Columbia Pictures
Frank Capra/United States 1932

Forbidden is the dark horse among Frank Capra’s films. Dismissed in his autobiography as a social drama, Forbidden has been ignored in his major retrospectives despite its role as an early starring vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Viewed from a modern perspective, the film fascinates on several different levels, both as an excellent example of early Hollywood melodrama (The hats! The banter! The evening gowns!) and a pre-Hays Code issue film.

The question: To what forbidden thing does the title refer? Was it that the heroine falls in love with a married man? Is it her wish for independence rather than the conventional role of wife? Is it that she chose to give up her child rather than damage her lover’s career?

Lulu Smith (Stanwyck) walks away from her library job and cashes in her savings for a two-week cruise to Havana with all the trimmings. After politician Robert Grover (Adolphe Menjou) mistakenly passes out in her stateroom, they begin a whirlwind romance. However, Lulu soon learns that not only is Robert married, but she is pregnant. She throws Robert out, keeps the child, and joins the local muckraking newspaper. Her editor Al Holland (Ralph Bellamy) is in love with her.

Robert tracks her down. As they begin their rapprochement, Al – who has a vendetta against Robert – sees them together with their daughter. They are forced to pretend that Lulu is the nanny and Robert has adopted the toddler.

Filmmakers used to have a lot more faith in their audiences. Nothing is spelled out in this film. In the childbirth scene, Lulu refuses to see her baby and gives her name only as Jane Doe. The montage of Robert’s political triumphs, illustrated with publicity photos of his daughter, is actually a scrapbook Lulu keeps. Only Lulu’s wit and body language keep Al at bay over the years, but not so far away that he loses interest. (Incidentally, why was Bellamy’s onscreen failure to get the girl allowed to become a cinematic running joke? In this film, he oozes charm in a way unmatched by Hollywood’s current crop of character actors.)

While Lulu works as a file clerk at the newspaper, she teases Al for a promotion until he gives her the lonely-hearts column. In Capra’s world, women are only truly fulfilled when they create things, whether a newspaper column or a child. But if Lulu were truly fulfilled as a mother, would she have given up her daughter? Or was sacrificing her relationship with her child the only way she could keep the man she loved?

Wrestling with how a working mother can find fulfillment without being forced to choose between her career and her children is still a relevant topic today – therefore so is Forbidden. This print has recently been remastered: I hope Forbidden will gain wider distribution and become recognized as the fine film it is, rather than simply an early example of an important director’s attempts at developing his style.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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