The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra / U.S., 1931):

In the remarkable opening scene, a ministerís daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) steps up to the pulpit to deliver her fatherís final, unfinished sermon, and her voice slowly grows from stiff whimper to annihilating roar, a firestorm spewed on the gossipy, hypocritical congregation. Even Stanwyckís fervent realness can become a commodity, however, the wily huckster (Sam Hardy) knows that religion "is no good if you just give it away." Frank Capra gazes at evangelism and sees showbiz razzle-dazzle, the tent revival is now a raucous philharmonic hall with "faith" a brand name in electrified neon letters. (In this circus, the contortionists have a special place: One paid vagrant bends himself into a pretzel and snaps back into form come salvation time, an absorbing Tod Browning note.) Clad in form-hugging whites, the prophetess preaches from inside a cage of lions, and her choice line about "sinners and quitters" gets the blind flyboy (David Manners) on the edge of the abyss to step back. Their tentative romance reminds her of the sting of fraud: "Hiccups and hallelujahs donít mix." The preacherís position between the ballyhoo of spectacle and the eager audience is the same as the directorís, the fakery that leads to truth is a path understood by Capra. On display already is a mastery of early sound, characters howl before the masses and whisper to each other, the aviatorís ventriloquist dummy goes touchingly silent once he has to declare his love. A literally flaming confessional concludes the search for illumination, the freed heroine is finally seen happily rattling a tambourine for the Salvation Army. ("The poor sap," sighs the impresario from the sidelines.) The progression is from Brooksí Elmer Gantry to Duvallís The Apostle, though nothing beats the filmmakerís own analysis in Meet John Doe. With Beryl Mercer, Russell Hopton, and Charles Middleton. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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