Frank Capra: The Early Collection (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Catherine Russell

Barbara Stanwyck's third film,  Ladies of Leisure,  is a rare Hollywood depiction of female desire

Barbara Stanwyck's third film, Ladies of Leisure, is a rare Hollywood depiction of female desire

A TCM “Vault Collection” DVD Box Set (includes Ladies of Leisure [1930], Rain or Shine [1930], The Miracle Woman [1931], Forbidden [1932], and The Bitter Tea of General Yen [1933]),

With the release of five of Frank Capra’s earliest sound films, his reputation as an idealistic American populist most definitely needs revision. His career may have gone in that direction, but in the early 1930s he paints a far more nuanced and ambivalent image of American social mores and values. The title of Capra’s own memoir, The Name Above the Title, encapsulates the director’s auteurist profile, which is echoed in the remarks by Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard, who are interviewed in the collection. This set of films, however, makes it quite clear that Capra’s early success was very much a collaborative effort. All five pictures were shot by the astonishing Joseph Walker, with screenplays by Jo Swerling. Four of the five feature a young Barbara Stanwyck, showcasing her emergence as a Hollywood star; while the fifth, Rain or Shine(1930), is carried by the dynamic comedian Joe Cook in one of his very few film roles.

Rumor has it that Capra was in love with Stanwyck, but she snubbed him in loyalty to her ne’er-do-well husband Frank Fay—who she subsequently divorced. In any case, Capra should probably be given credit for recognizing and nurturing her very raw talent in these early films. Ladies of Leisure (1930) was Stanwyck’s third feature, and yet she displays a wide range of emotion and a strong comic sensibility, and is very much the life of the film. Unfortunately, she is not helped much by the male lead Ralph Graves. In Forbidden, in which she is paired with Adolphe Menjou, she gets a little of what she gives out, and in The Bitter Tea of General Yen she is paired with the suave Nils Asther, who is so deeply buried in exotic clothes and heavy make-up that it is hard to find the Swedish man within the Asian façade. Asther nevertheless manages to pull off a bizarre combination of the gentleman and the monstrous through his Western height and his personification of evil.

Each film also features remarkable character actors, including a hilarious Marie Prevost in Ladies of Leisure and Walter Connolly in Bitter Tea. Columbia studios produced all five of these films, and Capra got astonishing results from the studio on so-called “Poverty Row” budgets, including elegant and extravagant sets and costumes. Stanwyck herself credited Joseph Walker with making her glamorous, and, indeed, his lustrous cinematography enhances her presence with a glowing energy. The films are all marked with deep shadows and expressive lighting, which is finally recognizable in these new DVD releases. Capra’s enthusiastic editing and dissolves, the surprisingly mobile camera, and Walker’s experiments with lenses and angles should be recognized as a key stylistic achievement in American cinema.

Each film features at least one incredible scene. In Forbidden, for example, Stanwyck and Menjou are briefly glimpsed riding horses along a moonlit beach. The scene is barely a minute long, and includes a crane or aerial shot. (Its brevity is probably due to the fact that Stanwyck fell off her horse, badly injuring her back.) Stanwyck’s entrance in Ladies of Leisure is in the film’s second scene, when she is framed in long shot rowing to shore from a party boat (this is Prohibition times) in the dark wearing a long white dress, yelling rude remarks to the gentleman on shore. The lighting and framing make it quite an entrance. Both The Miracle Woman and Rain or Shine end with apocalyptic conflagrations and chaotic crowd scenes, and Bitter Tea features a fantastic battle scene in the streets of Shanghai.

Ladies of Leisure and Bitter Tea feature remarkably erotic love scenes that are highly charged with repressed emotion and secret desires. These moments perhaps underline the remarkable collaboration of actress, cinematographer, writer and director. The most famous, of course, is the dream sequence in Bitter Tea. Stanwyck as Megan Davis, American missionary to China, has been kidnapped by the debonair general. As she lounges in her fabulous Orientalist suite-cum-prison, she dreams that Yen is breaking into her room but, then, in a series of dissolving shots in which he seems to morph from Nosferatu to screen idol, the fantasy leads to a hazy soft-focus kiss. The scene was scandalous at the time for its implicit miscegenation, and Capra’s treatment renders it a truly dangerous fantasy.

