Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), and The Miracle Woman (1931). Today…
On an ocean voyage, a librarian falls for a married man. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy, and Dorothy Peterson. Story by Frank Capra. Adaptation by Jo Swerling. Directed by Frank Capra.
“After librarian Lulu Smith is accused by her patrons of having Spring fever, she spends her life savings on a cruise to Havana, during which she begins a romance with Bob Grover, a lawyer with political ambitions. After their return, Lulu becomes a clerical assistant for a newspaper, where she is pursued by brash reporter Al Holland. One night, several months into their affair, Bob comes to Lulu’s apartment for dinner, bringing two Halloween masks with which they have a marvelous time playing. Their merriment is interrupted by a call from Al, whose proposal to Lulu prompts Bob to confess that he has an invalid wife whom he cannot leave. Lulu protests that she wishes to continue their affair, but Bob refuses to let her waste her life on him. They squabble, and Lulu throws him out without telling him she is pregnant.
“Time passes and Bob becomes district attorney, while Al becomes city editor of the newspaper. After Bob hires a detective, Marty, to find Lulu, the couple are reunited and Lulu introduces Bob to his daughter Roberta. Later, Lulu and Roberta are waiting to meet Bob, when Al suddenly appears. He is questioning her about Roberta when Bob arrives, and, in order to protect Bob’s reputation, Lulu tells Al that the baby is Bob’s adopted daughter and that she is her governess. In order to preserve the charade, Bob does adopt Roberta, taking her home the next day to present to his wife Helen, who is returning from a European rest cure. Helen is delighted with the child but questions Lulu’s ability to care for her. Lulu runs out of the house, and when Bob follows her, she tries to tell him she is through with him but cannot.
“Soon after, Lulu goes to Al for a job and becomes the “advice to the lovelorn” columnist for his paper. Al pumps her for information about Bob and Roberta in order to write a story causing Bob’s downfall, but Lulu refuses to say anything. As the years pass, Lulu still works for the paper, and Al, now the managing editor, is still pursuing her. Bob has been both a mayor and a congressman, but on the night he wins the nomination for governor, he becomes disheartened, ashamed of the hypocrisy of his double life. Lulu tries to talk him out of confessing the truth and ruining his career, but when it seems that she cannot succeed, she asks Al to marry her, hoping that will make Bob forget about her. On the night of Bob’s election, however, Al tells her that he knows all about her, Bob and Roberta…” (This summary, which I have abbreviated to avoid spoiler, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Capra and Stanwyck are collaborating again, but unlike last week’s The Miracle Woman, this is a Pre-Code story that’s been done to death — the ills of “forbidden” (a.k.a. married) love — and this motion picture lacks any of the unique quirks that would be necessary to make it seem more than a generic rendering. It’s pure Pre-Code melodrama from the first moment to the last, with philandering politicians, bastard children, blackmailing reporters, and (SPOILER ALERT) murderous librarians. Fortunately, the performances imbue enough of the proceedings with a measured amount of believability, making some of the ridiculous trajectory palatable. However, the script is a slow, plodding affair: devoid of anything fresh, clever, or at the very least, truthful. Thus, one gets the impression that all of these talented contributors are fighting an unshakable uphill battle in their quest to make the film better than the tripe out of which it’s built.
The strengths of the film, it seems to me, lie within the few moments that Capra’s iconic touch makes its presence known. I suppose it would be fair to say that the entire film has an appealing visual style — romantic, sweeping, grand — and there are a handful of truly spectacular sequences; the one that remains with the viewer the longest is probably when Lulu and Bob go galloping down the beach on horseback at midnight. In this brief sanctuary of cinematic magic, one is able to forget the exalted hokum of the text and the characters. It almost seems like Capra and the film knows its foundation is inferior, so in flashes like these, he tries to visually compensate for the shortcomings by accessing a natural truth heretofore alien within the narrative.
And this is no easy feat, for even the casting is strange. Stanwyck and Menjou have an odd chemistry — one that I wouldn’t call romantic — and Bellamy, one of the few leads who plays with both that aforementioned believability and an essential tongue-in-cheek (lacking in his co-stars), is bizarrely turned into the film’s villain for a shocking climax that resolves itself after an unnecessary, and unbelievably silly, time jump. However, the biggest problem with the film is Stanwyck herself. Once again, things are happening TO her, not because of her, and it’s just not a satisfying watch.Tthe lack of agency in her character means that the actress’ persona is not being fulfilled. And for that reason, Forbidden, though not truly horrendous (because it’s certainly very Pre-Code-esque), is still an unqualified disappointment. Recommended only to the film fans whose obsessive compulsivity necessitates seeing this picture.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!