’s office and the studios, and poor infrastructure regarding who had the power over what, there was not much  that Joy could do had he wanted to.

While the studios and the Production Code office fumbled with the cumbersome new laws, box-office sales skyrocketed. Out of this era of lack of code enforcement came films that were sexy, steamy, brutal, and raw. Women were loose and manipulative, men killed and massacred. There were overt references to sex, and near-nudity.

In Night Nurse (1931) Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck dress and undress 3 times in the first half hour.

Despite the Code’s ban on sexual suggestion and nudity in silhouette, this scene from Golddiggers of 1933 appeared, a clear slap in the face to the Production Code office and one of the raciest scenes to come out of the 1930s.

There was an air of lawlessness in the movies, and the public loved it. The studios were making movies that people wanted in spite of the powers-that-be, and they were doing it right under their noses.

And then came Baby Face (1933).

Film scholars often cite Baby Face as the film that served as the tipping point for all the changes that would take place the following year. At the TCM Festival a few weeks ago Bruce Goldstein, president of the New York Film Forum, described Baby Face as the Citizen Kane of pre-Codes, a film so good, so racy, and so much in defiance of everything the Code stood for that it singlehandedly rallied the office to action.

Baby Face is the story of a young woman who, tired of her life as a prostitute in the saloon owned by her father, decides to use her powers over men to get a job and rise to the upper echelons of New York society. Literally sleeping her way to the top, she is the epitome of the power pre-Code women had over their men. All the men in the movie simply crumble to her will, she uses them as rungs on the ladder to get to where she wants to be.

Even by today’s standards, Baby Face in its original form is a monument to feminism, a story of how a woman uses her wiles to outsmart all the men in her life. But upon its completion in mid-1933 the Production Code office, now headed by Joseph Breen, panicked. The film broke so many rules of the Code, it was essentially unfit for release and was banned by censors across the country. Serious cuts were made to Baby Face to make it palatable to censors, and less than 6 months after the release of Baby Face in December of 1933, an amendment was added to the Code to require all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before their release into theatres. An important shot of a muder/suicide scene in Baby Face was cut to comply with restrictions on murder. Scenes such as this one were cut to comply with the restriction on illicit sex being presented as attractive:

The original cut of Baby Face was tragically presumed lost, until 2004 when a print of the original negative was discovered at the Library of Congress. It premiered at the London Film Festival, and is now widely available via several DVD releases. The print is magnificent. The original theatrical release shows a movie that is nothing special, a run-of-the-mill production with few particularly memorable moments. But when one views the original, uncut version, it is magical. The movie comes to life, and it is a rich, complex story of a woman’s drive and motivation to better herself. Baby Face is the ultimate pre-Code, and the discovery of the uncut version in 2004 stands as one of the most important cinematic discoveries of the last 20 years.

As for the Code itself, it slowly chafed away until its replacement by the MPAA in 1968. It is a controversial subject among film scholars. In my personal view, though the Code severely restricted the freedom of artists to express themselves in Hollywood, its enforcement had its benefits to the progression of the movie industry. In order to make the films they wanted to make, filmmakers were forced to resort to subtlety and innuendo, clever and biting dialogue that went under the radar of the censors, and that audiences had to listen or watch for. Movies played to smarter audiences, because the Code forced them to.

The Women (1939)

But as the Code lasted for such a long span of film history, far too few people know about the rich history before its enforcement, when films were decidedly modern and extremely thrilling. For further reading on this subject, I would recommend Mick LaSalle’s 2000 book Complicated Women, all about the women of pre-Code Hollywood and the roles they played. A great read on an immensely fascinating subject.

See you next time!

Full Schedule Released for the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

Following several days of great anticipation among festival attendees, the TCM Classic Film Festival unveiled its final lineup yesterday via its website. Featuring a veritable amalgam of lesser-seen movie classics and fan favorites, this is sure to be a year to remember.

One of the unexpected highlights of this year will be a midnight showing of the 1932 cult classic Freaks, a dark look into the world of circus sideshows and one of my personal favorite films of the early 1930s. Freaks includes a cast comprised almost exclusively of real-life sideshow performers, and is startlingly progressive and forward-thinking in its treatment of people with disabilities and analysis of the sideshow life. I will definitely be attending this film and will be reporting back with a full analysis.