The eroticism of Ladies of Leisure is more conventionally melodramatic, but, again, it is a rare depiction of female desire and subjectivity. Stanwyck’s character Kay is modeling for Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), the artist who “discovers” her and, given the rainstorm outside and the lateness of the hour, she decides to stay the night on the studio couch. Jerry is in the bedroom next door, and they both undress separately and lie restlessly in their beds. At one point, as the rain pounds down outside, he tiptoes to her bed. The suspense is heightened by stunning back lighting, close-ups, and reverse cutting as she pretends to sleep. After he covers her with an extra blanket, she finally smiles, but it is not fear that arouses her. As a “lady of leisure” or party girl, she is unaccustomed to good manners, but she is also, clearly, a sexual being as the subjective depiction of the scene underlines. Women were far more often objects than subjects of desire in the notorious Pre-Code era, a tendency that Ladies of Leisure challenges with Stanwyck's complex character.

The sexual intrigue and the dynamics of desire in these films are produced within equally complex ideological negotiations of race and class. In Ladies of Leisure, the rich artist’s mother asks Kay to give up her son if she really loves him, because she is not from their class. In a tearful woman-to-woman scene, Kay agrees. She flees to Havana with Jerry’s drunkard friend Bill (Lowell Standish), jumps off the boat, is saved, and ends up back with Jerry. The ending is not terribly convincing, barely compensating for the harsh lesson in class politics offered by the snobbish mother. Like many women’s films, the melodrama opens up stark divisions in the social fabric that cannot be easily resolved.

Of the five films, The Miracle Woman comes closest to the “message” movies that Capra came to be known for in the late 1930s. Based on a play about a woman evangelist, Aimee Semple MacPherson, Miracle Woman takes on the issue of false prophets or celebrity-style fake miracle workers. Stanwyck really comes into her own as a preacher’s daughter who becomes a faith healer for a crooked outfit in which she preaches to huge audiences and broadcasts over the radio. The show features a cage of lions, in which she stands on the stage, a band, and a cast of “shills,” or fake audience members who come up to the stage to be healed. Through the love of a truly blind man (David Manners) she decides to halt the farce. Her crooked manager sets fire to the “Temple,” however, before she can fully recant. As the crowds escape the raging fire, the band hammers away at “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and the redemption is complete. Frances (Stanwyck) is saved from the flames by the blind man, and is last seen as a Salvation Army member, while the blind lover seeks medical help for his eyesight.

Stanwyck’s performance here, as a tiny twenty-four-year-old woman with power over huge congregations of believers, seems to cement her stardom. It undoubtedly gave her the confidence, and the famous swagger, that would carry her into Hollywood history. At the same time, Capra’s depiction of the duped masses, ready to absorb her every pronouncement, anticipates the crowds in his later movies, who are easily seduced by mass media and charismatic leaders. The Miracle Woman is a film about performance, about “putting it over,” as Stanwyck says as she learns to play the role assigned to her.

Rain or Shine is more of a “show must go on” kind of performance film, and it also features a mass of spectators who act as a homogeneous force. The film is based on a musical, although Capra took out all the musical numbers. Joe Cook was a huge vaudeville star at the time, and his comedy is extraordinarily verbal, a great choice for an early sound film. He keeps up a running commentary as he manages the circus that is owned by Mary Rainey (Joan Peers), and competes with a rich kid (Bud Conway) for her hand. He loses the girl but wins the circus, which is burnt to the ground. Neither the stunts, nor the fires (nor the lions in Miracle Woman) involved much technical trickery. Capra’s pyrotechnics and spectacles of dangers were all grounded in live-action performance, and Rain or Shine has a particularly strong documentary feel, due to the location shooting, and the working-class setting of an itinerant circus troupe perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy.

