"When do they bring out the elephants?"
When we first meet Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), she is angry. Her father, the well-loved town preacher, has just died...and she is positive his untimely death was brought on by being unceremoniously dumped from the pulpit for someone younger. She stands before the congregation and spits fire, letting them know exactly what she thinks of them. She is rage personified, down to her flashing eyes. Afterwards, disgusted by both human nature and God, she joins up with a charlatan and channels her disillusionment into a stage show -- "preaching" in revivals whose miracles are finely crafted circus acts designed to strip the masses of their dollars. That is, until one night, when a blind pilot named John (David Manners) accidentally steps into her act, and into her life. Suddenly an existence of bitterness and deception gives way to something she hasn't felt for years: hope...
Stanwyck is terrific in everything I've ever seen her in, but this movie elevated her for me from great actress to one of my all-time favorites. The camera loves her; I've seen precious few other performers who melt into the celluloid like she does. Every emotion, every movement is pitch-perfect. She sings a silly song in John's apartment and it's pure vulnerability; you see the wounded soul in Florence starving for nourishment, fighting to get out into the sunlight again.
This is one of Frank Capra's earlier efforts, and he demonstrates a knack that would cement his role in Hollywood later on. Rain pours when Florence and John first become friends...a baptism, perhaps, for both of them? A pivotal scene towards the end involves an inferno -- purification by fire. And speaking of fire, when Florence is seated by John's fireplace, Capra lets the light caress her like a lover. Surely she has never been softer or more beautiful.
One final note: Florence's stage performances are directly influenced by Aimee Semple MacPherson, an evangelist who reached her peak of popularity in the 1920s and 30s. She was a fascinating person and definitely worth learning about -- especially if you do so before watching this movie.
I give this one: