Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tough Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck played a number of tough characters in her career, something that Jennifer Jason Leigh mentions in a piece she did for TCM some years back. One good early movie example of Stanwyck's toughness is Baby Face. One that's even earlier is The Purchase Price, which TCM is showing tomorrow morning at 8:45 AM as part of a salute to director William Wellman.

Stanwyck plays Joan Gordon, a nightclub singer at a club owned by gangster Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot). Joan is also Eddie's moll, although she doesn't particularly like that, and like Ann Dvorak's Molly Louvain, Joan would like to escape. Her first attempt is to marry another man, but that man's father has investigated Joan and learned the truth about Joan, forcing the son to break off the engagement. So Joan runs off to Montreal and to make ends meet stars working as a nightclub singer again. That's a problem since Eddie learns about it, and comes to Montreal to reclaim Joan, whom he thinks is rightfully his. What's a nightclub singer to do? She learns that the hotel maid is also lookng for a way out of being a lowly maid, and is doing so by becoming a mail-order bride! (Brilliant idea.) Joan pays off the made to take the maid's place, and is soon on her way to North Dakota, where she's destined to become a farmer's wife.

Farming is not a picnic, which is something you'll have learned from Hollywood if you've seen Our Daily Bread. The farmer Jim (George Brent) and Joan wind up sleeping in separate beds; there's all sorts of work to be done around the farmhouse, and in the fields; and Jim is heavily in debt. To make matters worse, another farmer thinks Jim can help pay off those debts by having Joan work for him. And then to cap everything off, Eddie somehow winds up at Jim and Joan's farmhouse.

One of the problems with a movie like The Purchase Price is that there are just too many coincidences for the film to be believable, although to be fair we wouldn't have a movie without the coincidences. And fortunately, an actress like Stanwyck really raises the material above those coincidences. It's tough to imagine a nightclub singer like Joan becoming a farmer's wife, but Joan makes the best of it, putting everything she has into doing her duty, if only because it's the only thing that can be done. You have to wonder whether, before becoming a nightclub singer, Joan had the sort of past that Stanwyck's character in Baby Face had. George Brent isn't exactly my favorite actor, but I don't know if he was ever really meant to shine himself instead of just being there to reflect the shine of the actresses he was paired with, most notably Bette Davis. Brent is more than adequate in that part.

The Purchase Price got a DVD release as part of one of Warners' pre-Code box sets, so you don't have to worry too much if you miss tomorrow's TCM showing.

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