A note from Lindsey: This review was written for one of my journalism classes, hence the modern film references. We had to share them in the class forum, and only one other student had any chance of knowing who Frank Capra is – much to my disappointment.
What do the hit films The Social Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Step Brothers and A Few Good Men have in common? They all have a director whose career began nearly 100 years ago to thank for their success.
Frank Capra was one of old Hollywood’s most successful directors, catapulting himself to success and helping to take his studio, Columbia Pictures – maker of the four films listed above – from a small “poverty row” operation to a big-time force in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s.
Fans of the director can now own five of his early Columbia films in the DVD box set Frank Capra: The Early Collection. Turner Classic Movies released this set on September 27 in conjunction with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and The Film Foundation.
In addition to turning Columbia into a successful studio Capra had a talent for drawing natural dialogue delivery from his actors, which made his early sound films stand out from the crowd as some of the best of the period. He was creating true-to-life films in an era when most actors, still accustomed to relying on their facial expressions as they did in silent films, struggled to deliver their lines. This adaptive struggle from silent film to sound film has been retrospectively portrayed in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and five-time Oscar winner The Artist (2011).
Included in Frank Capra: The Early Collection are masterfully restored versions of the following films, which have never before been released on DVD:
Ladies of Leisure (1930) is the first of Capra’s collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck, who you all know by now is my favorite actress. The film follows the relationship of a rich artist and the lower-class “party girl” who works as his model. A heart-wrenching melodrama plays out as the artist and his muse fall in love and the artist’s father tries to break up the relationship.
Rain or Shine (1930) has Capra directing the lesser-known talents of Joe Cook and Louise Fazenda in a tale of a woman who inherits a financially struggling circus from her father. Though based on a musical play, the film includes no musical numbers.
The Miracle Woman (1931) is one of Capra’s most controversial films due to its criticism of religion, but is also arguably one of his best. Modern viewers will be reminded of the millionaire televangelists of today as they watch Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) conduct “miracles” for her desperate followers.
Forbidden (1932), another of Capra’s Stanwyck collaborations, is the director’s most gripping film. This time around, Stanwyck stars as a dowdy librarian who decides to take a cruise to Cuba, gives herself a glamorous makeover and falls in love with a married politician. What seems like a typical “love triangle” plot at first glance becomes a strong critique of society’s views on marriage and motherhood.
Where The Miracle Woman was a somewhat controversial release for Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is by far his most contested film. When he decided to direct this film, Capra made the bold move of portraying an interracial relationship between an Asian man and a white woman. The film was banned in many states because audiences of the early ‘30s found the relationship shocking even though, in typical old Hollywood fashion, the “Asian” character was actually played by a white man.
These five films demonstrate not only Capra’s talents as a director, but also the interest in social issues that would dictate which stories he chose to tell throughout his entire career. Capra’s films often focused on issues such as religious corruption and the strained relations between America’s upper and lower classes. He went on to direct over 50 titles, including the beloved holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Special features in this box set include introductions and audio commentary to the films by influential modern filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese. Each film appears on its own disc and is accompanied by a digital image gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, publicity stills and detailed production information from Turner Classic Movies’ “TCMDb” classic film database. The set is packaged in a folding case with a protective slip cover. A red, black and white color scheme offsets a photo of Capra on the front cover and high-quality stills from each film on the inside. The packaging is beautifully designed, making it a great addition to any DVD collector’s shelf.
Frank Capra: The Early Collection can be purchased at TCM’s store.
Packaging: 5/5 – Beautifully designed, and I like the fact that each disc has its own designated spot in the box.
DVD quality: 5/5 – The films are very nicely remastered. I have noticed no problems in image or sound quality.
Special features: 3/5 – I would like to see more in the way of special features, but I enjoy the features that are included.
Overall score: 4.3/5