Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When It Rains #1 - Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)

Early Capra can have a heckuva way with space. Take for instance the running gag in 1931's Platinum Blonde with Robert Williams' repeated sarcastic bows to Jean Harlow's butler from various points across the gulf of her mansion; it registers not only as a soft jab towards upper crust convention, but also, in its own way, as an eloquent bursting of the awkward bubble of physically distanced communication via wit. There's something similar at play one year earlier in Ladies of Leisure with Barbara Stanwyck's introduction: after popping a flat, Ralph Graves pulls over to the side of the road on a bridge over water; Stanwyck, in deep space and fancy dress, having just escaped the clutches of an apparently nefarious party yacht (the scenario which has led to her jumping overboard remains unspoken) rows a small boat towards a rickety dock and gets out. "Can I do anything for you?" he shouts from on high. "Yeah, you can look the other way!" she sasses back from the depth of the unbroken shot.

The water theme is played to the hilt during the course of Ladies; like a myth Stanwyck emerges from it in the beginning and attempts to give herself back to it at the end. In between there are too many tears to count, and one remarkable sequence - the most pivotal in the film, I'd say - set against rain that also happens to provide her with the all too rare opportunity to keep dry. A storm forces the hand of Graves' surly painter; having been resistant to Stanwyck's sly charms up to this point, he grudgingly offers her a spare bed to sleep in after a modelling session so that she doesn't have to brave the downpour. Fade to the middle of the night: a restless Stanwyck lies awake, and then Graves, in a concise succession of shots that have the expressive integrity and sharp economy of the barely-in-the-rearview silent cinema, wordlessly exits his room and walks over to place a blanket on the faux-sleeping Stanwyck, leaving her marvelled at this first display of affection.

In addition to any purely ambient function, the rain in this sequence provides a particularly potent erotic charge, the fixed tempo of its patter playing counterpoint to the barely suppressed emotions in play. But then Capra has an extra trick up his sleeve: as the sequence fades to black and both the rain and Stanwyck trail off, we are met at fade in with a very Preston Sturges-esque egg frying in the pan, bubbling and alive in all the ways Stanwyck's visage was, with the frying sound almost a precise rhyme with the rain. The effect is mildly startling and fairly complex, with a pressure-and-release quality that at once preserves the abstract energy built up previously, while also finding for it a very particular expression by couching it in a reciprocal act of domestic ritual - Stanwyck, with an ostentatiously devotional touch, is preparing breakfast for Graves.


Jeff Duncanson said...

This is a film I'm not familiar with, and I will have to check it out.

Good to see you back writing again, Drew!!

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Jeff!