Forbidden (1932 US 83 mins)

Source: Library of Congress Prod Co: Columbia Pictures Dir: Frank Capra Scr: Jo Swerling Phot: Joseph Walker Ed: Maurice Wright

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy, Dorothy Peterson, Thomas Jefferson, Charlotte Henry

The flame of backstreet melodrama may have died out on the modern screen, but Frank Capra’s Forbidden still feels powerfully alive, drawing its energy from the glowing 25 year-old Barbara Stanwyck and the director’s response to her. At the time, the project was an admittedly crass attempt to ape Back Street itself, Fanny Hurst’s best-selling novel, before John M. Stahl’s more elaborate version at Universal hit the screen. Capra won the race even though production on Forbidden was suspended for six months while Stanwyck and Columbia boss Harry Cohn settled a salary dispute.

One of the first stars created in the talkie era, Stanwyck now looks the most modern and least affected of her contemporaries imported from Broadway for their expertise with dialogue (“actors popped out of the ground like crocuses in April”, in one contemporary Hollywood observer’s words) (1). If Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930) made her a star, the fast-moving Forbidden – Columbia Pictures’ top moneymaker for 1932 – consolidated her popularity. For the first time Stanwyck’s talent expanded to fill an entire movie, thanks to Capra’s fresh staging and the gathering intensity that rode over its plot improbabilities.

Judging from the marked intimacy evoked on the screen, star and director clearly were working with more than professional affection. Though Stanwyck was still wedded to the pathologically jealous vaudeville comic Frank Fay, Capra admits that he proposed marriage while shooting Forbidden (or shortly afterward) and was rejected. While no primary evidence proves that they were lovers, and he soon married another woman, the emotional undercurrents pulse unmistakably through Forbidden.

They were to work together later in Meet John Doe (1941), but the four films Capra and Stanwyck made at the ambitious but penny-pinching Columbia Pictures arguably made them Poverty Row’s mirror image of Paramount’s more posh collaborators, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Unwittingly matching each other film for film, both couples turned out parallel narratives of headlong commitment to love, with Dietrich proving it by trekking into the desert (Morocco, 1930) and Stanwyck by leaping off an ocean liner (Ladies of Leisure). Both also portrayed a woman as the two-faced agent of higher powers (Sternberg’s Dishonored, 1931 vs. Capra’s The Miracle Woman, 1931), produced erotic chinoiserie (Shanghai Express, 1932 vs. The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933) and tried tarnished lady dramatics (Blonde Venus, 1933 vs. Forbidden). Still, for all the sympathetic echoes, Capra’s stance remains more democratic than Sternberg’s rueful concentration on feminine sexuality as the currency for negotiating power (and his breezy dialogue and observational sense of humour lack Sternberg’s bitter edge).

Capra’s notoriously untrustworthy autobiography, The Name Above the Title, complains that while some “critics moistened their reviews with tears, most burned them with acid” (2), and yet, in fact, reviewers variously called Forbidden “breathtakingly beautiful” (New York Evening Journal), “handled in most excellent fashion” (Motion Picture Herald), and notable for its “distinguished directorial treatment” (New York Evening Graphic) (3). Variety found it “replete with good workmanship, some laughs, pathos… an interesting tale well played”, although cautioning that “the film doesn’t start to move until the third reel. But after that it never lets go.” (4)

The New York Times was the exception, deeming it “a cumbersome effort at story-telling”, but no other reviewer produced a more succinct plot summary: Forbidden “has a barking tabloid city editor, a suave District Attorney and an attractive girl, who loves the District Attorney, but weds the barking city editor as a noble act” (5). One loves her, one likes her, but what this bare bones synopsis misses is the film’s resolute concentration (unique in Capra’s films) on the viewpoint and emotions of his heroine. Lulu Smith finds herself caught between two flawed men (not unlike Stanwyck herself flanked by Fay and Capra), yet when Lulu marries it is for strategy not passion.

At first a severely-coiffed small-town librarian with a strong case of romantic spring fever, Lulu resolves to cash in her savings for a makeover, a glamorous wardrobe and a cruise to Havana. Her newly marcelled hair, white fox furs and clinging evening gowns attract Bob Grover, an ambitious politician, who immediately fulfills her romantic dreams by telling her, “I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met”. Capra uses the mirroring of gestures as a recurrent expression of sexual attraction: in the whirl of the dance floor and the Cuban casino, the infatuated Lulu playfully mirrors Grover’s movements. Later, in a flirtation at the newspaper office, Lulu and the city editor, Holland, mirror each other eating apples, but when he throws his apple core at the raggedly-dressed office boy, she impulsively flings hers at Holland.

