Forbidden (U.S., 1932) * * *
D: Frank Capra
Shopworn (U.S., 1932) * *
D: Nicholas Grinde
As part of a series of recent Columbia Pictures restorations, the UW Cinematheque last night screened two pre-Code melodramas starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck (1907 - 1990) is my favorite actress of the 30's, straddling the line between button-cute and drop-dead-sexy, and when given the right writers and directors, could make dialogue crackle, zing, or smolder, as appropriate. Perhaps best suited to screwball comedies (as in Preston Stuges' superior The Lady Eve, or Peter Godfrey's Christmas in Connecticut), she could also make lasting impressions in film noir (Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity) and sensationalistic pre-Code soap operas (the notorious Baby Face), where a low-cut blouse, a significant look, and a fade to black would also be accompanied by a suggestive double-entendre not possible a few years later. The two films screened, Forbidden and Shopworn, were both produced in 1932, two years after the Code was established, but two years before it began to be effectively enforced. Within that four-year span, the Talkies pushed the envelope as far as they possibly could, most famously with the nude skinny dipping of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Stanwyck's career flourished in this period, although her truly great work wouldn't come until later; audiences were struck by her combination of beauty and natural, casual wit and intelligence. Watching these films over seventy years later, what's most intriguing is how modern Stanwyck's performances seem, like an '08 gal trapped in 30's clothes. It helps explain why she always seemed to prance over the heads of her co-stars.
Forbidden is an early film written and directed by Frank Capra, still two years away from It Happened One Night (1934) and four years from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). "Capraesque" calls to mind an idealized vision of small-town America, populated with lovable, quirky characters nonetheless espousing all-American values in the face of corruption; Forbidden actually begins with the most Capraesque scene, in that sense, as a bespectacled, schoolmarmish Lulu (Stanwyck) arrives to work with a lost, dreamy look in her eyes, and we see glimpses of a town that might as well be out of You Can't Take it With You or It's a Wonderful Life. But then Lulu decides to discover her inner lithe spirit, ditches the glasses, buys a sexy dress, and runs off to Cuba. (And here the pacing of the film switches from awkward and uncertain to rat-a-tat screwball.) There she meets an older man (Adolphe Munjou), and carries on an affair, unaware that he's district attorney Bob Grover, an important public figure with an invalid wife. For convenience of plot, turns out they also live really close to one another, and that her friend Al Holland (Ralph Bellamy), the editor of the local newspaper, is eager to catch the man in a scandal. A scandal is in the works: Lulu is pregnant--something she discovers right after discovering that Grover is married--and so she goes into hiding for about 9 months or so to avoid the societal shame of being a single mother. When Holland does discover Lulu with her toddler in a park--just as Grover shows up, and the toddler runs over to him yelling "Daddy!" (again they all live within about a block of each other)--a fiction is hastily arranged by Lulu that she's acting as governess for Grover, who just adopted this child. Which then means that Grover has a new child to take home to his surprised and delighted wife. It gets more tangled from there. The plot is breathlessly absurd, but its central purpose is to set up Lulu as the self-sacrificing woman, who gives up her life for Grover with little to no reward. The philandering husband is actually meant to generate sympathy in moments, which doesn't work, particularly for a modern, post-feminism audience. And yet the film has much to recommend it, thanks to Stanwyck and Capra. Stanwyck is a wonder to behold, although she has to endure the last stretch of the film in middle-age makeup that dims her flame a little. Most memorable is her introduction to Grover, dead-drunk in her cabin suite, having mistaken her room #99 for #66 (he explains that it's not the first time he's been upside-down)--but is sobered up by her beauty; Stanwyck, for her part, plays her confusion-turned-to-delight as note-perfect as one can imagine. Capra's screenplay, though convoluted, shines where you'd expect it to: with the clever dialogue and the character details, notably with Bellamy's dogged newspaper editor, Lulu's eventual boss, given some of the best lines in the film. Of course, the whole subject matter--unwanted pregnancy, premarital sex--could not be tackled once the Hays Code began enforcement. Funny, then, that for all its sensationalism, it remains old-fashioned to the core, setting up Stanwyck as the paragon of the martyred female, willing to do anything for her man--as Lulu suggests to the readers of her advice column. Capra seems to suggest that Lulu has found her perfect job at the paper offering romantic advice anonymously; of course, one might now think she's the worst possible candidate. According to the excellent program notes by the Cinematheque's Tom Yoshikami, Forbidden became Columbia's top-grossing film of 1932; it's easy to see why, with its satisfyingly-played potboiler elements.
But the second half of the double-feature is definitely the "B"-movie of the bill, the lesser melodrama Shopworn, directed by Nicholas Grinde, who, indeed, grinded this one out. Stanwyck is fine, but is given less range to play as a small-town girl whose father dies in an accident involving dynamite and being buried by about 4,000 tons of rock; still, he lives long enough to tell her to keep her chin up and always keep fighting, because it's a hard world, and he wishes he could have given her a better life, she deserves more, go out there and etc. etc. (He's also played by an actor who looks like he's about two years older than Stanwyck.) She finds herself working as a waitress in a college town, regularly turning down the attentions of the frat boys, and naturally intrigued by the one student who doesn't hit on her--the studious mama's boy Dave (Regis Toomey). Turns out his parents are members of Society, and don't want their boy marrying a waitress, probably the first girl he's fallen for; they set up a trap which gets Stanwyck locked away at an institution for morally-regressed women (or something like that), where she does hard labor for six years before being released again into the world. Almost instantly she finds overwhelming success as a dancer on Broadway, which, of course, lets her turn the tables on those who done her wrong. (Ah, but she's really got a heart of gold, you'll see!) This was the second film of the evening in which, to offer a manufactured climax, someone pulls out a gun. In Forbidden, it pays off with delirious gusto; here, it's a sign that the screenwriter is running out of ideas, and appropriately enough, the gun is quickly pocketed with shame, as though the person wielding it is sorry that the screenwriter made her to resort to such a cliché. In a more interesting parallel, both Forbidden and Shopworn feature a shot in which Stanwyck's eyes are all that are visible amidst a cluttered array of bodies and props. One can only surmise that audiences of the 30's found Stanwyck's eyes to be her most alluring feature, and so the directors were trying to showcase them; nevertheless, the result is a pair of truly odd compositions. Shopworn is severely disadvantaged by heavy cuts suggested by the Code--proof, apparently, that they could exert influence even in 1932--and the cuts are quite noticeable in what might otherwise be seen as shoddy editing. Most jarringly, in the middle of one scene the dialogue is suddenly replaced by dubbing provided by different actors. According to Yoshikami's notes, suggestions of prostitution and abortion were removed altogether at the Code's insistence. What's left is a film in which nothing very interesting ever happens, and in which the male lead is completely overwhelmed by Stanwyck--he's a milquetoast, and we know that she really needs someone who can keep pace with her, a Cary Grant or a Clark Gable. Okay, so the film is lousy, but with a live audience--one that's just sat through the over-the-top madness of Forbidden--the campy melodrama is a hoot. For what that's worth.
It's great to see these films restored--and with an audience--but one can't help but wish that the uncut version of Shopworn could somehow surface. As such, the latter film is not really an entry-point into Pre-Code sensationalism, but for that purpose Forbidden serves really well. I'd also suggest Turner Classic Movies' two box sets, Forbidden Hollywood 1 and 2, the first volume of which contains the uncut Baby Face, the Stanwyck wonder in which she literally sleeps her way to the top of a company (in one extended montage). It would be a few decades before Hollywood got this dangerous again.