“You’re poison to me. Poison. I wish I’d never met you!”
The Frank Capra pre-code film Forbidden examines a love affair between a single career girl and a politician. Yes, the story of the backstreet love affair has been done a million times, but there are nice little complications to Forbidden that elevate this drama from the mediocre. And of course, it does star Barbara Stanwyck….
The film begins with librarian, Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) deciding on a whim (and infected with spring fever) to cash in her savings and take a cruise to Havana. In the library, she’s a spectacled frump complete with a bun, but once aboard ship, she’s dressed in a full-length evening gown, fur stole and glittery jewelry, but she’s still noticeably alone–a fact that confounds the ship’s crew.
Lulu meets and promptly falls in love with another solitary passenger, Bob (Adolphe Menjou). Nicknaming each other 66 and 99 (after the numbers of their cabins), Bob and Lulu spend the entire time together–both on the cruise ship and later in Cuba’s nightclubs. Their love affair is light and devil-may-care. Any serious discussion is deliberately avoided–although at one point Lulu does drop a broad suggestion about skipping the homeward bound ship and staying in Havana.
But Lulu and Bob return to their old lives. She begins working at a newspaper office where she attracts the interest of Holland (Ralph Bellamy), but Lulu makes it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile Bob’s continuing relationship with Lulu is marginalized into the odd stolen hour, and in spite of the fact he’s a lawyer, Lulu never sees his name in the paper. Eventually of course, Bob reveals he’s married and cannot divorce his wife. Lulu is content to take crumbs but circumstances drive the couple apart.
Forbidden traces the relationship between Bob and Lulu over several decades. Bob’s political career soars while Lulu remains in the background, and she sacrifices again and again–career, relationships, motherhood–these issues are sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s home and career. Forbidden explores the oppositional forces of selfishness and selflessness through their relationship. At first, Bob and Lulu think of themselves and their desires, but then Bob shifts and suddenly he has to protect his wife, Helen (Dorothy Peterson) due to her ‘invalidism’. His argument against a divorce to protect his wife also rather conveniently ensures the continuance of his political career. The film doesn’t explore Bob’s motives a great deal, but the tantalizing possibility that Bob uses his wife as an excuse to protect his political ambition is evident.
Forbidden is a film that can generate a lot of intriguing discussions, and I suspect many of us would have different opinions about the characters, their motives, and just how selfish or unselfish they really are.
The film makes it clear that Lulu and Bob both very deftly avoid any discussion of their lives when they first meet. In fact at one point, Bob seems (in retrospect) on the verge of confession, when Lulu stops him. Later, Bob’s late night visits must also rouse Lulu’s suspicions but once again she avoids confronting the truth until she’s forced to. This conspiracy of silence extends beyond the lovebirds and even includes Bob’s wife. During one scene in the film, Bob’s wife is about to take off for Europe for a ‘cure,’ and she gives Bob carte blanche to do as he pleases, telling him:
“While I’m away, I want you to have a good time and I won’t ask any questions either.”
So it seems that Bob and Lulu’s affair will be ignored by the missus just as long as he keeps it under wraps. So we have a mistress who’d rather not know about the wife, and a wife who’d rather not know about the mistress. And what of Bob? He has his proverbial cake and eats it too. At one point, Bob rather lamely tells Lulu: “why I’ve taken your life almost as though I’d been a murderer,” and in another scene, he whines (rather unconvincingly, I thought) about how difficult his life is.
Then there’s the question of Holland. He’s every bit as ambitious as Bob, but his goal as newspaper editor is to ruin Bob’s career, and so Holland digs hard and deep for a scandal. Lulu uses Holland, and yet Holland uses Lulu too. So basically we see these four adults in twisted relationships that are a bizarre combination of selfishness and selflessness, and by the time the film ends the results of these relationships are disastrous and destructive.
Forbidden is a really interesting early pre-code vehicle for Stanwyck. The drama steers clear of hysteria and too much melodrama. The weepy bits are well done and conducted with beautiful touches–my favourite scene is when Bob runs after Lulu in the rain. Catch the moment when the rain drips from Bob’s hat. It’s a magnificent touch.