For most of its seventy-ish minute run time, The Purchase Price does really well with the way it does summary. It does so well it never even seems possible the film’s just going to welch on everything in the third act… but rather unfortunately, it does.
The big problem is how the film–specifically Robert Lord’s script–is eager to slut shame star Barbara Stanwyck for exploitative purposes. The only scenes Lord can figure out scenes for Stanwyck and mortified husband George Brent involve him disapproving of her, first for being–apparently (but not exactly)–a cold fish (she refused his violent urges on their wedding night)–and then for being too warm of a fish. But, again, not exactly. Lord avoids resolving any of the issues, not just with Brent’s multiple hangups but also outstanding story issues like Stanwyck’s former beau, gangster Lyle Talbot, and Brent’s own farming foe, David Landau.
And Price can get away with a lot because director Wellman and star Stanwyck are on it. They make the too abbreviated summary work. Because the film’s not a fish out of water story, it’s what ought to be an unbelievable story about night club singer Stanwyck losing her chance at a dream marriage to jackass blue blood Hardie Albright because of her previous relationship with Talbot (who’s a lovable bootlegging adulterer–one wonders if Lord remembered Talbot’s supposed to have a wife somewhere when he’s going cross country to pursue Stanwyck) and how she ships herself out as a mail-order bride to escape Talbot. She thinks she’s going out to a standard North Dakota wheat farm, full of affable drunken neighbors and, eventually, babies. Instead, Brent’s this oddball agricultural college boy who cares more about the miracle wheat he’s spent eleven years cultivating, doesn’t get along with his neighbors, and has secret money troubles.
Brent wasn’t expecting beautiful, cultured, smart Stanwyck (she paid off her maid, Leila Bennett, to take over as mail-order bride–which worked out fine since Bennett had sent along Stanwyck’s photo in communications with Brent, who–for his part–lied about his farm and didn’t send a photo in return). After their whirlwind wedding ceremony–uncredited Clarence Wilson is a perfect creep as the justice of the peace–they’re off to the farm. But not before both Brent and the film itself have mocked the simple prairie folk. Though the film mocks them more than Brent does, which is unfinished subplot–though Brent’s character development and basic establishment isn’t really any of Price’s concern. It’s like they knew he wouldn’t be able to appropriately slut shame Stanwyck in the third act if they explored him being a dick. Sure, Landau’s a bad guy and a creep, but Brent’s a dick.
He also tries to rape Stanwyck on their wedding night, which she immediately forgets because, well, he’s a man, but apparently sets Brent on a self-loathing kick. But it’s all off-screen and Lord’s characterization of Brent in the script doesn’t do enough for it either. He’s a jerk, but for unclear reasons. And since the film’s already established him as a dick, a jerk isn’t a long walk.
In a string of barely connected vignettes–Stanwyck getting to be a better farm homemaker, though she basically throws herself into it right off and is awesome at it–time progresses, winter arrives, Stanwyck becomes the community member Brent never did, so on and so forth. Finally Brent and Stanwyck have it out and then, through a very strange euphemism device (given how far the film’s willing to go–pre-code and all–in the first act and third, it’s weird how uncomfortable it gets for an implied big romance development), get on the same page.
Only then Talbot finally tracks down Stanwyck, coming simultaneous to Landau making a big move on Brent’s property, and it’s high drama time.
And it’s all bad high drama with Stanwyck working against the script to retain character and Brent just… giving up? What’s strangest about Brent’s performance is he actually starts as a good old egg. He’s a little weird, sheltered, but cute. That character disappears once he attacks Stanwyck. Then Brent acts like he’s in this “It’s a Husband’s Right” movie while Stanwyck and Wellman are making a “It’s not a Husband’s Right but She’ll Give Him a Second Chance” movie, while Lord’s script is setting up the slut shaming third act.
It’s weird. Because what Stanwyck and Wellman are doing works. Stanwyck makes the role work. Even with so little help from Brent, who’s not terrible he just has a godawful role. Meanwhile Talbot’s great and runs with the character. The idea of the New York society gangster fitting in at North Dakota bar? It’s a hoot. For the five or ten seconds the film lets Talbot do anything with it.
There’s some great direction from Wellman (along with some very weird direction), all of it with Sidney Hickox’s amazing cinematography. Even when Wellman makes a bad composition choice, Hickox’s photography makes it a good shot. When Wellman’s on, however, they’re all phenomenal shots. The desolate exterior shots are amazing (and way too brief) but so are the desolate exterior sound stage shots. Wellman gives Purchase Price a scale the script doesn’t deserve.
So it’s a ninety percent great role for Stanwyck, who’s fantastic and implies all the character development Lord skips over. It’s a ten percent great role for Brent, who’s tiresome by the time he’s pissed off about Talbot, which is way too early for him to be tiresome. Also, given he’s supposed to be sympathetic he should never get too tiresome. Brent’s character is the problem with Purchase Price. It’s not on him, not where Lord takes things.
Talbot’s great one hundred percent of the time.
Landau’s good as the lecherous farming rival, Murray Kinnell’s the effectively slimy henchman. He’s not in it much, then he gets important fast in the third act. Purchase Price needed another fifteen minutes. And a good script doctor.
Anyway. The rest of the supporting cast is fine. Anne Shirley almost stands out as a scared teenager Stanwyck bonds with. Victor Potel unfortunately does stand out as an in-bred yokal who gets way too much plotting relevance. The film’s take on the community changes, but then calls back Potel after it has. It’s really weird and bad choice. Though Lord makes so many of them, they blur.
The third act spills are a big disappointment, because the film was all set to pull it off. Then deus ex machina is practically a non sequitur and the film collapses. It’s a bummer. Stanwyck and Wellman did much better work than Price deserves.
And Talbot. And even Brent, who never got a chance.
This post is part of the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.