Thursday, July 9, 2009

Capra and Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck was to Frank Capra in the early thirties almost what Marlene Dierich was to Eric Von Stroheim in that same era. She was a muse. You can see this in their earliest pictures Forbidden (reviewed here), Ladies of Leisure and The Miracle Woman. In Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck plays a "party girl" the sort of borderline prostitute without the sex that Holly GoLighly worked in Breakfast at Tiffany's. She meets a nice rich boy, Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) while escaping an attempted date rape on a yacht and though she lifts his wallet, he hires her to be his artist's model. The plot give Capra the excuse to have dozens of loving close-ups of his star. His camera captures the mixture of worldliness and other worldly beauty that Stanwyck had. She resembles those romanticized Art Noveau Indian maidens that graced beer advertisements at the turn of the Twentieth century.

Ladies of Leisure has a breezy, morality all its own that was typical of the pre-code period. It's not a great film, but Stanwyck is always watchable, and no less so in a film that's all about a man watching a woman while the audience waits for him to realize that he's in love with her.

I don't think Capra was terribly interested in the type of film making where he spent hours on elaborate lighting set ups to present his starlet like a beautiful bug in amber, as the afore-mentioned von Stroheim. Those kind of movies were getting stale even in 1930. He was much more interested in the blend of social commentary and comedy which he managed to pull off in The Miracle Woman. And because his star was playing a tent revival evangelist, she got to wear flowing white robes, one night and a hoochy mama gold lame band uniform the next. Bonus!

The Miracle Woman is one of the best early Stanwyck films with a good script and nice chemistry between Stanwyck and co-star David Manners. Manners plays a blind man whose life is saved by one of Stanwyck's sermons. After he comes onstage and takes the part of one of her usually pre-paid patsies, he helps her get her life back on track. One of the more memorable aspects of the movie is the fact that Manners' character relates most of his emotions to Stanwyck via a ventriloquist dummy. He somehow manages to make this less creepy than it sounds.

The denouement of The Miracle Woman was audacious even for Frank Capra who never had any trouble putting spirituality on film. When Stanwyck's revival tent complex burns down Manners fumbles through the smoke to rescue her in a heavily-implied miracle. For a movie that spends most of its time mercilessly satirizing both conventional organized religion and evangelism, this is a pretty strong statement about true faith. Stanwyck, with her dual quality of worldliness and inner beauty was the perfect actress to help him make that statement.


Lolita said...

I've been quite into pre-code Barbara Stanwyck lately, but I haven't yet watched the three mentioned gems! But there is something very appealing with her. A great actress that can handle drama and comedy, and at the same time seem so down to earth.
Thanks for the film tips, I was much pleased with her performances in Baby Face, Night Nurse and The Purchase Price - let's see if I will enjoy these as much!

Jennythenipper said...

I've not seen the Purchase Price. That sounds intriguing!

As Mick LaSalle points out in his book Dangerous Women, there's a moment in every Barbara Stanwyck movie where she just unloads on someone in a huge rant. I think it happens about three times in the Miracle Woman, including the opening scene. It's a one of her best early films.

Juliette. said...

Thanks for the interesting post!
I've been trying to get my hands on as much pre-Hays Stanwyck as possible, and I'll certainly add these to the list. :)

Anonymous said...

Gosh, I didn’t realize until now just how nuanced David Manners’ performance is in The Miracle Worker. In the film when he brought out the dummy, I didn’t find anything unsettling about it—he was just so *natural*. But in reading your post, well, yeah—it could have been DISASTROUS had the role been given to a lesser actor!!

LadyStageDust said...

You mean Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. Or Gloria Swanson and Eric von Stroheim.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget, "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" is another film directed by Frank Capra and star Barbara Stanwyck.