Another highlight for me is the fact that TCM has programmed two Oscar-nominated Barbara Stanwyck films, Double Indemnity (1944) and Stella Dallas (1937), to be shown on Friday and Saturday. Double Indemnity celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, and the screening will be a special 70th anniversary restoration of the film. Both Stella Dallas and Double Indemnity feature some of Barbara Stanwyck’s best work in a career made up of great performances. Watch this heartwrenching scene at the end of Stella Dallas, followed by her turn of evil in Double Indemnity, and you will see why Barbara Stanwyck is considered one of the greatest and most versatile actresses of her time. I very much look forward to seeing both of these movies on the big screen.

Last year TCM paid tribute to filmmaker Albert Maysles, and this year they show one of his seminal works, the classic documentary Grey Gardens, a stark but ultimately endearing examination of aristocracy in decline. Maysles and his brother, David, befriended Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (known as “Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edith (“Little Edie”), aunt and cousin to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and filmed them over the course of several months as they dealt with the consequences of embezzlement of their funds by a corrupt family member. They lived in squalor in Grey Gardens, their formerly glamorous estate in upstate New York, and had essentially become isolated from everyone but each other. It is a beautiful, funny, and sweet examination of what it means to be family, and how to make the most of a negative situation.

I am a huge fan of Grey Gardens. I think Little Edie is one of the greatest characters, real or created, in the history of cinema. Her outlook on life, her unique relationship with her mother, and her outrageous fashion sense (she has a talent for converting clothing items into other clothing accessories) makes for a character that a filmmaker could only dream of. Watch her below, in the famous clip of her describing her “costume for the day.”

As the festival approaches, I will post a complete list of what readers may expect to see on the blog, and my tentative schedule. To see the complete TCM lineup, click here!

See you next time!

FASCINATING PEOPLE: Professor Alan Greenberg

A portion of an interview with Claudette Colbert, conducted by Professor Alan Greenberg.

Having had the enviable privilege of getting to know some of the biggest stars of classic Hollywood and possessing hundreds of hours of interviews that he conducted with such luminaries as Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jack Lemmon, Lillian Gish, and Greer Garson, Professor Alan Greenberg is perhaps one of the greatest sources of classic film information around. During his time as leader of a community service program in San Diego focusing on teaching foreign students about American culture, Professor Greenberg was able to conduct lengthy interviews with the legendary stars and directors of classic Hollywood, recording on tape these rare and intimate glimpses into their lives and careers.

Gregory Peck on Alfred Hitchcock.

Professor Greenberg has a very interesting background. Upon a move to La Quinta, CA that would ultimately prove to be quite fortuitous, he found himself living in the same city as the legendary director Frank Capra who had recently published an autobiography. Always interested in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, Greenberg took it upon himself to write Capra a letter to ask if they might be able to meet. He agreed, and this was the beginning of a long friendship that also gave Greenberg the opportunity to meet some of Capra’s friends who, of course, were often giant figures in classic Hollywood. This ultimately led to a huge network of prominent friends who were always glad to help out when Greenberg’s students at Orco Development, the community service program he established in the 1980s, had a research need. In the following Q&A, Greenberg discusses Orco Development more in detail and gives you more information on what it is all about.

I became acquainted with Professor Greenberg a few weeks ago and found his story so fascinating that I asked if he would like to do a Q&A on the blog so that my readers could become introduced to him and his work. I was thrilled when he agreed. So please enjoy this Q&A that I conducted with Professor Alan Greenberg, friend to the stars!

You have had the great privilege to interview some of the most well-known, best-loved, and highly respected people in classic Hollywood. Tell our readers a bit about your background, and how you came to befriend so many of these veritable Hollywood legends.

A couple things in my background prepared me for interviewing and sharing adventures with some of the great legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I was always attracted to programs like Edward R. Murrow’s Person To Person and other interview shows where Murrow would talk to Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, etc. about their backgrounds and careers while being taken on a tour of their homes. This fascinated me, the ability to go to their house and talk to them about their work and lives. Secondly, I was bullied a great deal in high school due to a bad case of acne. Looking for a solution, I noticed an ad in the paper talking about boxing lessons at a gym in downtown Manhattan. Of all things, the instructor that day was the 5 time former middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He was having financial difficulties at the time, and wanted to make some money while helping young people. He became a friend and mentor to me over time and this experience taught me how to become comfortable talking to my heroes from an early age. Also, many people I interviewed over the years were fans of boxing including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and the actress/director Ida Lupino. Ms. Lupino was a boxing enthusiast and you can see a picture of her, Sugar Ray Robinson, and myself taken during dinner in the gallery of my website.