In the special features on these discs, Scorsese and Howard are fairly predictable in their remarks. Scorsese offers an enthusiastic analysis of Capra’s expressionist style, while Howard cites him as an inspiration to his own all-American brand of filmmaking. Michel Gondry, on the other hand, offers a brilliant and insightful discussion ofRain or Shine, which is in a sense the real surprise of this collection. He highlights the sheer absurdity of the film, especially the outrageous exchanges between Cook and straight-man Tom Howard. Above all, though, Gondry loves the location shooting and the way the film takes one back to the 1930s in a very physical and materialist way—and we should also credit the great transfers for this powerful effect. Few American productions in the early sound period left the studio as much as Capra did. The settings may be banal California landscapes, and yet their openness is quite surprising. Silence intermittently interrupts the soundtrack, making the film an anomalous transitional bridge between silent and sound filmmaking. In fact, an “International Version” that is included on this disc is actually a silent film with intertitles. It is also a shorter version with a great deal of Cook’s inane dialogue cut out.

Gondry also puts his finger on the film’s conservative politics. Cook’s character “Smiley” basically busts the union of circus employees who have risen up against the young woman owner due to unpaid wages. Cook manages to put on the show essentially by himself, with a bit of help from Mary and another clown played by Dave Chasen. Cook tightrope-walks, juggles, and horses around, while Capra and Walker explore various camera angles. The ringleader who Cook has ousted interrupts the show and tells the crowd that it is a fake (and it is shorter than normal), so Cook and his friends are booed out of the ring, and in the ensuing fistfight with the angry circus folk the big top is accidentally torched. Mary strolls off with her beau, while Cook vows to build up the business again. Gondry suggests that the individualist ethos is in keeping with Capra’s immigrant heritage, and, indeed, this is a theme that runs through his films up to and including It’s a Wonderful Life. And yet, I would agree with Gondry that the sheer exuberance of Rain or Shine places the filmmaking style and quality ahead of any message or ideology. The humble nature of the circus, which seems somewhat worn and dimly lit, is very much in keeping with the Depression-era heroism of the working class.

Cinematic style and ideological “messaging” are more deeply interwoven in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, perhaps the most well-known of the five titles, the most deeply conflicted ideologically, and the most “arty.” Stanwyck felt it was the closest she came to art cinema, and yet her character lacks all the feisty strength that one expects of her. She is so thickly bathed in soft-focus cinematic glow and Orientalist decor, she almost looks like a Mizoguchi heroine. Bitter Tea was the first film to play at the newly opened Radio City Music Hall, but its run was cut short due to poor reviews and attendance. America was not ready for an interracial relationship, so Columbia’s big gamble with the lavish sets did not pay off. It was supposed to launch the studio out of Poverty Row and into the big time, a plan that ultimately met modest successes with Capra over the course of the 1930s with It Happened One Night (1934) and Lost Horizon (1937), even though Columbia remained among the “little three” Hollywood studios.

The most visually exquisite of Capra's films,  The Bitter Tea of General Yen i s stylistically reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg

The most visually exquisite of Capra's films, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is stylistically reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg

The original novel behind Bitter Tea by Grace Zaring Stone situated the love story within the context of American interests in China in the late 1920s. Megan Davis’s missionary zeal to convert Yen and the Chinese people to Christian “humanitarian” values is contrasted with the goals of Jones (Walter Connolly), Yen’s financial advisor. Jones unambiguously represents the capitalist interests at the heart of American foreign policy, and both book and film harbour a critique of the neocolonialism of the American missionary presence in China. Megan essentially flees the opening scene, in which the missionary class strut their aristocratic, colonial, racist stuff, creating distance between them and herself. In Capra’s treatment, however, the critique becomes mere background noise to the dance of conversion/seduction that goes on between Stanwyck and Asther. Of course, no actual romance takes place. Aside from the dream sequence, their attraction is depicted through undertones and denials. The final scene is enacted entirely silently, in a play of light and shadows. As Yen prepares his suicidal tea, Megan dresses in the glittery gown and applies the make-up that she had originally refused to wear for him, her critique of his murderous brutality entirely forgotten.

