Thursday, April 04, 2002


You can already see in this early talkie many of the standout elements of Frank Capra's style. Certain things here reminded me of scenes or themes in AMERICAN MADNESS, MEET JOHN DOE, MR. DEEDS, and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. The opening scene is the most powerful. Barbara Stanwyck plays the daughter of a preacher who has just been let go by his congregation (unless I missed something, we never know why except perhaps that he was old). He dies in her arms while writing his farewell sermon and she goes out to the pulpit to read it. Her anger, passion, and disgust for the congregation come out strongly and without any over-the-top artifice that Capra sometimes allowed in his later movies. A slick but slimy character (Sam Hardy) talks Stanwyck into a career as a revivalist and faith healer (her character is based loosely on the real-life Aimee Semple McPherson) and she hits it big. Stanwyck is not as convincing in evangalist mode, but she only really has one big scene like that. A blind man (David Manners) is about to commit suicide, but he hears her on the radio and is inspired to live and to attend one of her services. They meet and fall in love, and when she decides to leave the faith-healing racket and go straight, Hardy threatens blackmail or worse.

The revelation here is that David Manners is really quite good. This came as a shock to me, given his mostly wooden performances in DRACULA, THE MUMMY, and THE BLACK CAT. I've also seen him in other films including BILL OF DIVORCEMENT and THE MOONSTONE, but he made no impression on me in those films. Here, he does a nice job of underplaying the part of a blind man, something that could easily have wound up sappy or exaggerated. I actually believe that the more worldly Stanwyck could have fallen for him. (His scenes with a ventriloquist's dummy, however, should have been left on the cutting room floor!)

Stanwyck's character isn't fleshed out enough. Clearly, she's in on the trickery involved with her faith healing, but she also seems genuinely unaware that she might be hurting innocents with her charade, even though her motivation for starting her career is to get back at her father's hypocritical congrgation. I've read that Capra wanted to do a movie much more critical of fake religious leaders and that the studio wanted him to tone it down, which may be why her character is so ill-defined. But this is still a very good movie with good acting and some interesting camerawork, not to mention what must have been a fairly big budget, given the scenes in her flashy tabernacle.

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