Sunday 4 November 2007

The Miracle Woman (1931) Frank R Capra

I'm finding that Frank Capra's early films are even more fascinating than his later ones, those that are seem to be universally regarded as classics. They may not be as good as the ones everybody knows but they're from an honest age when things could be said that people didn't necessarily want to hear. Three years later the Production Code hit and that honesty vanished for a while.

The opening of this film is highly appropriate in that context. Barbara Stanwyck is Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher who dies after being fired by his rich congregation. She takes his pulpit and rips that congregation a new one, calling them all hypocrites for doing everything the bible rails against for six days a week and then pretending to be the most devout on the seventh. Of course they all walk out on her, except for Bob Hornsby who wasn't one of them anyway. He's just travelling through but recognises a talent in her and plans to use it all he can.

He sets her up as Florence 'Faith' Fallon, taking her on the road as a hell and brimstone preacher with her own radio show. It's a really ostentatious production, beginning with her walking straight into the lion's den, literally, with a whole bunch of them on the road with her, but it ends up impacting people anyway. The act calls for a volunteer to join her with the lions but he's a paid stooge who gets drunk and falls asleep. Luckily for Sister Fallon, her previous broadcast reached John Carson, a blind war veteran who was about to commit suicide. Changing his mind through her words, he turns up to the show and joins her in the cage.

Capra had two reasons to tell this story. One was to give Barbara Stanwyck the chance of the Oscar nomination that she didn't get a year earlier for Ladies of Leisure. She didn't get it for this either but she certainly gives a believable showing, even though she's notably more wooden than she'd remain for long. She was one of the few precode names to survive into the codes, because she was so believable in any role that called for a level of sleaze, yet could play innocent too. She gets to work on a number of levels here, from bitter to empassioned to tender, from wild to controlled to swamped. The powerful depth to her story comes from her being the real thing playing at being a fake through embittered circumstance, but having her faith restored anyway.

The other reason was to tell the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a major evangelist during the depression who ran into a massive scandal in 1926. She ran a huge production that incorporated all the usual suspects: speaking in tongues, faith healing and such. She had notable reported successes to her credit and was the first woman to both receive a broadcast license from the FCC and to broadcast a sermon on the air. However in 1926 she disappeared for five weeks, finally reappearing in the Arizona desert with a story of being kidnapped, drugged, tortured, held for ransom, and from which she finally escaped. The best explanation to be had is that she was on a tryst with her married radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston with whom she was having an affair. Two people died in the search for her.

By 1931 Aimee Semple McPherson was working through fresh new scandal after fresh new scandal, but actor David Manners was on a roll. This film fits in the middle of a bunch of wonderful films: not just the justly famous Dracula but also the unjustly obscure George Arliss movie, The Millionaire, and John Monk Saunders's The Last Flight with Richard Barthelmess. This one makes four out of five for 1931 for him and that's a major handful indeed. It's a shame for us that he retired from the screen in 1936, bored with Hollywood and a life that he didn't agree with.

This one also contains quite possibly his best performance of the bunch, as a blind aviator with a number of talents, not least ventriloquism. He plays a blind man superbly and I'm convinced he did the ventriloquism himself as his lips move oh so subtly at points suggesting that he was really good but not quite perfect. The more I see David Manners, the more I want to see more. Incidentally, Carson's dummy Al's full name is Aloysius K Eucalyptus, and I'm sure I've received spam from him in my time.

It'll be interesting to read up on how accurate this is, as McPherson refused to let Capra film her real story, he filmed a fictional one instead. Certainly she seems like a massively interesting character of the day. I'll be reading up on her and David Manners both, as it seems they both have stories to tell. Capra had one to tell here too and while this was no commercial hit it was a critically acclaimed success and I can see why.

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