Sunday, April 7, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Brings Out the Best in David Manners as "The Miracle Woman"

Yesterday, I spent a great afternoon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC attending a triple feature of Universal horror films as part of the "Universal at 100" traveling exhibit of movie screenings to commemorate the studio's centenary.  It was wonderful to see "The Mummy" (1932), "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932) and "The Black Cat" (1934) on the big screen, and to see the audience receive the movies so warmly.  I've seen them many times before, but this time I paid attention to the performances in both "The Mummy" and "The Black Cat" by pretty-boy, matinee-idol leading man David Manners as the hero in both stories.  Manners, who also starred as Jonathan Harker in "Dracula" (1931) opposite Bela Lugosi, is usually derided by horror movie fans for the bland, stilted performances he gave in these films.  As such, he is often considered by many as a "bad actor" when, in fact, he was simply fitting the minimal requirements of such roles.  I love Universal horror movies and think they're great, but more often than not they were plot-driven films that paid less attention to character and nuance than to atmosphere and suspense.  This is not a put-down at all of Universal horrors, just an acknowledgement of what they were.  In fact, it was at this screening of "The Black Cat" that I realized just how great Bela Lugosi is in that film.  I'll probably blog about Lugosi's work in that film another time, because today my focus is on David Manners and probably the movie that demonstrated what he was truly capable of, when he wasn't defending heroines from monsters at Universal, was Frank Capra's satirical drama "The Miracle Woman" (1931) opposite a brilliant Barbara Stanwyck.

In "The Miracle Woman," Stanwyck plays Florence Fallon, the disillusioned daughter of an elderly minister fired by his Church's congregation, who has chosen a much younger man to replace him.  When she is delivering her father's final sermon, she stops in mid-sentence and announces that her father died in her arms out of a broken heart before he finished composing it.  She chastises the congregation for their betrayal of her father and their own personal hypocrisy as they flee in fear and shame.  Florence's angry outburst is witnessed by charlatan and con man Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) who convinces Florence that she can get even with the kind of people who betrayed her father by using her knowledge of the Bible to turn a profit by becoming an evangelist who performs fake miracles for gullible followers who blindly donate their money to Florence.  Hornsby tells her "Religion's like everything else.  It's great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away."  Florence becomes "Sister Fallon" who hosts epic, staged sermons for large crowds, with actors interspersed throughout the audience to demonstrate the "miracles" that "Sister Fallon" is capable of performing.

As "Sister Fallon's" popularity grows and extends into radio, John Carson (David Manners) a blind composer, Harvard graduate, and former WWI aviator who lost his sight while fighting in the war, is composing his suicide note and about to throw himself out his apartment window.  John has received the latest rejection letter from a music publisher over the compositions he has submitted and, in despair, is ready to end his life when he hears Sister Fallon's sermon broadcast from a neighbor's radio.  He listens to "Sister Fallon's" sermon about how God can easily forgive sinners, but would have a harder time forgiving quitters, and has a sudden change-of-heart about his situation.  His will to live restored, John asks his kind neighbor Mrs. Higgins (Beryl Mercer) to take him to see "Sister Fallon's" sermon in-person.  "Sister Fallon" preaches from inside a cage of lions, and asks for a volunteer to join her.  When one of Hornsby's paid actors fails to raise his hand because he's too drunk to pick up on his cue, "Sister Fallon" welcomes John to the stage, who joins her inside the cage of lions.  "Sister Fallon," thinking that John is one of Hornsby's actors, tells John in front of her entire flock that God will cure his blindness and restore his sight if he has enough faith.

One night, after a performance, John waits patiently outside the stage door in order to speak to "Sister Fallon."  Florence, tired of being "Sister Fallon" and being isolated from regular folk, recognizes John from the other night and offers to give him a lift home.  John welcomes Florence into his apartment as they become better acquainted and enjoy each others company.  John, a natural ventriloquist, takes out his dummy Al in order to communicate with Florence about how her radio sermon prevented him from jumping out the window and saved his life.  Through "Al," John admits to Florence that he would like to work for "Sister Fallon" and Florence offers him a job of composing hymns for her sermons.  Florence regularly visits John at his home as he begins composing for her and the two fall deeply in love.  Meanwhile, Hornsby, who is also enamored of Florence, blackmails her into going with him on a tour of Palestine, which is actually meant to be a romantic trip to Monte Carlo for just the two of them, by telling her that he has embezzled the donations and murdered their meddling sales manager, and has arranged to blame her for both crimes if she does not acquiesce.  Florence attempts to bid farewell to John before she leaves with Hornsby, but breaks down and admits how she is a liar, a hypocrite and a phony preacher and that the "miracles" she has performed at the tabernacle in front of the audience are all fake.  John tells Florence he loves her and that she's not the fake she believes she is because her sermons have indeed helped many people, including himself.  John urges Florence to tell him what it is that she's running away from only to have Hornsby show up and take her away.

