Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is slighted by her slimy boyfriend who ditches her for a blonde and the only thing he offers her in return is a train ticket out of town. What can she do but take it dejectedly with barely any money, 8-months pregnant, without any future at all? She’s in a lowly state. That is until she is befriended by the perky Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter) and her genial husband (Richard Denning), who quickly lift her spirits through their continual ebullience.
The first sign of melodrama comes with a horrible train crash that leaving both Harknesses dead but Helen survives waking up in a hospital to find that her baby was saved. Except there’s a catch and, mind you, it’s the pivot point on which the weight of the whole story balances. In the commotion-filled aftermath of the crash, Helen is mistaken for Patrice, the young wife her purported in-laws have never met before. Now she is in their home to be taken care of.
Of course, at first, Helen is scared. She has nowhere to turn and so she goes along with it as her baby for the moment has a roof over his head. As time progresses, she comes to grow deeply affectionate of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness. The kindly matriarch (Jane Cowl) is so taken with her new daughter-in-law it all but consoles her in the loss of her son. Meanwhile, her other boy Bill (John Lund) takes a deep liking for his sister-in-law and does everything to make her feel welcome in the foreign environment. You can tell he genuinely cares about her. It’s no act.
However, the film also explores themes that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on The Train (1951) would traverse only a year later with strains of blackmail and the specters out of her past coming to ruin the life Helen has created for herself.
Her no-good ex is interested in what she has landed in and what he can get out of it. First, it’s money to keep her secret, then it’s marriage so that he can get in on her cut of the Harkness fortune if ever it comes her way. He’s a filthy parasite and she knows there’s only one conceivable way to be rid of him. You know if already: murder!
But far from getting tossed out by the Harknesses or being completely undone by Morley, Helen, Patrice, whatever you wish to call her, is able to salvage a life for herself because of compassionate folks who are willing to accept her no matter her background. They even get knee deep into her plight, even die for her. The extent of their kindness leaves her forever grateful and hopeful that some form of human love still remains possible for her. Even the prospects of a murder rap seem surmountable.
The ending has one of those final cherry-on-the-top-of-the-sundae resolutions allowing everything to tie together in a nice bow. Some people might find it silly but I rather liked it. It gives the storyline one ironic twist of fate perfectly suited for this turbulent strain of drama. The police are satisfied. Crime didn’t pay. Our romantic leads get to stay together. All is right with the world. After such bleak beginnings, it’s almost laughable.
Despite being an utterly preposterous conceit, Barbara Stanwyck rides it out with her usual measured commitment to her craft both sympathetic and to the degree possible, believable. In the latter half, she’s an absolutely pasty mess personifying a woman terrified about being found out in her lie and subsequently rejected by the ones she’s worked so hard to love.
Director Mitchell Leisen, though given his penchant for finely wrought romantic comedies and an eye for costumes and interiors, shows he is no less capable in this woman’s picture, keeping it afloat even as it cycles through all sorts of implausibilities. I was generally fond of John Lund in The Mating Season (1951) as well, though it’s true he’s all but overshadowed by his female costars in both movies. However, when the people in question are the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, and Thelma Ritter it’s quite understandable.