Iconic American director Frank Capra called her “the greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.” Barbara Stanwyck was Brooklyn-raised, not conventionally pretty (to many producers), but very confident in her skin (onscreen). She was very accessible, yet enigmatic, at the same time. Her appeal came from within- those sharp eyes and unmistakably husky voice. Stanwyck was not stuck to the prototypical “good girl” roles (early in her career, nude photos surfaced, though she denied it was her in those images).
AFI Silver recently had a Stanwyck film retrospective. One weekend, Victoria Wilson (author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940) gave introductions to the films and had Q&As afterward. She also signed books for classic movie fans. Wilson, a former book editor, took 15 years to write the biography, though she conducted “decades of research.”
The Purchase Price (1932)
Joan Gordon (AKA Francine La Rue): I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of night clubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chislers [scam artists], and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.
Joan (Stanwyck, just aged 25) seems to lead a glamorous life, wearing fancy gowns and singing at a posh nightclub. Too bad her dapper, small-time hood boyfriend Eddie (Lyle Talbot) is already married. One night, she decides to give it all up. Joan takes a new name and begins working at a lounge in Montreal, Canada. Though he acted like the break-up was no big deal, Eddie has two men tail Joan! Then her busybody maid gives her an idea- going as a “picture-bride” (akin to a mail-order bride) for a lonely farmer in North Dakota. Eddie will never find her there, right? The maid already sent in Joan’s picture, thinking that the farmer would prefer it to hers. Joan gives the maid $100 and gets on the train to her new home.
When Joan gets to small-town North Dakota in late Fall, she discovers that her new husband Jim (George Brent) is very handsome, yet quite serious. They get married in town in a brief, yet funny, ceremony. They drive (horse cart, not car) many miles to his wheat farm. But after she rejects him on the wedding night, Jim becomes very cold toward her. He sleeps in one corner of the living room; she takes the bedroom.
There is a role reversal- she has to win him over! This is very rare for early Hollywood, Wilson noted. Joan cooks, cleans, and entertains their wild neighbors without complaint. A wealthy/divorced landowner hits on her several times, making things even more tense with Jim. Her husband has money problems, Joan learns after a few weeks; they could lose the house/farm. Jim suggests she go back to Montreal, but Joan refuses. She wants this marriage to work, because she now loves her husband. One wintry/dangerous day, Joan helps another farmer’s family after a baby is born, showing how capable Joan has become as a farmer’s wife.
One night, Eddie shows up, seeking refuge from a terrible snowstorm. Jim overhears them talking, and realizes that they have a past. He is furious at Joan, shouting “I thought you were decent!” Joan tells Eddie they are done, but he isn’t convinced, deciding to stay in town for a while. Joan tells Jim about her relationship with Eddie, then breaks down in tears.
Jim goes to the bank, hoping to get an extension on his mortgage ($800). Boldly, Joan goes to the saloon to talk to Eddie, and gets the money from him. Jim and Eddie get into a fistfight (no stuntmen used back then), while Joan takes the money over to the banker. Jim soon receives a letter stating he has the extension until next season.
Joan and Jim work side by side to plant and harvest their crop, but are still living like roommates. Their wheat turns out very well, invoking jealousy from that landowner. One night, fire consumes most of their crop, though Jim and Joan try to stop it. (Stanwyck did that herself, and her ankles got singed. Her stand-in didn’t look right in the scene). Joan collapses due to the smoke, and Jim finally realizes that he loves her, too!
This is a small film, but you can already see the star potential in Stanwyck (her teeth weren’t yet fixed), especially in the emotional scenes. (Not unlike Brando, Stanwyck is unafraid of revealing messy emotions, even if it looks unattractive.) Joan redeems herself with her hard work and (unselfish) love for her husband, a stranger at the start of the film. But what about the lack of romance? This viewer has a good take on it:
I think she sees and appreciates the authenticity of, and the genuine goodness in, Jim, and that those qualities (not to mention he’s very handsome!) are what she falls in love with. Also, feeling bad that she shut down his decidedly awkward, abrupt, unpolished wedding night advances, but realizing it isn’t his fault that he so totally lacks finesse with women… and that he’d meant no offensiveness, she is eager to make things right with him, and falls in love with him in the process. -IMDB comment