Thursday, February 2, 2017

Barbara, The Mail-Order Bride

Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck) has hopes of a better life - a torch singer in a New York City speakeasy, she is engaged to the wealthy Don Leslie (Hardie Albright), much to the regret of her lover, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot).  Alas, the engagement is quickly broken; when Don discovers her past relationship with Eddie, he dumps her, and Joan, who is not willing to resume her affair with Eddie runs away to Montreal.  Eddie, however, is determined bring her back. His men find out she is working there; when she realizes that another confrontation is at hand, she bribes her maid, Emily (Leila Bennett) to let Joan serve as Emily's replacement - as a mail order bride in North Dakota.  There, she meets James Gilson (George Brent), a taciturn farmer with little knowledge of women or of conversation in general.  The result a horror of a wedding night, and a married couple who are at odds with one another.  Thus begins The Purchase Price (1932).

This film pointed out to us the benefits of rewatching a movie together after a long gap.  We originally discussed The Purchase Price back in 2009, shortly after the film came out on DVD via the Forbidden Hollywood collection.  For all of us, it was our first time viewing the film (You can see that post here).  As we were discussing the film, we referred back to our earlier comments, and discovered that much of what we originally said had changed, most especially our reactions to the two male leads, Jim and Eddie.

We initially found the character of Jim to be a bit creepy; his almost violent attack of Joan on their wedding night was most off-putting, and it resulted in our really disliking him from that point forward.  But on closer examination, we began to like him a bit more. He has the potential to be a great husband, but his uncommunicative behavior and his total lack of grace is still a bit disconcerting.  He hasn't got a clue on how to behave with a woman, for one thing.  Sure, he advertised for a bride, but manhandling a strange woman almost immediately in no way to win affection.  But, when Joan reacts and hits him, he does NOT hit back or force himself on her further.  He leaves the room, and does not come back uninvited.  He even suggests that they begin divorce proceedings so she can get on with her life.  Ultimately, Jim's character grows and changes, to try to become a better man for her.
Eddie, on the other hand, will not take no for an answer.  Essentially, he is a stalker, constantly pursuing Joan, even when she's told him that the life he offers is not the one that she wants.  He's married, and cannot marry her.  He does seem to love her, in his own way, and ultimately proves helpful to her, but his ego seems to be such that he cannot let her quietly exit his life.  We also wondered if Joan is, for Eddie, the only decent person in his life, and the only person who provides him with the appearance of class, another reason why he might not wish to just find another woman - he knows he'll never find anyone as good.

The town in North Dakota, as portrayed here, seems more like hillbilly country than the northern U.S.  But where so many of the male characters that live here (like Bull McDowell, as portrayed by David Landau - a letch if ever there was one) are distasteful, the few women we see are rather nice, especially Mrs. Tipton (Adele Watson) and her daughter Sarah (Anne Shirley).  Joan visits them when she discovers that Mrs. Tipton has had her new baby alone (except for the presence of her very young - and very frightened daughter).  Ms. Shirley - uncredited here, had been working in films since the age of four (under the name Dawn O'Day).  She was 14 when she appeared in The Purchase Price (and had previously played Ms. Stanwyck as a child in So Big,  released the same year, and, as I was recently reminded, would later play Ms. Stanwyck's daughter in Stella Dallas)  She is quite sweet in this very small part, and is worth looking for.
Don, the man that dumps Joan, is only in one scene, but it is a terrific one. Director William Wellman takes full advantage of sound to portray the sorrow and hypocrisy of the event.  As Don scolds and rejects Joan for being involved with a bootlegger (a bootlegger he utilizes), the hotel lobby in which they sit becomes silent - the nosy inhabitants of the hotel all hush to listen to their conversation.  Even the street outside is silent.  But, as Don exits in a huff and Joan sits there in abject misery, conversations begin again, and a garbage truck drives up the block.  It's an impressively done moment. 

Stanwyck again does her own stunts, most notably in the fire scene at the end of the film, resulting in some minor injuries.  Her relationship with her director was very friendly, and Mr. Wellman is quoted as saying "On one of Miss Stanwyck's interviews she mentioned me as one of her favorite directors and ended with 'I love that man.' Needless to say I was very proud and had a lump in my throat which does not happen to me very often. Barbara Stanwyck -- 'I love that girl.'" (see this TCM article)

Naturally, the New York Times review did not like the film (we seem to say that a lot), but in this case, we think the reviewer is quite wrong.  This is a good film, with strong performances from Stanwyck, of course, and also from George Brent and Lyle Talbot.  We will leave you with this clip in which Ms. Stanwyck herself sings:


  1. Hi Patricia, Great Review! I am happy to find another person that has liked this film. IMO it contains one of George Brent's best early performances and Barbara Stanwyck is great, as usual. I saw it back in 2009 and I must revisit it soon. This film IMO has unfair bad reviews in many sources, including Homer Dickens’ book The Films of Barbara Stanwyck.

    Stany, who’s been one of my favorite actresses since I was a boy, plays a nightclub entertainer who’s fed up with her life –and married lover Lyle Talbot- and ends up living unwittingly in a farm with the character impersonated by George Brent.

    George Brent’s performance as a naïve, sort of shy farmer impressed me favorably, because it’s quite different from the kind of roles he usually played and in my opinion he succeeded at it; with that “surprised” look on his face. When he first meets Stanwyck and he’s permanently sniffling –because of a cold-, which deeply annoys Stanwyck, I giggled constantly.

    The characters’ romantic relationship is very well handled by the director, who builds up an intense sexual tension between both of them.

    There is a perfect balance between romance and action in this film and it succeeds in depicting with sincerity the building of the relationship between the two lead characters; I “bought” every inch of it and that’s a result of Stanwyck’s tremendous talent, Wellman’s handling of the story and of Brent’s good performance, who may have seemed wooden for some other reviewers, but which was right for me at least in this film.

    There are many vignettes in this good little movie: when Stanwyck aids a lady who just had a baby alone with her junior daughter (portrayed by Anne Shirley who 5 years later played Stanwyck’s daughter in “Stella Dallas” (1937)). That scene is full of human touches.

    There are other beautiful scenes, like when Stanwyck and Brent are sowing the seeds together in the country and later harvesting the wheat.

    Indeed a Good film and it's great that you are giving this movie its due worth with your reassessment and review.

  2. This sounds like a film I'd really enjoy. And when characters are complex, all the better. I must say I really enjoy when David Landau shows up in a film -- it seems he was in so many of this era, and I really enjoy his performances, regardless if he is a villain or a nice guy. Looking forward to watching this!

  3. Thanks for this entry. It is indeed interesting to see if our opinions about movies change with time.

    Anne Shirley would play Barbara's daughter in a couple of years in Stella Dallas. Their work in that film is very real and touching.

    1. Oh, how silly of me! I'd totally forgotten "Stella Dallas". I will need to add that at some point.


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