Notwithstanding his reputation as a champion of the plainspoken but starry-eyed little guy, Capra acknowledges none of the forces separating the modest librarian from the careerist politico and his patrician spouse: no class barriers or the bourgeois drive for respectability, not even any seepage from Forbidden‘s traumatic historical moment, the lowest point of the Great Depression. Still, the detailed studio production, lavishly populated with extras, anticipates Capra’s populist parables to come. When Lulu requests a table for one, the entire cruise ship community notes that she is alone: all, from waiters and band members to dining patrons, react collectively, like Capra’s bus passengers singing together in It Happened One Night (1934) or the entire town rescuing James Stewart in his financial crisis in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

The Capra visual imprint, as described by Jean-Pierre Coursodon (6), comes in “romantic moods and dreamlike atmospheres, resulting in a profusion of glossy textures, halos, shimmering lights, milky whites on jet-black backgrounds”. Cinematography pioneer Joseph Walker, Capra’s visual collaborator on 20 films, employs the pearlescent diffusion and shallow focus of the silent period for his glamorously lit close-ups of Stanwyck, exquisite things in themselves but popping out from the natural soft-edged look used elsewhere. An extraordinary lyrical interlude is composed in eye-of-god long shots as the lovers gallop their horses through silvery moonlit surf, reflecting the reckless freedom they will lose when her pregnancy forces their relationship to change. (During production, Stanwyck was thrown by the horse and knocked out, waking up with two sprained legs and a permanent back injury, forcing her to travel from Forbidden‘s set to the hospital to spend every night in traction).

Their liaison resumes on dry land in the film’s most famous sequence, where Lulu and Grover don Halloween masks that externalise what Ray Carney calls “the deceits and false identities in which each has indulged” (7). They mime a fanciful silent tableau of counterfeit domesticity, elaborately playacting traditional husband and wife roles forbidden them in reality. Grover confesses not only that he is married (with divorce an impossibility), but that he has even been using a false name with her. Deeply offended and angry, she breaks with him before she can tell him that she is carrying his child. (Later, after Grover is elected governor, he and Lulu again mime what they cannot express openly, silently modelling the public celebration they must repress).

In the maternity ward, Lulu calls herself Jane Doe and refuses to see the baby, turning away in shame and thus enacting an established trope of the genre.

The mother’s first reaction to the birth of her child is to reject him (Helen Hayes in [The Sin of] Madelon Claudet, Barbara Stanwyck in Forbidden, Ann Harding in Gallant Lady); she then accepts him briefly, then realizes that her single state can only lead the upbringing process to failure. (8)

Nonetheless, Lulu’s priorities are clear when she names the child “Roberta” after her lover “Bob”.

While unwed mother dramas date back to Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920), with Lillian Gish clutching her infant while driven onto the ice floes, Forbidden belongs to a subgenre that could be termed the “phantom mother” plot. The template was pioneered in Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925), wherein the self-sacrificing star gives up her child to a surrogate mother who can provide greater social opportunities (9). Though relinquishing her child seems uneasily motivated in the film, Stanwyck’s Lulu otherwise actively models independence – in the course of the movie Lulu builds her own career with four different jobs, all responsible ones – while actively insisting on her rights. Capra’s story assumes her freedom to do as she likes with her body, a less moralistic position than found among rival tearjerkers with stoically suffering heroines, such as The Sin of Madelon Claudet (Edgar Selwyn, 1931).

In one intense and strikingly conceived shot, part of a staircase scene that shows the lovers’ reconciliation, Capra pares down the image to the barest necessities to fix completely on Lulu’s responses. Pointing his camera through the imprisoning bars of the banister, he lets Grover’s back and shoulder hulk across half the frame, obscuring Stanwyck until we see only one of her eyes. Light, focus and compositional lines all converge there, concentrating attention on the shining expression of her happiness, a graceful modern correlative of the old-fashioned iris shot, while equally depicting her entrapment in a romantic ideal, an early suggestion of the more sophisticated images of confinement and freedom in the melodramas of Sirk and Minnelli.

As Andrew Sarris has observed, “The obligatory scene in most Capra films is the confession of folly in the most public manner possible” (10). In Forbidden, the torrent of feeling begins in a cab and moves to a park bench in the driving rain, where Grover accuses himself of cowardice and hypocrisy: “I’ve taken your life almost as if I’m a murderer”. Yet this scene marks a turning point where Lulu’s answer betrays a disturbing masochism: “Your honors have been my honors”. As Grover, dapper sophisticate Adolphe Menjou (suave stand-in for Sternberg opposite Dietrich in Morocco) cannot be faulted. In fact, both silent veteran Menjou and Broadway import Ralph Bellamy (as the rowdy newsman Holland, a role inexplicably intended for the cultivated Leslie Howard) look uncommonly energised under Capra’s guidance, perhaps too much so in the case of Bellamy, whose leading man drive here overwhelms his more amiable big lug persona from The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) and His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940).

