Purchase Price, The (1932): King Vidor’s Melodrama Starring Stanwyck and George Brent

William Wellman, the prolific but still underestimated filmmaker, directed The Purchase Price a pre-Code drama, starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, and Lyle Talbot.

Robert Lord’s script, adapted from the novel by Arthur Stringer, concerns a nightclub singer who leaves her criminal boyfriend and travels to Canada to become the mail-order bride of a humble farmer.

When the story begin, Joan Gordon (Stanwyck), is a vet New York torch singer, performing since she was a teenager.  She leaves her wealthy criminal boyfriend, Eddie Fields (Talbot), for Don Leslie (Hardie Albright), but when Don’s father finds out about her past, their engagement is broken off.

Leaving town rather than returning to Eddie, she moves to Montreal, where she changes her name and resumes performing.  Soon, one of Eddie’s men recognizes her and informs his boss. Unwilling to return to him, she trades places with her hotel’s maid (Leila Bennett), who had used Joan’s picture when corresponding with North Dakota farmer looking for a mail-order bride.

Offering the maid $100 for the farmer’s address, Joan sets out to become the wife of Jim Gilson (Brent), unaware of the hardships involved in farm life during the Great Depression.

Jim and Joan’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, when she rejects his advances, though later on she apologizes.  Over time she falls in love with him, but he remains aloof. Meanwhile, he’s informed that he’ll lose his land if he can’t pay his overdue mortgage.

A neighboring farmer, Bull McDowell (David Landau), offers to buy Jim’s land in exchange for Joan’s company, but Jim is unwilling to make such a bargain.

Meanwhile, Joan has become a committed farmer’s wife and a good neighbor to a poor woman and her daughter (Anne Shirley). She braves a snowstorm to return home, where Jim has taken in a man who lost his way in the storm—Eddie.  Angry at Joan because of her past and jealous, he tells her to go with Eddie, but she refuses.

Arranging for a loan, which Jim thinks is from the bank, enables them to stay on the farm until after the harvest. When Bull torches part of the harvested-but-not-sold crop, Joan and Jim fight to save it. Joan is injured, but they succeed, and her dedication finally wins Jim’s heart.

Stanwyck’s rendition of “Take Me Away” marked the first, but not last time that she sang onscreen. In a career spanning close to five decades (including TV), she played many performers, the most notable of which was Ball of Fire, in 1944, opposite Gary Cooper.

In 1937, Stanwyck reunited with Anne Shirley in the King Vidor well=directed melodrama, Stella Dallas, which earned her the first of four Best Actress Oscar nominations; Stanwyck had never won a legit Oscar, but in 1981, she received an honorary Oscar for career achievement.

At the time, most critics dismiss the film as over-plotted and lacking probability, though it served as a stepping stone in Stanwyck’s quickly evolving screen career; in a few years, she would become Hollywood’s busies and highest paid actress.

The film was released on DVD as part of Turner Classic Movies’ Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 3 in 2009.

I am grateful to TCM, which showed the film on January 18, 2018.