“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”
—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price
For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.
In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.
Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.
Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.
Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.
Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.
As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.
The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.
Clearly, she doesn’t like the familiar cheapness of the world they inhabit; he does. He’s not a bad guy as far as racketeers go, but a man like that can’t offer a woman a better future. As she wipes off her makeup after her act, she matter-of-factly returns Eddie’s apartment key and gives him her trademark I’ve-had-enough-of-it speech.
Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.
And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.
I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.
Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous. I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.
Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…
She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.
Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.
Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.
Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.
“Come on—REALLY, now?”
As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…
Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.
And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.
Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.
Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?
Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.
That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?
So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.
Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.
The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form patiently between two people.
The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.
An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.
A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.
Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!
I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…