Sunday, April 20, 2008

Saturday night at the Cinematheque: Barbara Stanwyck in an early Capra film

I'd see Barbara Stanwyck in anything. She's always been one of my favorite stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, someone who usually transcended the trashy material she often found herself in. That was certainly true of the Cinematheque's Saturday night showing of a restored print of Forbidden, an absurd but very watchable 1932 romantic melodrama directed by Frank Capra and costarring Adolphe Menjou and Ralph Bellamy. Robert Keser wrote about Forbidden in the online film journal Sense of Cinema.
The flame of backstreet melodrama may have died out on the modern screen, but Frank Capra's Forbidden still feels powerfully alive, drawing its energy from the glowing 25 year-old Barbara Stanwyck and the director's response to her. At the time, the project was an admittedly crass attempt to ape Back Street itself, Fanny Hurst's best-selling novel, before John M. Stahl's more elaborate version at Universal hit the screen. Capra won the race even though production on Forbidden was suspended for six months while Stanwyck and Columbia boss Harry Cohn settled a salary dispute.

One of the first stars created in the talkie era, Stanwyck now looks the most modern and least affected of her contemporaries imported from Broadway for their expertise with dialogue (“actors popped out of the ground like crocuses in April”, in one contemporary Hollywood observer's words) (1). If Capra's Ladies of Leisure (1930) made her a star, the fast-moving Forbidden – Columbia Pictures' top moneymaker for 1932 – consolidated her popularity. For the first time Stanwyck's talent expanded to fill an entire movie, thanks to Capra's fresh staging and the gathering intensity that rode over its plot improbabilities.

Judging from the marked intimacy evoked on the screen, star and director clearly were working with more than professional affection. Though Stanwyck was still wedded to the pathologically jealous vaudeville comic Frank Fay, Capra admits that he proposed marriage while shooting Forbidden (or shortly afterward) and was rejected. While no primary evidence proves that they were lovers, and he soon married another woman, the emotional undercurrents pulse unmistakably through Forbidden.
As Keser notes, Forbidden was Columbia's top-grossing film of 1932, and it generally received favorable reviews at the time. One exception was The New York Times. Reviewer Mordaunt Hall begins this way:
With its intermittent bickering and embracing between the principal characters and its peculiar conception of human psychology, "Forbidden," the present pictorial feature at the Rialto, is a cumbersome effort at story-telling. Although there is little, if anything, to inspire them, Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou do all that is possible with their rĂ´les.
He tries to summarize the plot (a hopeless venture, really) and then concludes his review dismissively.
After that there comes the pardon and various other happenings, most of which are somewhat tedious.
I wondered whether in 1932 the august Times considered movies so frivolous that they had people writing reviews under pseudonyms. Certainly "Mordaunt Hall" sounds more like a nom de plume than a name of a real person. But it turns out -- oops -- that Mordaunt Hall was not only a real person but the first film critic of the New York Times.

Mark Your Calendar: On Friday, May 9, at 7:30 they'll be showing another restored Capra film, American Madness. Archivist Grover Crisp who was responsible for the series of restorations they've been showing will introduce the film and answer questions.

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