The three leads, the snappy dialogue by Jo Swerling, and impeccable direction by Frank Capra make “Forbidden” (1932) one of the most interesting films of the pre-Code era. Daring for the time, it is melodramatic without being simpering. The story of a woman who has a decades-long affair with a married man, bears his child and eventually gives their daughter to him and his wife to raise could be a soppy moralistic mess, but Barbara Stanwyck, Aldophe Menjou, and Ralph Bellamy make their characters believable, equally decent and imperfect.
Stanwyck is introduced to us as an “old maid,” the victim of condescending town gossip. She blows up, declaring she would like to “set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burns.” She has no real big dreams, only wants life on her own terms.
Menjou plays her married lover. Their scenes are delightfully playful, and Stanwyck forms that intense bond with her principle partner that she seems to do in many of her films. Even though she will later marry Bellamy’s character, there is a thin psychological barrier she creates between them, never letting us forget who it is she really loves.
Bellamy is the newspaper reporter who hounds Menjou throughout his political career. Sometimes labeled as a portrayer of somewhat boring character roles, this role really shows his range. He is charming, pushy, intelligent, a little bit obnoxious, and fascinating to watch for the danger he unknowingly represents to Stanwyck.
Stanwyck’s fallen woman is multi-dimensional, and her ability to play a scene on so many emotional levels is especially evident in this film. The look on her stunned face as the society ladies and Menjou’s wife fuss over the child she has given up, shows she is only just realizing the mistake she has made.
Years later, when Menjou, sickened by living a lie, wants to confess their relationship to his wife and to the public, Stanwyck heads him off by breaking up and marrying Bellamy. In an electrifying scene over a cozy dinner table, Bellamy puts before her the documented proof he has of her affair with Menjou. He is calculating, but he is not just a newshound out to ruin a politician. Angry and hurt, he has become a jealous husband. A few moments later, after he pushes her away and bloodies her face, she shoots him, and continues to fire into his already dead body, and burns the documents. Capra has constructed a masterful scene. Stanwyck, still holding the gun, stands trembling in shock, her expressionless eyes riveted to the fire, as we hear Menjou making his acceptance speech on the radio for the governor’s race, and the police pounding at the door.
Even her last sacrifice in the film, when she destroys the dying Menjou’s written confession and naming her as a beneficiary in his will, we see Stanwyck not really as a noble, selfless woman, but as a person who aches to control her own life. She is the same willful woman who stomped out of her library job years before. When the camera pulls back, we see her walk the city streets and we lose her in the crowd. In fact, we may not even know her any better than we did at the beginning of the film. The movie comes to its conclusion, yet you still find yourself wondering what could happen next.
That’s all for this week. See you Monday.