Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Half off

The only explanation for a bifurcated hodgepodge like The Purchase Price (1932) is that director William Wellman started shooting one of his typical gangster-and-moll movies, took the script home, lost it under the sofa, and the next morning, on his way to the set, picked up some kind of corny city-girl-goes-to-the-farm script from 1922 and began shooting that.

Luckily, Barbara Stanwyck was just as much at home in Westerns (check out Forty Guns) as she was playing broads off the street. She simply applied the same approach to both genres: she was tougher than anything or anyone you could throw at her. So the genre switch is hardly more of an impediment to her than is having lumpy George Brent as her leading man. But it sure makes the viewer's head spin. What happened to slick gangster Lyle Talbot? What happened to the sexy evening gowns? (In one of which Stanwyck sings the only complete song from beginning to end in her own, undubbed voice that I can ever remember.)

Interesting, strange highlight: she visits a destitute, fatherless farm family, helps the 12-year-old girl there to deliver her mother's baby, sets up a few meals and generally gets these poor folks squared away. It's a terrific sequence, but it begs the question: when did she learn all this country-type know-how while she was being a nightclub chantoozie?

The film is being revived as one of those produced between 1929 and July 1934, when the Production Code was effective, but unenforced, and Hollywood films boasted more sex, violence, adult themes and frank talk (conveyed by innuendo rather than blunt language) than was the case afterward. Divorce, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancy were part of the storyline and even abortion was alluded to. Purchase Price, for all you fans of old-time salaciousness, has barely a whisper of this sort of material, unless you consider it racy that Stanwyck keeps her mail-order farmer husband out of her marriage bed until she falls for him, or you're excited about some chatter from other mail-order brides about their prospective husband's big noses or bushy eyebrows (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

In any event, both Stanwyck and Wellman did much better in other outings of this era.

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