Sunday, January 17, 2010

Frank Capra Marathon #2: 'Ladies of Leisure' (1930)

LADIES OF LEISURE (1930) Columbia Pictures, 100mins.

Frank Capra nearly passed on the then 23 year-old Brooklyn-born actress Barbara Stanwyck in the early production stages of Ladies of Leisure. However, it was a committed husband (Frank Fay) who convinced Capra to take a look at her screen test performed by Alexander Korda of all people, that ended up being the clincher.

Her performance - body and soul - is the stabilizing force in this early sound-era film about Depression-era class structure that fits nicely into Frank Capra's canon of optimistically depicting the life and times of contemporary America. It's very funny and playful when it wants to be, and yet strangely and wrongly overwrought at times.

It's the story of a flirty, dallying gold-digger named Kay Arnold (Stanwyck) hired for $2/day to pose for a portrait hypothetically rendered by a tall, slicked-back and wealthy idealist (Ralph Graves) who is an impeccable judge of character. He wipes away her excessive lipstick with a napkin and implore her to take a similar approach to her character. ("I want to see the real you.") Needless to say, these opposites are bound to attract and our heroine ripe to reform.

Ladies of Leisure works mostly because of Barbara Stanwyck's dynamic expression of emotion throughout. There's a stunning breakfast scene halfway through the film in which Ms. Stanwyck (after an overnight stint at his Manhattan flat) cooks an egg for her sharp-jawed artiste and then can barely contain herself to watch him eat it. Wholeheartedly and unmistakably, she makes us buy into the romance, even when her co-star doesn't.

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