Friday, 26 November 2010

When Frank met Barbara I: Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Once upon a time a young, fast rising director met a young actress from Brooklyn with only the smallest number of films under her belt. Four years, four films and a failed love affair later, they were both established names – Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck. The films were: “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), “The Miracle Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933). A few years later, in the early 1940s they would collaborate for the final time, in “Meet John Doe”.

The current Frank Capra retrospective at the BFI has given the chance to watch these four films (I am excluding “Meet John Doe”) in a short period of time. I had seen all but “Ladies of Leisure” and own the UK R2 DVDs of both “The Miracle Woman” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. I went through these with a fairly open mind and found myself re-evaluating them for the better (I had discussed some of them here and here). My only regret was not able to see them chronologically – although that’s how I will present them here, starting with the first, “Ladies of Leisure”.

The film tells the story of the relationship between a rich boy who wants to be an artist and party girl (an euphemism for something else) he chooses to be his model for a painting personifying “Hope”. This is clearly the moment in Stanwyck’s career where you can shout “a Star is born!” – have no doubt, it’s her film (aided by the fact that the rest of the cast has largely been forgotten). And it almost didn’t happen – the actress’ first meeting with the director didn’t go very well.

A Pre-code through and through, not much is left to the imagination. Stanwyck’s occupation and that of her flatmate are more than just hinted (actually almost stated), and her character seems at ease with it, at times being quite explicit she has no issues with what she does. It’s also clear that there is some off-screen fun without the blessing of holy matrimony. Despite this, the film is less sharp around the edges than the output of Warner Bros., where Stanwyck also spent some time during the early 1930s. The focus is more on the romance between the leads and less on the bleakness of life (e.g. “Baby Face” just to stick with another Stanwyck film). Interestingly, the leading man doesn’t seem to mind very much that the object of his affections has a past, something that Columbia would explore from a different angle in “Virtue”. Furthermore, the inevitable scene between the girl and the family doesn’t follow exactly the same template of such scenes where “good” families try to get rid of what they perceive as less “good” heroines (e.g. “Shopworn”).

There are two more moments in the film that I would like to point out. Unfortunately I can’t talk about them without revealing some of the plot. So consider this your spoiler warning. The first is the sequence in the artist’s studio, when she’s forced to spend the night in the couch. At some stage we see the door open. She hears it and knows he’s coming. We see him coming closer. We know she is in love with him, and as such she would like him to be different than the others (i.e. put a little ring around her finger). For a few seconds Capra teases us and makes us wonder what is going to happen. It’s a great sequence extremely well edited and a sort of rehearsal for the final sequence. Extremely well shot and edited, the final minutes of the film have a rhythm and suspense unusual in those very first years of sound. Plus, to be honest I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end, which is always a plus.

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