As Grover’s ascent to public office turns their relationship increasingly clandestine, Lulu pursues her own work, writing a lovelorn advice column where she encourages readers to take a chance on love. To protect her lover from the muckraking newsman, Lulu proposes to Holland in a delicately played scene, but the moral tension snaps when Holland finds proof of the adultery. Now husband and wife, they struggle and the new bride shoots him through a closed door, the bullets splintering the wood (thus neatly mediating the threatening image of a highly aggressive initiative by a female). Capra’s backlighting sculpts an iconic bad girl image: the murderess in black lace, caught with a bloodied lip and a still smoking gun.

Looking for consistent psychology, Pauline Kael cannot swallow the narrative improbabilities which render the heroine “unbelievably sacrificial over a span of twenty years, and despite Barbara Stanwyck’s amazingly unaffected, straightforward performance, most of the picture is lifeless. . . the picture moves along so efficiently that it doesn’t seem maudlin. It just seems a little crazy” (11). On a naturalistic level, Forbidden certainly suffers some unpredictable tonal changes, partly due to its theatrical ellipses, narrative seams that keep the audience off-balance, scrambling to deduce what has transpired between scenes. Yet the film’s disparate elements unite in Capra’s intense involvement with his characters as they reach emotional plateaus. Ray Carney calls Forbidden a “dream” film about “the hunger, the desires that both [Bob] and Lulu feel within themselves. That defines a reality for them greater than any aggregation of nominally realistic facts or events . . . it cannot be dismissed or criticized as a mere failure of cinematic ‘realism’.” (12)

At the enigmatic conclusion, instead of rewarding the heroine for her self-sacrifice with a noble resolution, or massaging the audience with sentimental pathos, Capra boldly pursues a downbeat ending. Stanwyck walks down the street with the document that publicly recognizes her child and promises her Grover’s fortune, and hardly has she torn it up and thrown it in the garbage than she is absorbed into the crowd without a trace, but with mysterious finality. No transcendent ending, no consoling fantasy to offset the daily rigours of the Great Depression, but one critic sees that the “pessimism of Forbidden is almost unique: the final action of Barbara Stanwyck tearing up the will … is not an ultimate sacrifice, but an act of revolt and refusal” (13). Has life beaten down her illusions or has it fulfilled them? Is her life over without her man? Or has Lulu stayed uncompromisingly true to herself, a feminist heroine with this last supremely romantic gesture?


  1. Maurice L. Ahern, “Hollywood Horizons”, Commonweal, 21 May 1930, reprinted in Gerald Mast (ed.), The Movies in Our Midst, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1982, p. 308.
  2. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title, MacMillan, New York, 1971, p. 134.
  3. All three quotes appear in a newspaper advertisement for Forbidden in the Motion Picture Herald, January 16, 1932.
  4. Review by “Sid” in Variety, 9 January 1932.
  5. Mordaunt Hall, “An Unfortunate Mother”, The New York Times, January 11 1932, 28:5.
  6. Jean-Pierre Coursodon (with Pierre Sauvage), American Directors, Vol. 1, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1983, p. 48.
  7. Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986, p. 180.
  8. Christian Viviani, “Who is Without Sin: The Maternal Melodrama in American Film, 1930-1939”, originally published as “Qui est sans péché: Le mélo maternel dans le cinéma américain, 1930-39” in Pour une histoire du melodrama au cinema, Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, no. 28. Translated by Dolores Burdick in Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 2 (1980), reprinted in Marcia Landy (ed.), Imitations of Life, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1991, p. 178.
  9. See also Madame X (Lionel Barrymore, 1929), The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), and To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1946), down through Susan Slade (Delmer Daves, 1961) until the circle closes with two remakes of Madame X (David Lowell Rich, 1966, and Robert Ellis Miller, 1981).
  10. Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 354.
  11. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1982, pp. 193-194.
  12. Carney, p. 183.
  13. Viviani, p. 179.

About The Author

Robert Keser teaches film at National-Louis University in Chicago, and is Associate Editor of Bright Lights Film Journal. His previous CTEQ Annotations include Edvard Munch, The Exile, Forbidden, Police, and Westfront 1918.

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