Friday, July 4, 2014

An Early Capra Success

Before Frank Capra enjoyed great critical and popular acclaim with such films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), he had directed more than twenty feature films of various subject matter, from documentary-like studies to romances to comedies. One of his best early films, one of three he directed in 1931, was The Miracle Woman, starring one of his favorites leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck.

With a screenplay by Jo Swerling (he would later write some additional dialogue for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life), adapted from the play "Bless You Sister" written by John Meehan, the film is about a female evangelist, loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed celebrity preacher of the 1920s and '30s.

As the film opens, the title character, named Florence Fallon (portrayed with typical gusto by Stanwyck), steps up to the pulpit to deliver her minister father's last sermon before an overflow crowd at church. Her father has been ill for some time and is too weak to deliver his message of love and understanding.

However, Fallon has sad news to tell the church goers - her father passed away in her arms just a few minutes earlier. She then turns on them assembled, telling them they did not take the advice of her father - or God - and lead Christian lives. In a scene that most assuredly inspired John Huston and Tennessee Williams for the opening of their film The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fallon calls out the worshipers, threatening to name the adulterers among the group. The flock rush out of the church, stunned at what they are hearing.

A shady businessman named Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) approaches Fallon after this, telling her that with her knowledge of the Bible, she can have a career as a preacher, "as there is money in religion." Alone and uncertain of her future, Fallon agrees to work for him; soon she is preaching her sermons on nationwide radio.

We then meet the other main character in this story, a young blind man named John Carson (David Manners), who lost his sight in the war. He has now turned to writing music, but despondent over being rejected time and time again, he decides to commit suicide. Capra nicely depicts this scene, as when he opens his window to jump out, he hears a radio broadcast of Fallon, speaking about how man has a backbone and can make his own decisions, unlike the simplest creatures. Carson is inspired by this message and decides not to end his life.

Carson knows he must meet this woman who saved his life, so he attends one of her revival meetings. Fallon at one point walks into a cage filled with lions and asks the congregation if one of them will show their faith and enter in the cage with her. Carson is the one individual who does so; Fallon, who has never seen this man before, is impressed, especially as he is blind, yet she thinks nothing more than that, as she believes this will be the only encounter between them.

Thus the two main characters are brought together; both need someone in their lives, so they turn to each other. Fallon is especially touched when she learns that Carson chose not to end his life because of her words; knowing this, she starts to doubt herself, as she feels guilty about misleading the public who view her "miracles" on cripples, who in reality are nothing more than a trained band of actors hired by Hornsby.

Carson and Fallon start to see each other more often; during one scene in his apartment, he shows her his dummy named Al. Carson is a fine ventriloquist with a very funny act and Fallon loves his routine, which only endears him more to her. I love this interplay in the film, not only for its lighthearted nature, but also the deeper message of a man who cannot see needing an alter ego to talk for him. This is also a nice counterpart to the theme of a woman who speaks to the masses, yet in reality, talks to no one.

This leads to a lovely scene later in the film at Carson's apartment when he wants to profess his love for Fallon. He tells her that Al has something to say to her. But just after Al starts to speak Carson's heartfelt words, he stops. Fallon gets up from the table and Carson follows her; this is done in total silence, with no music and with a static camera. Capra filmed this as simply as he could, so the emotions when they embrace are devastatingly emotional. It's one of the most tender moments realized in any Capra film.

The film ends with a crowd scene that would be repeated to some degree in Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe (interestingly enough, that film also deals with an individual who must pass himself off as someone he's not and starts to doubt his purpose in life). The truth and decency of humanity so often communicated in Capra's work are once again the redeeming qualities of the two main characters in this story. As the film ends, Fallon does not enjoy the fame she embraced for a short time, but she has done the proper thing and has found true happiness and redemption.

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