Videophiled: ‘The Bitter Tea’ of Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The Miracle Woman (Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
Ladies of Leisure (Sony Pictures Choice Collection)

Nils Asther and Barbara Stanwyck in 'The Bitter Tea of General Yen'

Frank Capra was the closest thing to a star director that Columbia Pictures, a minor studio in the shadow of Hollywood’s big five, had going for it as it moved into the sound era. Studio head Harry Cohn made his respect for the director clear when he gave him the screen credit “A Frank Capra Production” on the 1928 film Say it With Sables and other studios were taking notice, but at the dawn of the talkies Capra was still looking to really make his name in the business. He made it with the help of another rising star of the thirties: Barbara Stanwyck, a Broadway star still looking for a film role to showcase her talent.

Ladies of Leisure (1930) was Capra’s first film of the new decade and his first collaboration with Stanwyck, who almost lost the opportunity when she blew the interview with Capra. Thankfully for all concerned, a look at her studio screen tests changed his mind and he cast her in the adaptation of the 1924 play Ladies of the Evening by screenwriter Jo Swerling, a New York playwright brought to Hollywood by Harry Cohn.

Stanwyck is Kay Arnold, a “party girl,” by her own definition. Her racket is simple: she gets called when rich men need to fill a lavish party with pretty young women. Ralph Graves is Jerry Strong, the high society son of a railroad titan and former politician (he calls his father “Governor,” never “Dad”) trying to make a career as a painter… from the cushy environs of a lavish penthouse apartment that is generally filled with ne’er do well revelers. Of course, this cynical, streetwise girl falls for the idealistic lug while his status-conscious parents try to buy her off. It’s all very pre-code, with Capra making it clear that, however much the script whitewashes her “career,” she is unmistakably a lady of the evening, and one very used to beating off the advances of privileged men with money. Swerling penned a script filled with smart and sophisticated dialogue and Stanwyck delivered it was brass. The rest of it isn’t quite as dynamic, thanks to the wooden and stiff performance by Capra buddy Graves and the creaky melodrama of the social clash story.

Most importantly, Capra had finally found what would become the bedrock themes of his most memorable films: the plight of everyday Americans in the face of power and money and social censure.

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Meet Frank Capra and His Mad Tea Party

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Hashing out the politics of John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

Continue reading “Meet Frank Capra and His Mad Tea Party”

Ladies of Leisure on TCM

I write on Frank Capra’s first film with Barbara Stanwyck, the early sound film Ladies of Leisure (1930), for Turner Classic Movies. It plays on TCM on Monday, December 21.

Ralph Graves and Barbara Stanwyck
Ralph Graves and Barbara Stanwyck

Frank Capra was the closest thing to a star director that Columbia Pictures had going for it as it moved into the sound era when the studio was still a minor player compared to Hollywood’s five major leaguers. Studio head Harry Cohn made his respect for the director clear when he gave him the screen credit “A Frank Capra Production” on the 1928 film Say It with Sables and other studios were taking notice. Yet, at the dawn of the talkies, Capra was still a rising young director and not a household name yet.

Ladies of Leisure was Capra’s first film of the new decade – he began shooting in January, 1930 – and film critic and Capra biographer Joseph McBride argues that it marked a turning point in Capra’s career. Based on the 1924 play “Ladies of the Evening,” written by Milton Herbert Gropper and produced in Broadway by David Belasco, it dealt with mature subject matter and turned on the clash of social classes in the heart of the depression. It also featured a character endowed with passion, ambition and street smarts, brought to life by an actress whose screen career almost ended before it began.

Read the complete feature here.