John wakes up Mrs. Higgins and asks her to come with him to the tabernacle late at night.  Mrs. Higgins vividly describes the surroundings of Florence's dressing room, so that John can return the next evening when Florence is preparing for her final sermon so that he knows every part of the room and pretend to have regained his sight the next time he encounters Florence.  John hopes to restore Florence's faith so that she will believe that she has indeed performed a miracle and restored his sight, and decide not to run away with Hornsby.  John tells Mrs. Higgins that he plans to leave town soon afterwards so that Florence will never learn that he is still blind.  When John returns the next night for "Sister Fallon's" final farewell sermon, he tries to make her believe that he can now see, but Florence soon realizes that he is pretending.  Nevertheless, she is so moved by John's deep love for her that she intends to tell her congregation the truth about herself.  Hornsby, believing John has regained his sight, punches John and knocks him out.  Hornsby tries to shut off the lights to the tabernacle, as Florence is about to repent and confess before the audience, and accidentally starts a raging fire.  The fire causes the audience to panic but Florence's urges them to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as they calm down and exit the tabernacle safely.  John awakens in time to rescue Florence from the stage as firefighters and ambulances arrive.  The congregation kneel down and pray as John and Florence are rushed to the hospital.  Many months later Hornsby, who somehow survived the fire, is walking down a New York City street with a prize fighter he is promoting when he spots Florence, now working with the Salvation Army.  At that moment, Florence receives a telegram from John, telling her that doctors have told him his sight might be restored but that, either way, he loves her and wants to marry her.  As Hornsby cynically remarks "And she gave up a million bucks for that.  The poor sap!" Florence marches with the other Salvation Army volunteers, singing "Glory Glory Hallelujah," with tears of joy streaming down her face as her faith is God fully restored.

A tough and touching study of evangelical hypocrisy and genuine faith, "The Miracle Woman" is an unheralded early masterpiece by director Frank Capra.  Capra condemns those who would cynically take advantage of religious faith while, at the same time, provides affirmation for belief in such faith.  Stanwyck gives a vivid, multi-dimensional performance as the evangelist who has lost her faith after her father is betrayed by his congregation, only to have the blind John remind her that the basic principals underlying such tenets still have validity despite the hypocrisy and corruption that might sully it.  She's absolutely brilliant in the opening scene where she starts reading her father's farewell sermon to his ungrateful congregation, only to unleash a torrent of outrage against them for their personal hypocrisy and betrayal of her father.  "My father is dead!  He died in my arms five minutes ago before he could finish his message to you!  Well I'm going to finish it for him!...You're the head deacon of this church Mr. Simpson and I want you to listen to what I have to say!  Because it's your clique that started all this trouble!  Leave if you like!  My father preached to empty hearts.  I don't mind talking to empty pews!  My father is dead and you killed him!  You crucified him just as surely as he (Jesus) was crucified!  He died of disappointment, from heartbreak, of ingratitude!  He gave his life to serve you and when he was old and worn you threw him out!  You all came to this church in automobiles, he always had to walk!  He didn't even leave enough money, after 20 years of service to you, to buy a burial in a decent cemetery!"

When Mr. Simpson (Charles Middleton), the deacon, sanctimoniously attempts to calm Florence down from the pews and tells her to remember she's speaking in the House of God, she angrily retorts, "What God?  Whose God?  Yours?  This isn't the House of God!  This is a meeting place for hypocrites!...Well go on and get out!  You've been running this church, but I'm gonna run it for the next hour!  I'm gonna preach the sermon that my father should've preached!  The bible say the laborer is worthy of his hire, but you wouldn't pay your pastor what you'd pay your chauffeurs!  I worked for you too, without pay!  I served you by helping him!  And you've got to listen to me!  I don't have to make any notes, either, I was brought up on the Bible and I know it by heart!  I'm going to take my text this morning from Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew.  And I say unto you as Christ said to the scribes and pharisees, 'Woe unto you hypocrites for ye devour a widow's home and for a pretense make long prayers!'"

As the congregation calls her crazy and flees in fear and shame, Florence continues driving them out with her righteous tirade, "Who among you is poor in spirit?!  Who among you mourns?!  Which of you is merciful and humble?!  Some of you have listened to my father for 20 years and you can't remember one word he said to you!  But you will remember this:  You subscribe to temperance and I can tell you the names of your bootleggers!  You pretend to be decent and I know which of you are cheating wives and husbands!  Shall I call out your names?!  What are you running away from?!  Are you afraid of the truth?!  Is that why you committed against my father?!  You are thieves, killers, adulterers, blasphemers and liars six days a week!  And on the seventh day you are hypocrites!  Go on!  Get out all of you!  Get out so I can open these windows and let some fresh air into this church!"  We realize watching "The Miracle Woman" that, even though Florence's faith is shaken as a result of the unscrupulous actions by those around her, her underlying belief in God and scripture remain strong.  That's why Florence's words still have power and sincerity, even when she has knowingly hooked up with Hornsby in order to fleece her followers, because she knows and understands their underlying intent.  Florence is as effective as she is as an evangelical preacher because, even though she is disillusioned, she ultimately believes in what she is saying.

