Frank Capra's Miracle Woman
It's that time of year when we start watching favorite Christmas movies, and for many, the list begins with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. When we think of Capra's films, it's easy to break into a smile, for he was "the great constructor of happy endings," as biographer Vito Zaggiro has written.
But Zaggiro doesn't stop there. In the very same sentence—in his article titled "It's (Not) A Wonderful Life: For a Counter-Reading of Frank Capra," Zaggiro notes that the director's films also often "represented enormous social contradictions and conflict that clash with the surface message of his films."
One typical conflict is the struggle between individual faith and organized religion, particularly in two of five Capra films starring Barbara Stanwyck—The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). A close reading of the former, in conjunction with Capra's comments about faith and discussion of Stanwyck's acting technique, all combine to underscore the primacy of that struggle.
Capra deemed it a failure
In his autobiography, Capra suggests The Miracle Woman—inspired by the life of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—was a failure because he was unable to create a role in which the heroine, Florence, followed the intended arc of "one woman's life in three acts: disillusion, venality, conversion." Instead, the plot breaks into these three parts: disillusionment with religion, spiritual confusion, and acceptance of individual faith. Thus, even though the outward plot does not follow Capra's intended sequence, it is possible to read the film in such a way that Florence's faith development coincides quite clearly with the arc he wanted.
Florence's disillusionment is evident from the start. The film begins on a Sunday morning in a Methodist church; Florence stands at the pulpit telling the congregation that her father, the minister, has just died. It soon turns into a rant—she is clearly disappointed with the congregation and, by extension, members of established religion. But she is not rejecting her faith.
Then Florence begins chastising the congregants for not paying her father enough to have saved for a "decent burial." As she becomes angrier and more specific about their perceived wrongs, a church member stands up and says she is not behaving appropriately for the "house of God." Florence responds, "What God? Whose God, yours? This isn't a house of God! It's a meeting place for hypocrites!" Florence then says she's "going to preach the sermon her father should have preached" and recites a passage about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
The key here is her delivery of the word "hypocrite," which she emphatically repeats. She chastises them because their actions do not coincide with their purported beliefs. Rather, they have reconciled themselves to the fact that their established religion does not coincide with their lives—and worse yet, they accept this. Florence refuses to accept the reality of hypocrisy: the apathy toward the conflict between the internal belief and external action. Florence's final words imply that the congregation's passive acceptance of hypocrisy has created stagnation in the place where faith is meant to breathe—and Florence feels as though she is suffocating.
Florence's disillusionment is paralleled in the second part of the film via spiritual confusion. Later, alone in the church, she is startled by the seemingly-sudden appearance of Bob Hornsby, a con man who proposes that she take evangelical preaching "on the road." Florence adopts the moniker of "Sister" and becomes a celebrity, touring with her "message" to "lost souls" who don't mind paying a fair price for a night of entertainment, music, religious conversion, and healing. The "lost souls" are paid actors who are clearly in on the scam, but it's unclear how much Florence/Sister knows about it.