Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and TCM’s Frank Capra: The Early Collection, released in 2012, is one of the essential sets released exclusively through TCM. None of the five films were previously available on DVD before it came out and each of them receive stunningly beautiful transfers for movies all over 80 years old. In addition, each is entertaining, showing the evolution of Frank Capra and – just as importantly – the evolution of Barbara Stanwyck.
This set would actually be better titled “The Early Sound Collection,” since Capra had been making films 1922. Ladies of Leisure, from 1930, isn’t even Capra’s first talkie, but it’s a great place to start as it was his first of five films with Stanwyck. (The only movie he made with Stanwyck that’s not in this set is 1941’s Meet John Doe, which is sadly in the public domain.) The movie is a delicious precode story of a rich painter (Ralph Graves) who falls in love with his model (Stanwyck), a female escort. Obviously, his parents don’t approve, but true love must prevail. Aside from Stanwyck’s star-making performance – which is truly remarkable – the film is highlighted by excellent comic relief turns from Lowell Sherman and Marie Prevost. Both are hilarious, but kindhearted when they need to be.
Ladies is also important as the first time Capra worked with writer Jo Swerling. He worked with Capra several times, all the way through It’s A Wonderful Life.
The next film in the set was released only months after Ladies, Rain Or Shine. It’s the only film without Stanwyck and is instead headlined by Joe Cook, who made this and only one other film. Cook, a Vaudeville icon, plays the ringmaster for a financially troubled circus. All the songs from the 1928 musical it is based on were cut, allowing Capra the chance to highlight the drama of running a circus. While some of its comedy routines can slow the film down significantly, it’s actually not that bad. It ends with the first of two fiery climaxes in the set.
The Miracle Woman (1931) was surprisingly my favorite in the set. A major disaster for Capra and Columbia Pictures, the film stars Stanwyck as a preacher’s daughter, who is taken under the wings of a con man (Sam Hardy). However, when she meets a blind songwriter (David Manners of Dracula and The Mummy fame), she has second thoughts. This is where some of Capra’s themes start to come up, with Stanwyck’s character learning the dangers of taking advantage of regular people.
Thankfully, Capra’s next film, Platinum Blonde, was a huge hit and allowed him to keep working. While that film isn’t here, the last two are still brilliant examples of his early work. Forbidden (1932) is a well-acted precode soap where Stanwyck falls in love with dapper Adolphe Menjou, who happens to be married. Ralph Bellamy has a great part as the guy who tries to smarten Stanwyck up. If you only know Bellamy’s work from his screwball appearances, this will be a revelation.
Lastly, there is the crown jewel of the set – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). This is truly a stunning film that should be held up as one of Capra’s greatest works. Stanwyck stars as Megan, who goes to Shanghai to marry her missionary boyfriend. But this is the worst time to get married in China, which is ravaged by civil war. She is captured by rogue warlord General Yen (Nils Asther), but during her time in captivity, she begins to feel attracted to him. It’s an interracial relationship that wouldn’t have been allowed if this was made after the production code was enforced.
The bonus features are standard fare for TCM sets. Each film gets a TCMdb article and stills galleries. Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and Michael Gondry contributed to a few interviews. Historian Jeremy Arnold provides an excellent commentary on Ladies, which is particularly interesting in explaining how Stanwyck and Capra worked. Historian Jeanine Basinger does a commentary on Forbidden. Lastly, the silent international version of Rain or Shine is also here.
Not enough can be said about this great set. It’s a wonderful companion to Sony’s The Premiere Frank Capra Collection, which includes his best-known films from the late-’30s, plus 1932’s American Madness. Definitely one you must own if you have any interest in Capra.