Friday, November 2, 2012

DVD Review: Frank Capra--The Early Collection

Sony Home Entertainment has recently released on DVD a set of five films directed by the legendary Frank Capra. The films were made between 1930-33 and are some of the more obscure items in Capra's career. They were all made at Columbia, the studio were Capra achieved his greatest work. None of the films have been on DVD before, which is hard to believe, considering Capra's fame. (Amazingly, there are still a number of Capra films unavailable on DVD.)

The title of the set should really be "Frank Capra & Barbara Stanwyck", because four of the five films feature the actress. This set shows both Capra & Stanwyck early in their careers, before they reached their peak. Capra's talent as a filmmaker is obvious--even though none of these movies can be considered among Capra's best, each one of them contain some of his touches. Despite some of the weakness of the storylines, Capra is always trying to do something different visually--from staging a scene in a unusual manner to using unique camera angles. Although the period represented here is still very early in Hollywood's talkie era, Capra handles sound very well and incorporates it in a number of ways that the average contemporary director wouldn't. It would take a couple of years before Capra really found his style and basically invented his own film genre ("Capraesque"), but this early work shows that Capra was already a standout talent. Every film in this set has two of Capra's most famous touches: a rain scene and a sequence involving a giant crowd (only Fritz Lang and Sergio Leone handled large crowds as well as Capra did).

As for Barbara Stanwyck, she's certainly not as polished as she would be by the late 30s-early 40s, but her performances here include a number of those famous Stanwyck "emotional moments" where she blows the screen away. Capra apparently fell in love with Stanwyck during their early collaboration, and it shows in the way she is photographed in these films. A number of times Capra lets everything come to a stop and he just has the camera linger on Stanwyck. There were other famous leading ladies who worked well with Capra, such as Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, and Donna Reed, but none ever had the raw intensity that Stanwyck did in the early 30s.

The films that make up this set are:

LADIES OF LEISURE (1930): Capra and Stanwyck's very first teaming. Barbara plays cynical "party girl" Kay, who is hired as a model by rich magnate's son/aspiring artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves). Kay and Jerry fall in love, upsetting his father. The title makes one think that there's going to be a lot more going on then what really is. This is almost a two-role story, and it doesn't help that Ralph Graves is a pretty unappealing leading man. One wonders why Kay goes to all the trouble she does to win him. Capra & Stanwyck try hard to inject some life in the tepid storyline.

RAIN OR SHINE (1930): This is the only film in the set which does not feature Stanwyck. It's about the problems of a down-on-it's-luck circus run by Smiley Johnson (Joe Cook). The story was based on a Broadway musical, but Capra removed the songs. What's left can only be described as strange. The movie is filled with various surrealistic gags--it's almost as if Capra used up all the tricks he had left over from working with Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon. Most of the "jokes" fall flat. The climax features a violent brawl between the circus troupe and an entire big top audience--and then the circus catches on fire. The juxtaposition between the realism of the fire and the bizarre comedy routines is somewhat jarring.
Joe Cook was a famous Vaudeville personality of the time. His persona here is that of a fast-talking con man, and he comes off as very annoying. Included on the RAIN OR SHINE disc is the "international" version of the film, which is 20 minutes shorter. It's part-silent with sound effects, and it has different scenes and a different ending. This version actually plays better than the original one--there's less weird comedy, and you don't have to listen to Joe Cook talk.

THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931): A movie which anticipates ELMER GANTRY by about 30 years, THE MIRACLE WOMAN has Barbara Stanwyck as a preacher's daughter who becomes the main attraction in a big-time revival show. One of Stanwyck's great career moments occurs at the very beginning of the film. Just after her father has died from the strain of being replaced by his church, Stanwyck has to address the entire congregation. She proceeds to call them all out as hypocrites, and then she REALLY lets rip. It's a powerful scene--you feel as if Babs is making the paint peel from the walls.
The revival show is really run by a shady con artist (Sam Hardy), and one wishes the story had spent more time on the machinations of this "religious" organization. Instead, too much time is spent on the romance between Stanwyck's Sister Fallon and a blind war veteran (David Manners) who was inspired by listening to Fallon on the radio. Once again, Stanwyck is paired with a bland leading man (a common fate for lead actresses in Pre-Code Hollywood). Capra stages the revival show as a cross between a sporting event and a vaudeville revue. The climax has yet another large-scale fire. An interesting film, but one gets the feeling it should have been much better.

FORBIDDEN (1932): This one is a soap opera all the way--Stanwyck is the mistress of a rising married politician (Adolphe Menjou), and the mother of his child. The story gets more and more unbelievable as it goes along, and only the lead actress and the director make it worth watching. Barbara gets to have an out-of-wedlock child, commit murder, and age about twenty-five years. Menjou is certainly an upgrade over most of Stanwyck's leading men at the time, but once again one wonders why she bothered with him.

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933): This is the highlight of the set--Capra's attempt at an "art film". Stanwyck is the fiancee of a missionary based in civil war-torn China who winds up in the hands of brutal warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). During her stay at the General's palace, the prim woman starts to fall for him. With lush art direction and exquisite cinematography by Joseph Walker, BITTER TEA feels almost like a Von Sternberg product. The interracial coupling was pretty controversial even by Pre-Code standards--and Pre-Code or not, Barbara Stanwyck is not going to wind up with a Chinese warlord.
Some 21st Century viewers may be uncomfortable with a Swedish actor portraying an Asian, but Nils Asther does well under the circumstances. Stanwyck's Megan is a far cry from the working-class roles she usually played at this time. BITTER TEA is not just a atmospheric romance--there are some well-staged battle sequences. The story opens with a large-scale evacuation of a war-torn Chinese village--something that Capra would sort of re-do in his later LOST HORIZON. Capra admitted in his biography that he was trying to win an Oscar with BITTER TEA, but the movie was not a success and the director never made anything quite like it during the rest of his career. THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN would soon be overshadowed by Capra's later productions, but it now stands as a very underrated film.

Each film in this set gets it's own DVD (unlike some DVD sets which cram two or three movies on a single disc). The extras included for all five include publicity, still, and poster galleries, liner notes, featurettes with Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Michel Gondry; and there are two commentaries: Jeanine Basinger for FORBIDDEN and Jeremy Arnold for LADIES OF LEISURE. The set is only available from the Turner Classic Movies website or Movies Unlimited.


  1. Thanks for this info, dan day jr - really wanna buy this one now.

  2. Barbara Stanwyck is one of my top 3 gals, so I am always on the lookout for films of hers that I haven't seen. The only one in this collection that I HAVE seen is "The Miracle Woman." Sadly, "Bitter Tea" did not capture my attention, and I quit watching after 20 minutes. "Forbidden" sounds very interesting. I will definitely be on the lookout for that film.

    Thanks for reviewing this collection. By the way, I found you through GAOH.