It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra. At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip, ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.
I haven’t had much time for blogging lately, even for the shorter postings I keep vaguely promising – but here are a few thoughts on another Capra pre-Code melodrama, again starring Barbara Stanwyck as a fish out of water. This is said to be the movie which made her a star. Here she is working-class “party girl” Kay Arnold (though it is made fairly explicit that this is a euphemism, like “escort”) who is impulsively picked up by artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) to use as a model. She soon falls in love with him, but it seems as if it is impossible to get away from her past or bridge the huge social divide between them.
Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed her scenes with her character’s best friend, fellow escort Dot, played by silent film star Marie Prevost. The two have a humorous relationship but definitely care about each other – and Prevost has a great scene late in the film where she runs up several flights of stairs to try to save the day for her friend. Graves is somewhat outshone by these two, plus a scene-stealing Lowell Sherman as his drunken best friend, but he does have a fair amount of chemistry with Stanwyck. (Sherman is a comic drunk in this, just a couple of years before his devastating role as a tragic drunk in What Price Hollywood?)
Actress Barbara Stanwyck is probably best-known for her roles in films noir like Double Indemnity, where she plays a cold-hearted femme fatale. But, great as she undoubtedly is in this kind of part, I tend to prefer her earlier films when she plays characters with more warmth – as she does in The Miracle Woman, one of Capra’s great pre-Codes. Her character, young bogus evangelist Sister Florence Fallon, must be the sweetest conwoman ever. Indeed, she casts her spell over the audience just as she does over her swooning congregations within the movie.
This early Capra movie is one of many of his works centring on a charismatic figure who is taken up by cynical business interests and used to manipulate the public. Capra and his regular writer Robert Riskin, who adapted this film from his own play Bless You Sister, were not the only film-makers in the 1930s to be interested in this kind of story. (A similar scam is also the theme of William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea that he returned to time and again.
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.
A merry Christmas to anyone who reads this blog. Somehow, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life had passed me by until my husband gave me the video last Christmas. I had seen the famous scene at the end where James Stewart runs down the street screaming “Merry Christmas!” – and the heart-stopping moment where he clears away the snow and sees his brother’s name on the tombstone – but that was about it.
I haven’t had time to write anything new for this blog, but here is another review which I posted on livejournal a while ago…
I was very disappointed by Meet John Doe, as the back of the sleeve of the DVD claimed it was dark and sardonic – but instead it turned out to be one of the most sugary movies I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t seen any Frank Capra before this, and was dismayed by this one, although I have since been won over by first Platinum Blonde and then It’s a Wonderful Life.
Spoilers behind the cut
By a pure fluke, I watched The Golden Arrow (1936), starring Bette Davis and Platinum Blonde (1931), starring Jean Harlow, on successive days (a couple of weeks ago now, so my memories are already starting to fade). I was startled by how similar the plots of these two 1930s movies are – although, unsurprisingly, the pre-code is by far the more daring of the two.
In both, the leading man is a journalist who is thrown together with a beautiful heiress in the line of work and marries her very quickly – and, in both, the relationship then turns sour when the man finds his new wife and her family trying to groom him and using him for publicity purposes.
I’m noticing that the leading man in 1930s movies often seems to be a journalist – I suppose because it seemed like quite a glamorous, hard-boiled profession and also gave him opportunities to mingle in all kinds of different social worlds. (Both these movies also suggest how during hard times like the Great Depression one form of uneasy escapism was to watch the lives of glamorous people – I’ve read of how some of the Warner stars felt awkward when they were sent on publicity tours on a ‘golden train’ through impoverished areas.
Spoilers behind cut