Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) is a girl in mourning. She has recently lost her father, who was a preacher for many years at a local church. Soon before his death, Mr. Fallon was fired from the church, leading Florence to become extremely bitter.
As a result of the congregation’s treatment of her father, Florence loses her faith. She becomes disillusioned with the church. And so she teams up with a con man known as Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) who promises her certain wealth if she is willing to perform fake miracles in front of faithful audiences, turning a profit from ticket sales and performing the “miracles” on people who are actually paid to appear on stage with her.
Florence keeps up this devious lifestyle for a while, but eventually her guilt begins to get the best of her. During one of her sermons, her “assistant” (who she is supposed to “heal”) is too drunk to come up on stage, and so a volunteer from the audience joins Florence for a “miracle.” That volunteer is John Carson (David Manners), a former pilot who is blind.
Over time, Florence falls in love with John, and he with her. The love and trust that the two have for each other restores Florence’s faith in humanity and makes her even more determined to stop taking advantage of the people who pay good money to see her fake miracle-working.
Frank Capra directs 1931’s dramatic feature The Miracle Woman, based on the play “Bless You Sister” by John Meehan and adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling.
Oh, how I love a Stanwyck pre-code! The film begins with a hollering rant by Florence in the church where her father used to preach, and the pace never hits a downhill slope from there. Though quite a bit more tame that most pre-code films, The Miracle Woman is thoroughly engrossing. And there are a few of those trademark moments that would have readily been censored after 1934 – the bird is flipped, and religious institutions are openly criticized, for instance.
Stanwyck’s performance was the big draw of this film for me, and as usual she does not disappoint. Her character of a disillusioned preacher’s daughter turned con woman is a compelling one and her performance is both strong and passionate. The progression of Florence from angry and cynical to advantageous to redeeming herself through change seems very natural. Her father’s death is the catalyst for her cynicism and loss of faith, and loss is a high-impact event that audiences can easily identify with.
As for the rest of the cast, they don’t come close to holding a candle to Stanwyck’s screen presence, but they’re all very solid performers. David Manners is endearing, his character very sweet. The viewer roots for the relationship between Florence and John because he seems like a genuinely good person who could provide her with the happiness that has evaded her since her father passed away.
Manners is not the male stand-out of the film, though; that would be Sam Hardy, who makes the perfect villain as Bob Hornsby. By the time Hornsby begins to try to blackmail Florence, the audience is already rooting for Stanwyck, so it is natural to have disdain for his character. Hornsby attempts to come off as a level-headed businessman but proves himself to be both sleazy and conniving – character flaws that are perfectly emphasized by Hardy’s performance.
The subject matter is unfortunately still terribly relevant today, with millionaire televangelists continuing to take advantage of people’s faith for their own monetary benefit. It’s easy to get wrapped up in Stanwyck’s delivery of the sermons, and so the viewer gets a very good sense of just how Florence was able to draw in such large audiences. Treating Stanwyck’s character as a representative for all advantageous preachers, her performance emphasizes the severity of this type of injustice. The people who come to Florence for help are often desperate, in need of some sort of hope that things will change. John himself admits that, if not for one of her sermons that was broadcast on the radio, he would have most likely committed suicide – and as a result of being saved from himself by her words, he and his landlady pay good money to see Florence in person. It’s a terrible cycle that may provide temporary comfort to the audiences of Florence and other people like her, but in the end really only benefits those running the money-grabbing operation.
There is an air of sadness to the entire film because of John’s struggles and Florence’s obvious growing guilt over her career. This increases by leaps and bounds as the film progresses, so if you’re looking for an upbeat pre-code I’d suggest looking elsewhere. But The Miracle Woman is a successful melodrama that is wrapped up well in a heart-wrenching but ultimately satisfying ending.
The score: 4/5