The film offers no “explanation” for the attraction between Megan and Yen, and it seems to transcend the political chaos that is all around them. In fact, Yen says to Jones, in resignation after losing all his followers, “Conquest of a province or conquest of a woman? What’s the difference?” The denial of ideology is in keeping with the historical ambiguity of the setting. The novel was set in 1927 amongst Chinese warlords. Capra calls it a civil war but in 1931 the real reference for the bomb attacks of the opening scenes was the Japanese attack on Shanghai. The blurring of the political landscape compounds the Orientalist view of barbaric Asians, essentially undercutting the humanitarian, progressive, depiction of interracial romance.

Bitter Tea may have artistic aspirations, and suitably stunning cinematography, and yet it is at the same time very much a melodrama and a woman’s film. Stanwyck’s character lacks the driven ambition of her other roles, as she allows herself to be seduced by the general, and she suffers and loses in the end. Rain or Shine is not only the single comedy in this collection. Without Stanwyck, it also lacks the melodramatic negotiation of class. Joan Peers’s character ends up happily with the young man and her class aspirations are brilliantly rewarded; while Cook, the comic, shrugs it off with a joke and trundles off in the rain with the black organist, who seems to be the only member of the troupe left. All these films showcase the preoccupation with class that characterizes the Pre-Code era, and are great examples of how much more than sex was at stake.

In Miracle Woman, Stanwyck’s character ends up happily amongst the working class, having abandoned the million-dollar opportunity to build on her celebrity as a would-be miracle worker. The real miracle is that she takes the love of a modest musician over the money and, to this extent, the film may well be considered as a social critique. In Bitter Tea, Stanwyck doesn’t quite pull off the aristocratic personality of the colonial missionary, and her capitulation to General Yen with its implied miscegenation is only possible because we know that Stanwyck doesn’t really belong among the colonial clique. At the same time, her controlled performance in Bitter Tea is indicative of how the collaboration between she and Capra constituted a kind of training. In Ladies of Leisure she is practically a prostitute (the original title of the Belasco play wasLadies of the Evening). Her casual, fun-loving performance in that film is eventually transformed into something far more subtle and restrained, and to her credit she managed over the course of her career to maintain and develop both styles of behavior.

Stanwyck plays a working woman in all of these films, and even Rain or Shine features a woman circus owner (who unfortunately needs a lot of help and eventually runs the business she inherited from her father into the ground anyway). In Forbidden, Stanwyck plays a librarian who becomes a journalist but she is also a canonical fallen woman who is separated from her child, and this film is by far the most bleak of the five. Kay’s suicide attempt in Ladies of Leisure, like the general’s abrupt demise inBitter Tea, signal a flaw in the social system. It may be a new world in which women have many of the freedoms and professional opportunities as men do; and yet the cards are still stacked against them. The bitter tea is, finally, the proscription against interracial romance, a “message” that was not easily understood in 1933.

Perhaps what is most remarkable and most surprising about this set of films is the degree to which they are all about performance. Both Forbidden and Miracle Womanfeature great scenes with masks and puppets, doubling their roles with clever visual props. In Ladies of Leisure and Bitter Tea, Stanwyck’s character chooses her make-up and costumes carefully and strategically; much is made in both films of the artifice of make-up and the character of clothing. The Miracle Woman is, of course, the most explicit about the power and effect of performance, and in this film we can see quite literally how Stanwyck and Capra, aided by the talented Joseph Walker and Jo Swerling, were able to seduce American audiences. This DVD box set really serves to solidify Capra’s reputation as a central figure in American cinema, as a stylist and as a social realist who came into his own during the early years of sound film.

Catherine Russell is a professor of film studies at Concordia University in Montreal and a Cineaste Contributing Writer.

To purchase Frank Capra: The Early Collection, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3