I also had become friends with the late director Frank Capra after moving to California in the 1970’s. He was retired at the time and was impressed with my knowledge of his career. At one point he told me “You know more about me than I do”. One day we were having lunch at a restaurant, when a group of Japanese students asked if he was in fact the director Frank Capra. He said yes and we all had a friendly conversation about American film and American history. After the conversation was over, Capra and I realized the student’s knowledge of American film and history was lacking. This bothered Capra in particular because he had directed a series of documentaries called Why We Fight which explained America’s involvement in WWII. He and I eventually came up with the idea of creating a Community Service Program called Orco Development, the purpose of which was educating foreign-born students about American film, politics, and the military. I suggested it would be more engaging for the students if we spoke to the people involved in what we were studying. Capra used his vast connections in Hollywood to get subjects who I would then interview and eventually get to know on a personal level. So it was really Capra’s reputation and mentoring that allowed me to befriend all these Hollywood legends, there was nothing special about me that attracted them to the course, other than the depth of knowledge I had about their work.

Professor Greenberg with his friend, director Frank Capra.

Professor Greenberg with his friend, director Frank Capra.

Who was your first interviewee, and how did that experience prepare you for the many dozens more of these interviews you would go on to complete?

Although I met a number of famous people before getting to know Frank Capra, I would say he probably is the first formal interview I did. Fortunately when I contacted him and he wrote me back, he gave me 3 weeks time before we could actually meet. I had a copy of his autobiography The Name Above The Title which I read it in total and made numerous notes on index cards preparing for it. I then sat down and began to memorize my questions. When I arrived at his home in La Quinta I just had one index card with a keyword from each topic. He was so impressed with this breadth of knowledge on his life and career that it initiated this friendship. I think it also flattered him that someone so young would be interested in someone 50 years older.

I learned that one way to impress these people and get to know them personally was to do this kind of thing. Also I learned about eye contact, the worst thing you can do is sit there with your subject and have your eyes dart back and forth between them and your notes, studying the questions. It says you didn’t prepare. This experience taught me to be overly prepared and in some cases it can really impress people. Afterward Capra and I began speaking every weekend for 2 years and he basically schooled me in classic movies. He was one of the top 5 directors of all time and he was my mentor. So that was quite an experience.

Your prior knowledge coming into these interviews is vast. I recall one interview in which you provide your subject with the name of Melvyn Douglas’ wife with barely a pause. Were you a classic film fan before your association with these figures?

I would say I was a classic film fan but on a very superficial level. My good friend and fraternity brother Philip Wuntch, who was the former film critic for the Dallas Morning News and author of Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, had a much deeper appreciation for classic films than I did before I was mentored by Mr. Capra. So I did enjoy the movies before, but it was the interaction with these people, getting to know them, that made me enjoy classic films on a new level.

Of all the Hollywood people you came to know, who left the biggest impression on you, and why?
I think the person who left the biggest impression on me was Burt Lancaster. He was exactly as energetic and charismatic in real life as he was on film. But that’s not what impressed me the most about him. One day he called me up and asked me if I knew anything about Cesar Chavez and the work he was doing with the farm workers. I said I only knew about it from reading stories in the newspaper. He then invited me up for the day to check out Chavez’s operation and see the kind of struggles they were going through. Burt’s personality was as big as they come, but when we went up to see Chavez and the farm workers he was as respectful, polite, and attentive as anyone I’d ever seen. He completely put his ego aside to listen to everyone he came into contact with. Not that Burt had ever been dismissive with people before, but most of the time his personality could really take over the room. Not in this case. That showed me how much he really cared about the issues that were important to him. There were no camera crews, no reporters, just two guys trying to understand the lives of people that were fighting for their rights.
What was the most memorable moment to come out of the interviews you conducted with the Hollywood stars?
When you’ve done literally hundreds of interviews, many moments stay with you over the years. I think one your readers might enjoy hearing is the interview I did with Myrna Loy. For those who don’t know, Myrna Loy was one of the most popular stars of the 1930’s with movies like The Thin Man , Manhattan Melodrama, and The Best Years Of Our Lives which incidentally, Capra once told me was the perfect movie in his opinion. She had starred with just about every leading man in Hollywood, and could do comedy as well as drama. I think on a list of the most popular classic film actresses, she could definitely make the top 10 along with Hepburn, Stanwyck, Davis, etc. With that in mind, she proceeded to tell me that she had made it as an actress, “in a very small way” and when I responded to her that she was in fact one of the most popular screen actresses of all time she said, “Good God I don’t believe that, but then that’s alright. I was just a little punk girl trying to be a movie star, there were a lot of us around”. When I asked her if she got a lot of fan mail she replied, “Oh I got hardly any at all, they didn’t even know who I was”. She absolutely refused to see herself as a big star, and she had this attitude every time we spoke, it wasn’t false modesty. She felt she was a good actress, but when it came to stardom, she not only wouldn’t acknowledge it, she honestly didn’t believe she was popular at all. I was very surprised given all the incredible films I had seen her in.
You have had a truly fascinating career, and possess hundreds of hours of audio recordings from some of the most popular figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood, something unique indeed. Do you have any plans to write a book or put together a project related to your experiences interviewing these stars and directors?

