Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1931. Columbia Pictures Corporation. Screenplay and dialogue by Jo Swerling, based on the play Bless You Sister by John Meehan, Robert Riskin. Cinematography by Joseph Walker. Produced by Harry Cohn. Costume Design by Edward Stevenson. Film Editing by Maurice Wright.
Barbara Stanwyck opens this film with a fiery speech that gets your blood up and never lets you go until the thrilling conclusion of this intelligent drama. She plays the daughter of a pastor who takes the pulpit minutes after his death and drives out the congregation whose hypocrisy she believes led to his demise. The scene is attended by a charlatan promoter who convinces her to let him build her up as a religious speaker to the masses. She agrees and is soon a nationally famous Aimee Semple Mcpherson-like sensation, appearing to scores of crowds (and broadcast on the radio), armed with impressive Biblical knowledge while accompanied by singing choirs, circus lions and paid performers who pretend to have their lives healed by her powers. When she falls in love with a blind songwriter, she decides to turn her life to something less manipulative but the man to whom she owes her success is not that keen on letting her go. Fantastic direction by Frank Capra and a stunning performance by Stanwyck make this one feel quite fresh despite its age, most impressively its smooth editing and dialogue in the early years of sound, when recording was awkward in ways that are not apparent here. The criticism of religious showmanship that dupes people out of their money in exchange for empty promises of salvation is coldly served with a side of irony, but it is not at all a judgmental movie as much as it is a refreshing wakeup call.