Continuing with my Frank Capra obsession, I dug up The Miracle Woman.
The story of a simple, good-hearted person getting caught up in a whirlwind of power, fortune and corruption, and throwing it all away for the sake of their principals is certainly nothing new in the Capra canon, but what is interesting here is the central character is not a Mr. Deeds or a Mr. Smith, but a young woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck in an early performance.
The film opens with Florence Fallon (Stanwyck) taking the pulpit in a rural church and making the announcement that the minister, her father will not be able to make his sermon as he has just died in her arms. She begins passionately berating the audience for their ingratitude, as their plan to replace her father with a younger minister probably drove him to his grave. A church is no place for emotions, and all the parishioners but one quietly file out. The one that remains is a travelling conman who convinces the minister’s daughter that she has no reason to stay and the best thing she can do is begin profiting on her encyclopedic knowledge of the bible. “Religion is great if you can sell it,” he sneers. “No good if you give it away.” She joins a troupe of swindlers and is soon known as Sister Fallon, giving highly popular daily sermons over the radio and performing at live faith healing shows.
As outlandish as the character seems, it is actually based on a historic figure, Aimee Semple McPherson. “Sister Aimee” became known for travelling around the country in a 1912 Packard touring car and giving sermons through a megaphone. When The Miracle Woman was produced, her image had been tainted in a highly-publicized scandal in which she faked her own kidnapping to cover up the fact that she had shacked up with an engineer from her Christian radio station.
Stanwyck’s character is more sympathetic than her real life counterpart. Although she starts off as a phony faith healer, she soon comes to regret her actions when she meets an earnest blind man (David Manners, fresh from his appearance as Jonathan Harker in Dracula) who confesses he was contemplating suicide when her voice on the radio changed his mind. She is touched by his good nature, and begins writing letters to him by cutting letters out of felt and pasting them unto paper. When she wants to go legit, her manipulative plants a fake story in the papers announcing she is going to the holy land, while trying to take her on a trip to Monte Carlo, where he plans to force his attentions on her. The situation comes to a near-tragic ending, but Capra being Capra, who pulls a happy ending out at the last moment.