Monday, July 25, 2016

Miracle Maker Barbara

The Miracle Woman (1931) is the story of Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a minister ousted by his ministry in favor of a younger man.  His heart broken by the betrayal of his congregation, the Reverend Fallon dies suddenlyWith his body still in the chair in which he died, his daughter arrives at his pulpit to announce his death, and to harangue the community on their hypocrisy.  Visiting promoter Hornsby (Sam Hardy) is intrigued, and hires Florence  to run a highly profitable "ministry."  But when Florence learns that her sermon stopped blind composer John Carson (David Manners) from committing suicide, Florence must take a long, hard look at her occupation. 

Watching the film right after Ladies They Talk About did lead to a discussion and comparison of the lead actors in the two films. David Manners' chemistry with Stanwyck is quite appealing, and resulted in a much more interesting dynamic that that between Ms. Stanwyck and Preston Foster.  We were particularly taken with the scene in which Stanwyck and Manners begin to sing together.  There is a naturalness in the scene that speaks to improvisation, though it probably was well scripted.  Manners presents us with a gentle, almost fragile man, who grows stronger because of his love for Florence.  But at no point do we find him weak or ineffectual.  His interactions with Stanwyck speak to an equality between them - each has their own demons; their relationship enables them both to face them.
David Manners career in Hollywood was relatively short.  He only appeared in 39 films between 1929 and 1936, and is probably best remembered as Jonathan Harker in the Tod Browning Dracula (1931).  He found life in Hollywood not to his liking, and eventually relocated to Pacific Palisades, with his partner, author William Mercer.  Manners wrote, occasionally returning to the theatre (appearing on Broadway in Truckline Cafe with Marlon Brando in 1946, for example).  Manners died in 1998, age 97.  A detailed obituary is available in The Independent.

The performance of Beryl Mercer as Mrs. Higgins is adorable.  John's landlady is sweet, caring and humorous.  There is no relationship between them other than that he lives in her building, but she seems to regard him as a son.  Both Precode.com and this New York Times review (which is not otherwise all that enthusiastic) mention Ms. Mercer's lovely portrayal.

Because of the portrait painted of a dishonest evangelist, the film was banned in the UK (according to the AFI Catalog).  The AFI also notes the similarities between this film, and the 1960 film Elmer Gantry (even down to the fire at the end of the films), though Elmer Gantry was based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, while this film was based on the play Bless You Sister by Robert Riskin and John Meehan (which, in the 1927 Broadway run, starred Alice Brady in the role that would be played by Ms. Stanwyck).

In this TCM article, it's pointed out that, being this is 1931, there is precious little in the way of special effects in the film.  So, when Stanwyck and Manners are in the cage with the lions, they are IN the cage with the lions - a veil was the only thing separating them from attack.  Convinced that Stanwyck was totally comfortable, Manners would later recall, he became "brave" and went on with the scene, only to discover afterwards that she was actually terrified!  Similarly, in the fire sequence at the end of the film.  Stanwyck had to stand amid the flames, and when Capra went in to get her, he discovered (though was unaware of it while filming), that her heart was pounding from fear.  As always, Ms. Stanwyck's professionalism was the stuff of legend.

We'll end with this scene of Ms. Stanwyck showing off her oratory skills.  We'll return next week with an early Laurence Olivier film.