Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck: Cinematic Dream Team

(Image: WalterFilm)

Ralph Graves and Barbara Stanwyck for Ladies of Leisure (Image: WalterFilm)

Ladies of Leisure: a tale of romance between two people who fall at opposite ends of the wealth and status spectrum. The Miracle Woman: an exploration of a woman’s struggle to find faith in humanity and in God after the loss of her father, and after her own foray into corrupt evangelism. Forbidden: the story of a woman who has in illegitimate child with a married politician. The Bitter Tea of General Yen: a film banned for its portrayal of an interracial romantic relationship. Meet John Doe: a story of media corruption and truth.

These films are linked not only by their controversial or society-critical subject matter, but also by the fact that they were all directed by Frank Capra and starred Barbara Stanwyck.

Stanwyck already had two sound films under her belt when she landed a role in Capra’s Ladies of Leisure, the first of their collaborations. She had so much natural talent, but her previous films hadn’t had much success and she wasn’t feeling incredibly confident about her career.

The Stanwyck-Capra relationship began as a rocky one, with Capra leaving Stanwyck in tears after a bad audition. Despite this less-than-favorable beginning, Capra was willing to give Stanwyck a second chance (thanks in part to the prodding of her husband at the time, Frank Fay). After watching her screen test, he immediately saw his mistake in dismissing her and decided to cast her in Ladies of Leisure.

Though the birth of this screen team was pretty dramatic, Capra quickly realized what a spectacular talent Stanwyck was, and their relationship grew into one of the utmost respect. Though she had a natural knack for performing, Stanwyck learned a lot from her time spent working with Capra. She both knew and appreciated this fact, discussing the lessons she’d learned from him in interviews later in her life:

“Mr. Capra said, ‘You never really look at yourself. You’re always looking at the veins sticking out of your neck or how you hold your hands. So never look at yourself while you are working. Only go later, when the thing is done.’ I was noticing the dainty things, the feminine things, and missing the larger picture. Capra had such patience with me!” – Los Angeles Times, 1987

“Mr. Capra took me and taught me film. He put me in ‘Ladies of Leisure’ (1930) and, well. . . . These are the greatest tools in film (pointing to her eyes). Mr. Capra taught me that. I mean, sure, it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting . . . watch the eyes. Frank Capra taught me that if you can think it, you can make the audience know it. You can make them know what you are going to do. On the stage, it’s mannerisms. On the screen, your range is shown in your eyes.” – Los Angeles Times, 1987

The admiration and respect was mutual. Capra is reported to have said, after working with Stanwyck on Ladies of Leisure, that she “doesn’t act a scene — she lives it” and that she had the power to “grab your heart and tear it to pieces” (quotes via meredy.com).

(Image: DVD Beaver)

(Image: DVD Beaver)

It’s no secret here on TMP that Barbara Stanwyck is one of my absolute favorite actresses. I’ve dedicated (and continue to dedicate) a great deal of time and effort into attempting to complete her filmography, because she’s such a great actress that I feel the need to watch every single film she’s ever been in. One thing I’ve never attempted to do thus far in the project is rank her films or pick a number of favorites… but if I were to do so, these films with Capra would appear very highly in the ranking.

My favorite of them is The Miracle Woman (1931), which was one of my greatest “new to me” discoveries of 2012. It is a film that continues to sick with me every bit as strongly as it did the first time I saw it, no matter how long it’s been since I re-watched it. Its powerful message is carried across by Stanwyck’s equally powerful performance — which is something can be said for all of the Stanwyck/Capra films, but is particularly apparent in this film, where religion is questioned and the audience’s own actions and beliefs are put up for discussion. The Miracle Woman isn’t just a film about a single woman’s redemption. It is a commentary on organized religion as a whole, and the questions and answers it offers up to the audience have great impact due to the strong characterization that Stanwyck created of Florence Fallon, with Capra’s guidance.

(Image: Doctor Macro)

(Image: Doctor Macro)

Capra’s films appeal to me because of the subject matter he chose to work with, of course, but also because of his ability to pull such fantastic performances out of his casts. Four of these five Capra-Stanwyck collaborations were produced in between 1930 and 1933, when Hollywood was in a transitionary period. Filmmakers were adapting to sound technology, and the moral production code had not yet been enforced. The early ’30s are a very unique time in Hollywood’s history and not every filmmaker was successful in dealing with the state of the industry at that time, particularly in making the transition to sound. The fact that Capra was able not only to make great films during this time but also to draw such natural, sincere delivery from his casts is a remarkable testament to his talent as a director.

Let’s look again at Ladies of Leisure (1930). Capra took Stanwyck, with her little bit of experience and shaky sense of confidence, and pulled out of her a performance that is self-assured and strong. The failures of her previous films don’t seem to weigh on her; she gives her all to the character, and with great success. By comparison, stars like Rod La Rocque in One Romantic Night (1930) —  who was, like Stanwyck, acting in his third talking picture — are wooden and flat in their portrayal of emotion and delivery of dialogue. Under Capra’s direction in this film we see the same type of strength and honesty from Stanwyck that became her trademark as she explored numerous genres and character types throughout her long career.

When the truly remarkable talents of Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck come together, their potential is unstoppable, as is proven their five phenomenal collaborations. They are, without a doubt, one of the best actor-director teams to ever hit American screens.

Full reviews of Capra/Stanwyck films on TMP: Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen

This post as written for the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon.

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13 thoughts on “Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck: Cinematic Dream Team

  1. Aubyn Eli says:

    Wonderful post, Lindsey. There’s something to love in every Capra/Stanwyck film and his regard for his leading lady shines through in everything they did. One thing I really like is that Capra seemed to worship her strength as well as her beauty. Some directors treat their muses like gorgeous blank slates. Not Capra, not with Stanwyck. My favorite film of theirs is The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but The Miracle Woman is definitely an interesting one. Your comparison of Stanwyck to Rod La Rocque is right on the money (For the life of me, I have never seen anything more bizarre than that man’s performance in The Locked Door).

    I’m so glad you decided to join the blogathon and that you treated us to such a memorable entry.

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    • Lindsey says:

      I completely agree! I think that’s the thing that makes their collaborations so interesting to watch — she wasn’t just Capra’s puppet. He respected her talent and worked with her rather than trying to fully control her performances, and that truly collaborative effort comes across wonderfully on screen.

      I’m very glad to have been able to participate in the blogathon! :)

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  2. Judy says:

    Must agree that Capra and Stanwyck worked very well together and their collaborations are riveting to watch – I’m not sure which my favourite is. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on these great movies, Lindsey.

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  3. Silver Screenings says:

    Barbara Stanwyck has to have some of the most expressive eyes for an actress of that period. (Sometimes I think that is largely lost on today’s younger actors.) It was good advice Capra gave her, about great movie acting & the eyes.”

    They made a wonderful team, as you’ve pointed out. This is a great tribute to them both.

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    • Lindsey says:

      I definitely think the importance of using your eyes is lost on most of today’s actors. There are some exceptions (like Jake Johnson) but for the most part it has become a “lost art,” which is a real shame.

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  4. Le says:

    I didn’t know Capra at first dislike Barbara! So good he went back and they did wonderful films together. The Miracle Woman is also my favorite of the duo, it was one of my best recent discoveries.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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