Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
Oh, the plight of the naive young woman inexperienced in matters of romance who falls for the attentions of the wrong man. In Forbidden (1932), Barbara Stanwyck plays a meek and unglamourous librarian who is so straight laced and predictable, the whole town knows she would only be late for work if there was a wedding going on. she’s known for stopping at such events to stare longingly and daydream it is her special day. However, on this spring day, when the world’s thoughts turn to romance, Stanwyck snaps and shocks them all, saying she’d love to set fire to the town and smash the library. She withdraws her savings and declares she’s off to find life and love. On a cruise she indeed reinvents herself, but it takes her a few lonely nights before she finds romance, in the form of a drunken Adolphe Menjou sprawled on her bed. He’s wandered into the wrong cabin, mistaking his 6’s for his 9’s, and thus begins a heated, bumpy romance that spans decades and changes more lives than just the couple’s.
Stanwyck will soon discover that Menjou is a married man, to an invalid no less, to whom he feels responsible since it was his driving that crippled her. Stanwyck throws him out of her apartment but he remains in her heart. He doesn’t know that she’s pregnant with his child, and she goes into hiding. She also leaves her job and Ralph Bellamy, the nice man and fellow employee at the newspaper. Years pass before Menjou, now District Attorney, uses his resources to find her, while Bellamy, now the paper’s editor, is on a mission to bring down the corrupt Menjou before he becomes Governor. One chance meeting between the three, and one small lie to get out of an awkward situation, snowballs into a nightmare where Stanwyck must give up her daughter to be “adopted” by Menjou and his wife. By the time all our characters are wrinkled and gray, their truth finally comes out, at which point it proves more explosive and dangerous than ever.
Director Frank Capra, who also wrote the story, includes many creative twists and touches to show us the fun of fantasy romance, the way it goes bad, and the nature and the effects of a minefield of heartache and deception. When Stanwyck spends her second evening alone on the cruise, the dining room staff express shock at her still needing a “table for one…/ One!?” which is followed by their satisfied smiles when she returns with Menjou on her arm asking for a table for two! The lightness continues on the couple’s Havana vacation, with horseback rides along the windswept beach; it’s something right out of a dating service commercial, and a real comedown when we’re back in the real world of noisy newsrooms, cramped apartments and endless complications. I liked the bookend of Stanwyck and Menjou meeting when he’s lying in a bed. I also liked the effect Capra uses when Menjou finds Stanwyck after years of searching; they embrace on the staircase and it’s shot so that you only see Menjou’s back and her eyes through the bannister, and it doesn’t change even when her daughter calls out from an upper floor. Capra could have shown us the full faces and reactions of both actors, but this way we see Stanwyck’s feelings from behind “bars.” She knows she’s in a new sort of trap or prison when Menjou comes back into her life, but her eyes reveal she never stopped loving him. I like the plot twist that has Stanwyck going back to work for Bellamy and taking the job of advice columnist, dispensing tips to the lovelorn and reading stack of letters full of the problems and pains of women just like her.
I love Ralph Bellamy in this role, where he’s anything but the goofy and bashful second banana. Here he’s sharp, insistent, confrontational, imposing, but sweet, playful, caring and fun to Stanwyck. He gets people’s attention by chucking apples at their heads (“what’s an apple core for, anyway?!”), and always goes into attack mode when it comes to Menjou, who he loves to taunt, insult and threaten. Bellamy keeps proposing to Stanwyck, and his comeback to her repeated rejections is a whopper, even by Pre-Code standards: “the longer they NO, the harder they YES.” Unfortunately, even though Bellamy is no milquetoast in this film, he does spend his life pining over the woman he comes to realize will never love him back, and when he finally uncovers her secret, the revelation comes with devastating results.
Menjou spreads the charm and flattery on thick when he first meets Stanwyck, and presses harder when he sees how susceptible the girl is to the new-to-her experience of romantic attention. At first it’s hard to say whether the game of conquest or actual attraction motivates him, but he soon displays a very real affection. In showing us he can’t live without her, Menjou becomes a fuller character, sympathetic even when he manages to do the most damage to her life. In an early scene, she has once again made a joke of Bellamy’s proposal, and Menjou feels bad, conveying full awareness and pangs of guilt over the demands his love makes on her, the way she’s letting real love pass her by, and how much it would hurt to lose her. He brings a couple masks which they put on and take off as the sequence unfolds and moves toward Menjou’s revelation that he’s married. Those masks, as well as the playacting of “Strange Interlude,” show us what an incomplete image Menjou has presented of himself as well as Stanwyck’s willingness to play along with it.
Stanwyck is of course wonderful, beginning as a frustrated four-eyed wallflower who stares at fictional lovers on a library poster, to dolling herself up in furs and jewels and falling head over heels in love, to riding out the ups and down of a lifetime of pain, sacrifice, deprivation and rage. As she’s falling for Menjou, she wants no part of reality, preferring instead to call him by his room number, 99, and ask silly questions about his character, even when he offers to reveal more concrete and disappointing details. She must sense this romance is too good to be true and as long as she treats it like one of the storybooks in her library, or like the Cinderella tale she tells, she avoids letting cold, hard reality intrude. Stanwyck shows us an interesting mixture of a realist craving fantasy. She has touching scenes as she watches her daughter taken away from her and claimed by her “new parents” after which she walks away and almost goes mad with grief. Yet try as she might to break from Menjou, she knows she’s his everything, and always returns to heal his broken heart. She was so good at those little loaded glances and big seething stares, at showing us the effort of keeping years of pressure and pain contained and unspoken until the times the fury all boils over. Forbidden is the story of a couple that deeply loved each other, but by choosing the fun and the fantasy over the responsibility of reality, they created a lifetime of emotional and physical wreckage.
Forbidden is on TCM Monday, May 18. Now go see which Pre-Code Karen has picked for you to watch this month.