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Even in the 1930s, an era of far-fetched movie plots, they didn't come much wilder than in The Purchase Price (1932). In this Warner Brothers melodrama, Barbara Stanwyck plays a torch singer who breaks off her affair with a married gangster (Lyle Talbot) in order to marry a decent guy. When the decent guy's family finds out about her association with gangsters, they want no part of her, and she runs away, eventually ending up as a mail-order bride for struggling North Dakota farmer George Brent. Some racy dialogue on the train to North Dakota reveals the pre-Code nature of the film: "You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose!" says one of the other mail-order brides as she holds up a banana.
After one of the more bizarre movie weddings you'll see (for starters, one witness brings a bowl of cake batter to stir during the ceremony, and the wedding ring ends up in it), Stanwyck learns to love Brent and the rural life, but the coincidental reappearance of Talbot makes Brent mistrust her. Stanwyck must also deal with a rival farmer, snowstorms and ultimately a raging wheat-field fire. For that scene, Stanwyck insisted on doing the action herself after she was unsatisfied with the performance of her double, and she ended up with leg burns and blisters.
The script for this fascinating, zippy concoction was by Robert Lord and based on Arthur Stringer's novel The Mud Lark, which was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in late 1931. Most critics echoed The New York Times, which called the movie "totally incomprehensible" and "one of the weirdest scenarios within the memory of man... Many individual scenes are undeniably good, but the effect is of fifteen scenarists collaborating on a story without consulting each other." Variety concluded that Brent and Stanwyck were "both 100% miscast." The Kansas City Star, however, latched onto a thoughtful point when it declared, "The picture has more entertainment value than the plot has logic." The reviewer added, "Miss Stanwyck continues to exercise her uncanny ability to make the most phony heroines seem like human beings."
The Purchase Price was directed by William Wellman, who had also recently directed Stanwyck and Brent in So Big! (1932). Lyle Talbot, interviewed for TNT, shared some tales of the colorful director: "He'd seen a picture in which John Barrymore had belched and he just thought that was wonderful that they'd let him do that." Wellman asked Talbot to belch in a particular spot in The Purchase Price. Initially reluctant, Talbot ultimately did it. Then, he recalled, "[Darryl] Zanuck sent down a note - what's going on with Talbot? Don't have him be doing this!"
Later on, before a fight scene between Talbot and Brent, Wellman approached each actor privately with the instruction: "let him have it." The actors knew not to actually hit each other without warning and worked the fight out between themselves beforehand. However, when Talbot flew back against a wall (as planned), his head struck a slightly-protruding nail. "It just bled like mad. They had to take me over to the infirmary and sew me up. Wellman loved it. He said, 'Talbot, what a scene! That was great.'"
Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck liked and respected each other deeply. In a foreword to a 1983 book on Wellman by Frank T. Thompson, Stanwyck wrote, "'Wild Bill' Wellman...was anything but 'wild' when you worked for him. He was gentle and patient. He didn't really tell you what to do. He took it for granted that you knew your business - but there was an understanding and guidance. Bill did his homework, so to speak, and his direction was mapped out long before he started a film; he knew his shots and paced them and you accordingly."
Wellman in turn once supplied a short quote for a book on Barbara Stanwyck. He wrote: "On one of Miss Stanwyck's interviews she mentioned me as one of her favorite directors and ended with 'I love that man.' Needless to say I was very proud and had a lump in my throat which does not happen to me very often. Barbara Stanwyck -- 'I love that girl.'"
Stanwyck was in the throes of a turbulent marriage with vaudeville star and stage actor Frank Fay while making The Purchase Price. Fay's career was heading downhill as her own stardom was rising, and he couldn't handle it, sometimes beating her. Stanwyck biographer Axel Madsen has written that the actress confided in Wellman with her marital problems, and that three years later, when Wellman submitted his first draft of A Star Is Born, producer David O. Selznick "pronounced it too close to the Fays' real-life drama." Stanwyck and Fay divorced in 1935.
Stanwyck's rendition of "Take Me Away" in The Purchase Price marked the first time she ever sang on screen.
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Arthur Stringer, Robert Lord
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Joan Gordon), George Brent (James Gilson), Lyle Talbot (Eddie Fields), Hardie Albright (Don Leslie), David Landau (Bull McDowell), Murray Kinnell (Spike Forgan).
by Jeremy Arnold