I was very encouraged by the response I’ve been receiving from my website. For example we recently put a portion of my interview with Barbara Stanwyck on YouTube, and I think within a few days we had almost 500 people listen to it and many of them left comments, begging to hear the whole interview.

A portion of an interview that Professor Greenberg conducted with Barbara Stanwyck, in which she discusses her directors and her love of her older sister.

So I’d like to begin some speaking engagements, talking about these unique experiences because there is clearly an interest. Turner Classic Movies has millions of viewers and whenever Robert Osborne gives the background to a picture before they play it, I’ve been told it’s enthusiastically received. One thing that I think sets my interviews apart from the usual Hollywood interviews is these stars were much more candid with me, knowing I had no intention to gossip about them or pass the info on to the media, or take their words out of context. We had an understanding between us and I was sincere in my curiosity about them.

As far as a book is concerned, I’ve been approached by publishers in the past, but to be frank, they asked me if these famous people had revealed any personal sexual details about their lives. I was disheartened by this and the publishers told me the book wouldn’t sell well without these details. That certainly wasn’t the path I wanted to go down so I politely refused and put the idea of a book behind me.

Where can readers learn more about you, and follow any project you may be working on?

People can find out more about me and the program utilizing our website: www.orcodevelopment.org and also keep an eye out for my lectures where I reminisce, tell anecdotes, play interviews and show pictures of my friends Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart and more. You can find most of them in the gallery section of our website with me during the 25 or so years I taught this course. I have some personal and never before heard stories about my friendship with these venerated actors. If any colleges, senior centers, organizations, etc. would like to contact me. They can do so through phone or email and I’ll be happy to reply.


Thank you so much to Professor Greenberg for this marvelous Q&A. See you next time!

2013 at Backlots–A Year in Review

A big thank you to my readers for making 2013 a true banner year for Backlots. Here are some of the things that happened on the blog this year:

My attendance at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was far and away one of the highlights of the year. A true movie lover’s paradise, the TCM Festival attracts classic film aficionados from the world over, and TCM certainly delivers the goods. It was great fun interacting in person with my fellow bloggers, whose work I know so well online, and making new classic film friends. A wonderful experience!

For the second year in a row, Backlots covered the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past summer. As usual, it was a fantastic event with presentations unparalleled in their quality. Highlights for me included a screening of the hilarious Marion Davies movie The Patsy, an interactive talk with Winsor McKay expert John Canemaker,  and the breathtaking gamelan accompaniment set to the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins by the Sekar Jaya Gamelan Ensemble. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival never disappoints. Stay tuned next year’s festival which will be held over Memorial Day Weekend, and on January 11 for their special celebration of The Little Tramp at 100–celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. I will be at both events!

Last month, I was honored to be invited to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary Tour. We bloggers were treated to a day of exploration at the studio, led by a professional guide, and topped off with lunch at the commissary. We had special access to the costume department and several areas off limits for regular tour members, and it was indeed a special day. Again, I met so many fellow bloggers and had such a good time. Thank you, Warner Bros., for organizing this wonderful day for us!

