The Purchase Price (1932)
It's easy to picture Barbara Stanwyck as a torch-singing gangster's girl; not so a farmer's wife. And she feels exactly the same way in The Purchase Price, a pre-Code weirdie in which she plays Joan Gordon, nightclub singer and girlfriend to bootlegger, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot.)
After it's established that Joan has been singing up and down Broadway since she was a teenager, we see her give Eddie a very collegial brush-off, explaining that she's going to marry into society and leave all this thuggery behind. A few moments later, the chap in question calls off the wedding, because he has learned that she has been running around with Eddie, and that just won't do. So Joan grudgingly goes back to the gangster (who's already married), soon gets fed up and beats it to Montreal after seeing a picture of it in a newspaper. Unfortunately, Eddie's lackeys find her singing under an assumed name, and she has to find a way to skip town again. As it happens (and there being no handy newspaper clippings), Joan's maid is leaving to marry a Nebraska farmer whom she met through a marriage broker, but confesses that she sent Joan's picture instead of her own to sweeten the pot. Thus, with the same deliberation she gave to moving to Canada, Joan decides to trade places with the maid and marry this guy in Nebraska.
This is all in the first 10 minutes. It goes on in fits and starts from there.
The farmer turns out to be George Brent (miscast), awkward agricultural-school graduate Jim Glison, a man who expects to sleep with a woman on the first day he met and married her, then holds a grudge when she rebuffs him. Meanwhile, Joan makes a spectacular adjustment to the awful, awful circumstances, conditions, and people in her new community. She cooks, she cleans, she makes the wood stove work (see The Egg and I), and for some reason, falls in love with Sulky Jim.
There are ups. There are downs. There is an unpleasant local muckity muck who keeps trying to take over Jim's farm (and fondle Joan). Eddie turns up as well, but only to prove to the audience that Joan would have had way more fun with him. Oh, and an oddly-affecting scene in which Joan helps a neighbor woman newly-delivered of a baby and her terrified older daughter (the great Anne Shirley), who no doubt witnessed her mother giving birth. THAT's the movie I wish this had been.
The Purchase Price reminded me at times of The Canadian, the 1926 film about a city girl forced by circumstances to marry a farmer with no mod-cons (and precursor to the excellent Victor Seastrom/Lillian Gish picture, The Wind). Same 'wedding night' standoff. Same cross-cultural adjustment horrors. Same eventual reconciliation and marital harmony, if a more believable one. At other times, the film reminded me that 68 minutes can seem like four days.
All in all, an uneven, interesting picture that underscores Barbara Stanwyck's ability to make long-johns and work gloves unbelievably attractive. Also that unless the non-gangster is Gary Cooper, she should stick with the affable bootlegger.