Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer in New York City, intends to marry Don (Hardie Albright), the scion of a wealthy family. But Don’s father discovers that Joan had been the mistress of a bootlegging gangster, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot), and forbids the union. Resentful of the fact that her association with Eddie ruined her chances for a good marriage, Joan flees to Montreal. When Eddie’s men eventually find her, she takes drastic measures to get out of town, becoming the mail-order bride for a young wheat farmer, Jim Gilson (George Brent), in rural North Dakota. Though their quickie marriage gets off on the wrong foot when a nervous Joan rejects Jim’s wedding-night advances, the two of them stick it out, somewhat awkwardly, through a harsh winter. But when Eddie tracks her to the farm, Joan and Jim’s blossoming feelings for one another are threatened as Jim discovers the truth about his wife’s past.
And there you have the twisted set-up for 1932′s The Purchase Price, a pre-Code drama that strains credulity. There’s enough material here for several films, and it’s all crammed into a little over an hour of sometimes abruptly-cut scenarios. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, however, if the narrative as a whole made a lick of sense. Instead, the movie seems as though it were thrown together with a half-cocked script designed solely to showcase naughty behavior and not-so-sly sexual innuendo. When I realized that the movie was directed by William Wellman, I was initially surprised, as it seems very unlike his typical milieu … and then I remembered that this is the man who went on a B-movie lark with Stanwyck in 1943′s Lady of Burlesque, and it didn’t seem so odd. At the very least, Wellman got something out of working on this film with Stanwyck–reportedly, when he began writing the script for 1937′s A Star is Born, he based the marriage of Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett on the union of Stanwyck and Frank Fay, which began disintegrating while she was filming The Purchase Price.
Joan is not a “nice” girl, in the strictest sense; she’s an unmarried lounge singer sleeping with a married man, who puts her up in an apartment and showers her with shiny baubles. Yet she displays the most moderate behavior of any of the women in the film. There are no shrinking violets here; the women are worldly (to say the least) and unafraid of sexual banter, but Joan seems reluctant to participate. Take the scene in which Joan travels on the train to meet Jim. She sits with three other mail-order brides, all of them comparing photographs of their intended husbands. One of the women munches on a banana. “You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose?” she asks suggestively before sliding the banana halfway into her mouth and taking a bite. All the while, Joan sits by the window, visibly trying to suppress a grimace of distaste. If this were a 1930s version of Sex and the City (I kind of hate myself for making this reference right now), Joan would be the Charlotte York of the group.
As indicated by its title, one of the central themes of the film is the link between commerce and sex. The “purchase price” can be any number of things: the $100 that Joan paid to her maid, Emily, so she could take her place as Jim’s bride (Emily having sent Joan’s picture as her own made the lie conveniently easier); Emily’s intent to use the money to find a husband in town so she can “try the goods before I bought it”; the very notion of “buying” a prospective spouse; the money Joan borrows from Eddie to save Jim’s farm, which he only offers because, as he says, he’s still “nuts” about her; even the money Bull McDowell (David Landau), Eddie’s sleazy neighbor, offers to pay to cover Jim’s debts … IF Joan will come act as his “housekeeper” in return. Everything in the movie–especially the people–has a price, if someone is willing to pay it. It’s a bleak commentary on a world driven by dollars, and despite the far-fetched nature of the film’s plot, it’s a chillingly accurate one.
Stanwyck, per usual, does the best with what she is given here, but the character of Joan is so poorly drawn and contradictory that there is ultimately little that even she can do. Early in the film, Joan tells Eddie, “I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old” (interestingly, much like Stanwyck herself, who had become a Ziegfeld girl in her teens), and she later indicates to Emily that she has no experience being a housewife or working on a farm. But once she arrives in North Dakota, Joan is baking bread, cooking meals, and milking cows with the best of them, and without a word of complaint–all of which is more than a little implausible.
The other inexplicable factor regarding Joan is the source of her attraction to Jim. The man is little more than a rube, albeit one who is prone to violence; when Joan rejects his kiss on their wedding night and slaps him across the face, he has to restrain himself from punching her. His jealousy over Eddie leads him to whale on the man with no more provocation than Eddie’s placing his hand on top of Joan’s in a friendly manner, and in the midst of that fight, he throws Joan to the ground twice as she tries to intervene. Not only is he violent, but he’s extremely judgmental, essentially labeling Joan a slut because of her past relationship with Eddie. Top that off with his ignoring her throughout most of the film, and Joan’s sudden love for her in-name-only husband strikes me as extremely odd. Is there anything redeeming to the man? Other than the fact that he looks like George Brent, that is?
It’s a weird little film, but as a curiosity, The Purchase Price is worth a viewing, especially for true Stanwyck fans: she’s as beautiful as ever, and as an added bonus, her performance of “Take Me Away” at the beginning of the movie is her first singing performance (not dubbed) ever on film. True, there are better pre-Codes, but perhaps none so filled with delicious “what-the-fuckery” as this one …