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 4.45.57 PM

The classic film community was graced with several magnificent new books this year. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, and Kendra Bean, who is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and a personal friend of mine. Both of these works are great monuments in and of themselves. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a gargantuan book that features 860 full pages of text and another 200 for source notes, and has proven to be the quintessential, definitive book on the actress. My reading of this book, though it took me less than 2 days, is one of the highlights of my year. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is so chock full of previously unseen photos of this staggering beauty that the reader simply cannot put it down. It is displayed prominently, face forward, on my shelf so as not to obscure its beauty. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these two gifted writers, and I thank them for their interviews with me. Read Victoria Wilson’s interview here, and Kendra Bean’s here.

In what was perhaps my most meaningful personal success of 2013, I had the great privilege to interview Joan Fontaine in honor of her birthday. This was her last birthday, and her last interview. Joan was frail and her health declining, so she kept her answers short. The length of her answers does not matter to me. My interview with Joan Fontaine remains the single greatest privilege Backlots has ever had. Click here to read it. Rest in peace, dear Joan.

This is the video I made in memory of Joan Fontaine. I hope you enjoy it.

Wow, readers. What a year. 2014 is already shaping up to be an equally marvelous year! Here’s to what’s to come, and to you, loyal readers, for helping to make this blog what it has become.

Merry Christmas from Backlots!

To all those who celebrate it, I wish my readers a very merry Christmas with lots of quality time with friends and family!

The holiday of Christmas has heralded some of the most beloved movies of all time. In celebration of the season, I am profiling a few of my favorites here. Have a wonderful holiday, and if you have a free moment, check out some of these movies!


Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan, it tells the story of a “perfect housewife” columnist who doesn’t exactly have the life her column suggests…and when her boss requires her to host a war veteran at her home for Christmas (and insists upon coming along himself), she has some arranging to do! A sweet situation comedy that is defined by Barbara Stanwyck’s delightful performance and that of the adorable S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the character of Uncle Felix.


This one is a true classic, and often I find myself disillusioned with the fact that with its great popularity has come a colorization that has now taken over AMC every year at Christmas as well as a 1994 remake, that has become more prevalent than the original on the other more commercial channels. But this, I believe, is the one and only one to see. Natalie Wood stars as a little girl skeptical of Santa Claus, until a Macy’s Santa Claus played by Edmund Gwenn makes her think twice. It is a fantastic children’s movie and also holds up extremely well for adults–if you haven’t seen it since your childhood, now is a wonderful time to revisit it!


This is a lesser-known gem with which I first became acquainted last year at Noir City X-Mas. It is a sweet, low-key comedy that stars Janet Leigh as an engaged war widow who falls in love with a department store clerk while undercover on her job as a comparative shopper. Though she already has a fiancé, her young son takes to the department store clerk (played by Robert Mitchum) and there begins to be some tension due to her son’s clear preference for Mitchum’s character. The movie is light fare, but good fun. One of the best performances in the movie comes from the little boy, played by Gordon Gebert. His acting career never took off but he found a second talent in adulthood–after studying architecture at UCLA, USC, and MIT, Gebert is now a very prominent professor at New York City’s College School of Architecture.

The Miracle Woman (1931)

In the lion’s den in MIRACLE WOMAN (1931)

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 hushes the crowd.

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.

John hears Florence Fallon’s voice for the first time.

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.

a2 Frank Capra The Miracle Woman Barbara Stanwyck DVD Review PDVD_000

In tears before her final sermon.

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.

A publicity still with Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners.

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!

The Warner Bros. VIP Tour

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Well, readers, today was an exciting and exhausting day to say the least. It began around 9:45 in the morning when, running on adrenaline and caffeine only (I didn’t get very much sleep), I arrived at the Warner lot for the VIP tour. After getting formally acquainted with several classic film bloggers whose names I knew well, we were led into a special screening room where we watched a short video of the history of Warner Bros. and then headed out on the tour itself with our friendly guide, John.

We bloggers got some very special treatment–our first stop was the costume department, which is not normally part of the tour. There, a woman by the name of Elaine showed us stock costumes while explaining to us how the costume system works at Warner Bros. It turns out that costumes are owned by Warner Bros. but can be rented by other studios–there is a bit of a kinship there that allows costumes to be shared. Upon questioning her about a sign on one of the door that said “Trades not allowed,” Elaine also informed me that there is a trade system in place for some of the costumes. If a costume from the collection is lost or damaged, often the person who lost or damaged it can replace it with another costume of the same value. However, in that particular department, trades are not allowed if the costume is lost or damaged. The person must pay, out of pocket, the value of the costume. Very interesting stuff, and really gives you an insight into some of the politics of the inner departments of the studio.


