Stanwyck and Capra: An Intense Connection, Revisited

a-10“I would say Frank Capra fell in love with her,” biographer Victoria Wilson said of Barbara Stanwyck last night at Film Forum in New York City.

Really, who can blame him? And now, thanks to Film Forum’s 40-film Stanwyck retrospective, New York audiences can do the same, more than 80 years later.

Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, a definitive new biography of the iconic actress, kicked off the downtown movie mecca’s four week series on Friday, introducing a double feature of THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) and THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931), two of the five films Stanwyck made with the iconic director between 1930 and 1941.

Barbara-Stanwyck-Frank-Capra“(Capra and Stanwyck) had a very intense connection. He really brought her into the world of film and made it something that she could thrive in,” Wilson said. “It was a very important relationship to her and to the development of her work.”

According to her book (which Wilson signed in the theater lobby after the screening), Stanwyck and Capra’s prolific partnership got off to a rocky start.

“They had had a dreadful interview and he basically said, ‘Get the hell out of my office.’” Wilson said. “And she said, ‘I’m getting the hell out of your office.’”

When Stanwyck returned home in tears, her husband, Vaudeville comic Frank Fay, called Capra to complain and lobby for a second chance. Wilson recounts the story in her book.

fay_stanwyck“Listen, funny man,” she quotes Capra as saying to Fay. “ I don’t want any part of your wife, or you. She came in here with a chip on her shoulder, and went out with an ax on it.”

Fay arranged for Capra to see a screen test the 23-year-old actress had done for Warner Bros. and director Alexander Korda, shot in two-color Technicolor by famed cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The director’s opinion was changed, and he likened her to a young Sarah Bernhardt.

“Capra saw the screening of this test and something very deep happened to him,” Wilson continued. “Then he put her in LADIES OF LEISURE (1930).”

In their first collaboration, and Capra’s eleventh film for Columbia, the director cast the former showgirl from Brooklyn as a “Lady of the Evening” (which was also the film’s working title). The film was a success, Stanwyck signed with Columbia, and she was on her way. The actress and director next worked together on THE MIRACLE WOMAN, based on a 1927 farce by John Meehan and Robert Riskin, inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Next was FORBIDDEN (1932), followed by THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933), based on a book by Grace Zaring Stone. Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, a white missionary in China who falls for the charismatic warlord (Nils Asther) who kidnaps her.

FILM_Tea“It’s a completely beautiful movie, visually, but it’s an odd movie; it was odd when it was made in 1932,” Wilson said of GENERAL YEN. “It was actually quite brave for its time, (but) it wasn’t intended to be a courageous movie. It was just Frank Capra trying to win an Academy Award. He knew that, if he made a comedy, he was not going to get an Academy Award.”

Despite an unusually large expenditure by Columbia on Steve Gooson’s production design, and some genuinely stunning compositions by Capra and D.P. Joe Walker, influenced, Wilson said, by von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), the director’s dreams of Oscar recognition for GENERAL YEN did not come true. And, according to Wilson, “Capra’s infatuation with Stanwyck was over.”

“The way the book ends, Yen dies by helping Megan Davis and Schultz – in the movie, Jones, his American advisor – out of war-torn China. Capra had (screenwriter Edward) Paramore change the script,” Wilson said. “To me, it tells you everything about where these two people were, Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck, in relation to one another.”

barb_stanwyck_470She added, “THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, to me, is about love that cannot exist and is not just forbidden, but it destroys all.”

Capra and Stanwyck would work together again, eight years later, in MEET JOHN DOE. That film screens tomorrow, and on Sunday, December 29, in a 35mm print from the Library of Congress. LADIES OF LEISURE unspools in 35mm on Monday, December 9. And FORBIDDEN will be presented in a DCP restoration on Monday, December 16.

“I really owe a huge debt of gratitude, as we all do, to the hero of the night, Bruce Goldstein,” Wilson said of Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming, the programmer of the Stanwyck series. “Only Bruce Goldstein could have put this together.”

STANWYCK continues at Film Forum through December 31, 2013. For more information and a complete schedule, click here

Victoria Wilson at Film Forum on December 6, 2013. (Photo by Will)

Victoria Wilson at Film Forum on December 6, 2013. (Photo by Will)

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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4 Responses to Stanwyck and Capra: An Intense Connection, Revisited

  1. I cannot wait to get my hands on Victoria Wilson’s new biography on Stanwyck! I ordered it off of amazon last week and it’s set to arrive tomorrow afternoon. I’m really looking forward to reading it :) Great post Will (as always)! I wish I could be there for the festival.

  2. Kirk Freeman says:

    For all the Stanwyck fans out there, we owe Vicki Wilson a huge debt for this wonderful biography. My own children (ages 26, 18, 15) knew nothing of Ms.Stanwyck except for what I’ve told them, and “Steel True” validated Stanwyck’s importance and place in cinema history. Vicki is a wonderful person who (as I mentioned previously) deserves our thanks.

  3. Kirk Freeman says:

    And while first-husband Frank Fay was mostly a negative in Stanwyck’s life, without his insisting that Capra take another look at Stanwyck, she might have left movies altogether and returned to the stage.

  4. Ellen Kagan says:

    A great, great book. I am in the middle of it now and love it.

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