The Miracle Woman
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The Miracle Woman (1931) was the second of five movies Barbara Stanwyck made for Frank Capra, the director who made her a star in Ladies of Leisure (1930). Capra, who confessed in his autobiography that he had fallen in love with Stanwyck, understood exactly how to handle his young star who was still in her mid-twenties when their association began. Fresh from the Broadway stage, Stanwyck was an instinctive actress who had yet to learn the formidable film technique that became the hallmark of her later performances. But at the time she gave her all on the first take, so Capra arranged to have her shot by multiple cameras, instructing her to keep going with the scene no matter what errors were made or what the other actors did. With this technique he could recapture Stanwyck's fresh reactions in the editing room.
The Miracle Woman, produced at Columbia Pictures from a play called Bless You Sister, was obviously inspired by the most headline-grabbing evangelist of the day, Aimee Semple MacPherson. Stanwyck plays Sister Fallon, a young woman with a gift for religious oratory who gains fame through the efforts of an unsavory promoter who stages phony "faith healings" during her services. "Religion is great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away," he tells her. Sister Fallon eventually finds redemption through the love of a man (David Manners) who believes she can cure his blindness. Before that happens, however, the two walk through a cage of lions as a test of faith.
Since this was before the days of process screens, Stanwyck and Manners had to work with live animals. "The lions were only an invisible netting away from us," Manners later recalled. "I could smell their breath. Barbara's cool made me brave!" Capra added, however, that it was all acting on Stanwyck's part; underneath her bravado, "she was scared to death." Another frightening scene for Stanwyck was the tabernacle fire that serves as the film's climax. Again, little fakery was used and the actress was obliged to stand amid blazing fires, swirling smoke and falling timbers. Capra remembered that, when he reached Stanwyck to carry her out of the inferno, her heart was pounding. He was sure, however, that her dedication was such that she would have stayed until the scene was completed no matter what.
Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Jo Swerling, Dorothy Howell (continuity) from play Bless You Sister by John Meehan and Robert Riskin
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editing: Maurice Wright
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Florence "Faith" Fallon), David Manners (John Carson), Sam Hardy (Bob Hornsby), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Higgins), Russell Hopton (Dan Welford)
by Roger Fristoe