When John, who is about to throw himself out the window after having his latest musical compositions rejected by publishers, leans out his window and hears Florence's sermon from a nearby radio, the words resonate with him because there is still truth to what she is saying, even though he is unaware that she is doing it for mercenary reasons.  The handsome, almost beautiful-looking David Manners has an illuminating close-up that demonstrates John's spiritual rebirth as he listens to Florence's powerful sermon and his despair turns to hope and happiness, "The trouble with most people is they're quitters.  They're yellow.  The moment they're put to any sort of test, they cave in.  The difference between a man and a jellyfish is the fact that a man has backbone.  What did God give him a backbone for?  To stand up on his feet!  That's what real men do!  Beethoven wrote his greatest symphony when he was deaf!  Oscar Wilde wrote his greatest poem in jail!  And Milton, a blind man, gave us 'Paradise Lost.'  It's easy to forgive sinners, but it's hard to forgive quitters!"  Florence's sermon inspires John so that, despite his blindness, he's going to continue living his life to the fullest and will continue composing music and sending them to publishers because he now realizes that nothing worthwhile is done without a level of struggle.

The beauty of the sequence, and of the movie as a whole, is that Capra demonstrates the notion that, even if the intent of self-annointed interpreters of the Bible are less than pure or altruistic, it should not ultimately disillusion one from finding their own truth with its message.  Capra doesn't take the easy way out by implying, because of the hypocrisy in organized religion, that one should outright dismiss faith in their lives.  Florence may have fleeced her congregation and associated herself with Hornsby from outrage over how her father was treated by his hypocritical congregation, but we see through her interaction with John that she still has a strong understanding as to what the Bible is saying.  This is reflected in her willingness to come clean to both John and her followers, and why she joins the Salvation Army at the end of the film.  Stanwyck's scenes with David Manners in the movie are very special and romantic in a sincere and genuine way.  We see how Florence and John bring out the best in each other: Florence, in making John believe that his life is worth living despite his blindness; and John, in making Florence believe that there are still good and genuine people who are sincerely seeking spiritual guidance so that they can conduct their lives in an honorable manner, and are not hiding behind the Bible for corrupt or hypocritical reasons.

Even when John learns from Florence that she's a phony, he does not become disillusioned, as one might have expected from him, because he feels that Florence, as "Sister Fallon," has done tremendous good for people by giving them faith and hope in their lives.  He recognizes the sincerity behind Florence's sermons.  Concurrently, when Florence realizes that John is trying to pretend that a miracle has taken place and his sight has been restored, so that she won't leave her congregation, she feels a miracle has indeed taken place.  Florence realizes that John has selflessly learned much from her sermons and that he loves her enough that he planned to leave town, so she would never learn that he is still blind, to ensure that she won't abandon her congregation and leave with Hornsby.  John's love helps to cleanse Florence's soul, after she's been corrupted by Hornsby, so that she's ready to share her life with him while continuing to serve God.  At the end of the movie, as Florence is about to confess to her congregation, she humbly tells them, "If you only knew, those roses you threw at me tonight might have been stones.  During the past few months, many of you have come up here to confess your sins and tell how you've been saved.  Tonight, I'm gonna tell you how I've sinned and how I was saved.  I've wandered far away from God.  And now I'm coming home."  Stanwyck's humility is touching as she attempts to repent for her corruption and treachery due to her association with Hornsby.  Thankfully, Capra redeems Florence, and doesn't punish her any further, by allowing her to survive the fire at the end so that she can carry on her work for God and marry John.

David Manners' warm and sympathetic performance makes John someone worth loving.  Unlike his smug, stilted and entitled characterizations in the Universal horror films, which always made us root for Dracula and The Mummy to triumph against him, Manners brings humility and vulnerability to John so that the audience cares very much about him.  Manners' handsomeness and physical beauty, which seemed to lack a human dimension in his Universal horrors, are used by Capra to help demonstrate the purity of John's soul.  John's blindness makes Manners come across so vulnerable that we are happy to see how Florence's sermon and love for John help him to regain his strength and confidence.  We root for David Manners to end up with the powerhouse Barbara Stanwyck at the end, and his quiet strength in the movie provides a good match to Stanwyck's passion and emotion.  I particularly liked the way Manners handles the scenes with the ventriloquist dummy Al, as he expresses his feelings for Florence.  Because of Manners' warmth and sincerity in this role, the scene comes across as a touching, rather than creepy, expression of John's shyness and deepening feelings for Florence.  Working opposite the earthy Stanwyck gives Manners an assertive edge that we rarely associate from him in his more famous horror movie roles.  Watching his fine performance in "The Miracle Woman," it is easier to understand why Manners was such a popular Hollywood leading man in the early 1930s and one can see that he should have been considered for roles such as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind" instead of Leslie Howard.  It's too bad that Manners didn't stick around Hollywood longer before abandoning his film acting career in 1936 to become a writer, because "The Miracle Woman" demonstrates the genuine promise he had as a leading man--demonstrating courage, strength, and humility--rather than being considered just another pretty male starlet.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, great history lessons and analysis. I know Stanwyck almost exclusively from her Big Valley days. She was fabulous in that series, but your review makes me want to see her in these earlier works. She was a true pioneer, it seems to me.


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