Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck), a New York torch singer who has been performing since age 15, has left her wealthy criminal boyfriend, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot), for upstanding citizen Don Leslie (Hardie Albright). However, Don's father has found out about her relationship with Eddie; she and Don break off their engagement, and she decides to leave town rather than return to Eddie. In Montreal, she changes her name and resumes performing; not long thereafter, 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 a North Dakota farmer in search of a mail-order bride. Offering the maid $100 (about 7 weeks' wages) for the farmer's address, Joan sets out to become the wife of Jim Gilson (George Brent), with only a vague idea of all the hardships of farm life during the height of the Great Depression.
Jim and Joan's relationship gets off to a rocky start; on their first night, she rejects his advances and forces him to sleep elsewhere. In the morning, she apologizes but he keeps his distance. 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. He has developed a great strain of wheat and is sure it will bring a profit, but he has no way to keep foreclosure at bay long enough to plant and harvest a crop. 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 and thereby makes an enemy of Bull.
A little later, Joan—who has become a very capable farmer's wife—visits a neighbor who just gave birth with only her adolescent daughter by her side. Joan cleans the home, prepares food, turns an old dress into diapers, and calms the frightened 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. She pretends not to know him, but Eddie quickly tries to take her with him. Jim, angry at Joan because of her complicated past (and because he's jealous, though he can't yet admit that he cares about her), tells her to go with Eddie. She refuses and later asks Eddie privately for a loan to save Jim's land.
The loan (which Jim thinks is an extension from the bank) enables them to stay on the farm until after the harvest. She continues to stand by him, but he remains distant. Then one night Bull torches part of the harvested-but-not-sold crop, and Joan and Jim fight to save it. Joan is injured, but they succeed—and her determination and dedication finally break through Jim's reserve.Barbara Stanwyck as Joan Gordon
George Brent as Jim Gilson
Lyle Talbot as Eddie Fields
Hardie Albright as Don Leslie
David Landau as Bull McDowell
Murray Kinnell as Spike Forgan
Anne Shirley as Sarah Tipton
During the fight scene between Talbot and Brent, Wellman approached each actor privately with the instruction: "let him have it." The actors worked the fight out between themselves beforehand. However, when Talbot flew back against a wall (as planned), his head struck a nail. "It just bled like mad. They had to take me over to the infirmary and sew me up." Stanwyck's rendition of "Take Me Away" marked the first time she sang onscreen.
The New York Times wrote that "many of its individual scenes are undeniably good, but the effect is of fifteen scenarists collaborating on a story without consulting each other. It seemed a bit hard on the cast." NYT also called it "totally incomprehensible" and "one of the weirdest scenarios within the memory of man."
Variety thought Stanwyck and Brent were "both 100% miscast", while the Kansas City Star stated that "the picture has more entertainment value than the plot has logic." The reviewer added, "Miss Stanwyck continues to exercise her uncanny ability to make the most phony heroines seem like human beings."
Time reviewed the film as follows: "The picture hews close to the line of probability ... [R]are until recently has been the cinema heroine who preferred the stupid poor man to the bright city fellow. The viewpoint of The Purchase Price is simple and masculine. It advertises the virtue of hard work and loyalty."
The Purchase Price was released on VHS under MGM's Forbidden Hollywood 1990s label. In addition to four other Wellman Pre-Code films, it was released to DVD as part of Turner Classic Movies's 2009 Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 3 collection in 2009.