Some hats from 1920-1960.

As many of my readers know, I am a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck and was keen to know where Stanwyck’s pre-Code Warner Bros. films were shot. I posed my question to John, who was wonderful in getting the answer to me. He handed the question off to several people until I finally got an answer, and the answer was that most of the Barbara Stanwyck pre-Codes were filmed in Studio 14. When we passed Studio 14 later, John incorporated this new information into the tour. The Warner Bros. tour guides clearly respect and value new information, and I appreciated his diligence in answering my question and imparting it onto the whole group.

A scene from BABY FACE, shot on Warner Bros. Stage 14.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was the prominent inclusion of A Star is Born. Having seen the movie at least two dozen times, I recognized the set where the opening shot was filmed, and we also passed Stage 7 where many prominent films were shot including A Star is Born, 42nd Street, and Casablanca. Though there were ladders blocking the bottom part of the plaque, I was able to get a bit of it in a picture. I hope you can read the text!


From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

Halfway through the tour, we got a taste of the more modern Warner Bros. with a visit to the set of Friends. As this was a tour specifically geared toward bloggers, several of us classic film bloggers, John was kind enough to also include a lamp from The Maltese Falcon that appears alongside the Friends set. It was fascinating for me to experience the gamut of Warner Bros. through my lens of a classic film fan. It truly gives the visitor a holistic view of the company, and how its history (with which I am mostly familiar) has shaped its present.

The tour ended with a bang, as we were given special access to take pictures in the museum, something not generally allowed on tours. I have a real soft spot for costumes, so I was thrilled to be able to take photos of such costumes as the three dresses shown below.

Three Elizabeth Taylor costumes from GIANT, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Costumes worn by Joan Crawford (left) and Elizabeth Taylor.

Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner, happened to be on the lot that day and visited with our group, which was a wonderful moment. She is part of Warner Bros. 90th anniversary speaker series, “Meet the Family,” telling the story of the Warner family through the eyes of its members. Cass has her own production company, the Warner Sisters, that is doing very prominent work in the industry right now. She also shared stories of the family, how she wanted the Warner record set straight. People often think of the movie moguls of classic Hollywood as being tyrannical and controlling–and Cass Warner wanted to reiterate that her grandfather was a loving man with whom she was close. She has also devoted much of her life to learning more about her family history. “I’m sort of the family detective!” she joked. She was very interested in the work we classic film bloggers were doing, and I was lucky enough to get a picture with her.


The tour ended at the commissary, where we were given a very delicious lunch. My blogging friends Kimberly Truhler, Kristen Lopez, Elise Crane Derby and I had exciting and lively discussions about our favorite classic film stars, little-known old Hollywood gossip, and our modest but vibrant online classic film community. We are indeed a rather small, devoted, and tight-knit bunch.


I got an added bonus after the tour–my friend Marya, who works at the Warner Archives, brought me up to see the closet where they keep all the Warner Archive DVD releases. Needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Marya and I talked about all the movies, I got to see where she works, and of course I got a picture with Robbie the Robot.


I can’t imagine a more fun-filled day for a classic movie fan. I departed Warner Bros. an exhausted, but very happy blogger.

Now for the good stuff!

If you would like to go on a Warner Bros. tour, I would highly recommend it. It was a lot of fun, and if you’re a film fan in L.A. it’s a great thing to check out. The VIP tour package looks like this:

Departs: Mon-Sat 8:15am-4pm  and Sundays (limited availability)
Duration: 2hrs 15 min
Cost: $52.00/person
Children 8yrs + are welcome

We technically went on a VIP tour, but with the added special access it was actually more like a Deluxe tour in many ways. This is what the Deluxe tour looks like:

Departs Mon-Fri 10:15 am
Duration: 5 hrs.
Cost: $250.00/person

As I mentioned before, Cass Warner is speaking on tours through the end of the year, so if you would like to see her then this is the time to go. Also, apparently there is a tour in French, if you (like your author here!) speak French. However, act fast for that one because it’s only going on through November.

If you’re in Los Angeles and have a school or club who would like to see Warner Bros., give them a call because hey have special discounts for groups larger than 24. More information can be found on their website.

Thank you, Warner Bros., for this wonderful opportunity!