Welcome to a new Film Friday and the launch of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only covered one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). Today we’re kicking off our series with…
Ladies Of Leisure (1930)
A wealthy artist faces family pressure when he falls for a model with a past. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves, Lowell Sherman, and Marie Prevost. Based on the play by David Belasco and Milton Herbert Gropper. Dialogue and adaptation by Jo Swerling. Directed by Frank Capra.
“Jeff Strong, the artistic son of a railroad magnate, walks out of his own party when he begins to feel alienated from the revelers. While driving along the waterfront, Jerry sees the bedraggled figure of a woman rowing a boat and stops to offer her a ride back to town. The woman, Kay Arnold, a call girl, tells Jerry that she has also escaped from a party and promptly falls asleep on his shoulder. As she sleeps, Jerry envisions her as the embodiment of his painting “Hope,” and offers her a job as his model. The next day at his studio, Jerry begins to argue with Kay about her artificial and hardened appearance when his fiancée, Claire Collins, and his friend, Bill Standish, arrive. Bill finds Kay attractive just the way she is, and invites her to accompany him to Havana, but Kay has fallen in love with Jerry and begins to mold herself to please him. Soon frustrated by Jerry’s constant criticisms, she lashes out at him, but later that evening she finally strikes the pose that he wants, and he paints into the night.
“When Kay collapses from exhaustion, Jerry insists that she sleep on his sofa, but the two spend a wakeful night of longing for each other. The next morning, Kay and Jerry are on the verge of declaring their love for each other when Mr. Strong appears and orders his son to stop seeing Kay. When Jerry refuses to follow his father’s orders, Mr. Strong threatens to disown him. Disregarding his father’s threat, Jerry decides to marry Kay and move to Arizona, but before they can leave, Mrs. Strong visits Kay and begs her to give Jerry up. Mrs. Strong’s emotional plea touches Kay, and she agrees to forsake Jerry, then makes plans to go to Havana with Bill. As Kay leaves with Bill, her roommate, Dot Lamar, runs to tell Jerry that his mother has driven Kay away. Because the elevator man will not let her go up to Jerry’s apartment unannounced, and cannot announce her because Jerry is on the phone, Dot must run up the twenty flights of stairs to his penthouse. By the time the overweight Dot arrives at Jerry’s penthouse, Kay’s ship has sailed, and Kay has decided to end her life by plunging into the icy water. After she jumps, however, she is rescued by a tugboat and awakens to find Jerry at her bedside.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Yes, here’s another story centered around a prostitute. But, for a nice change of pace, the story’s drama does not come from the leading lady’s fear of her love interest finding out about her chosen profession; rather, she tells him flat out during their first meeting. This is, after all, Barbara Stanwyck, one of the Pre-Code era’s best actresses, perfecting a deliciously modern ‘no B.S.’ style that avoids melodrama and seeks honesty in every performance — no matter how the film decides her character will function in the narrative. Ladies Of Leisure is perhaps the first picture in which Stanwyck really comes into her own as an actress, and she’s, without a doubt, the film’s greatest asset. Every scene she has plays with genuine truth and an unmistakable WOW factor. She’s a dynamic performer, and this picture is only the beginning.
Unfortunately, the film has little else to recommend by way of the performances (aside from the kooky Marie Prevost as Stanwyck’s best gal pal). The film’s biggest liability is Ralph Graves, who is particularly disappointing as Stanwyck’s love interest, playing his role as the emotionally conflicted artist with all the excitement of a block of wood. He has no chemistry with his leading lady, and their scenes lack spark. As electric as Stanywck manages to be, it is really a surprise — given how little her scene partner gives her with which to work. However, while Stanwyck remains Ladies Of Leisure‘s crowned jewel, the film is also blessed with the direction of Frank Capra, who no doubt helped bring about this noteworthy performance from his star. But Capra’s direction also enlivens the sometimes dull script by giving his audience several memorable moments of visual excellence. One of the most memorable sequences is the rainy tension filled-night that our love interests spend NOT together. And yet, it’s evocatively romantic.
But, as mentioned above, the script isn’t great, and both Stanwyck and Capra clearly had their work cut out for them. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between a weak script and a faulty performance (as in the case of Graves), but even in the scenes in which he doesn’t appear, the story is poorly paced. The stakes are irrelevant, and the picture lacks momentum. Little action happens within the first 90 minutes, only to speed up to a potentially melodramatic climax in a strange and hardly warranted final reel. It’s not triumphant storytelling; and neither an esteemed director or an unrivaled star can atone for the screenplay’s shortcomings. So, I can’t recommend the film to all Pre-Code lovers. Ladies Of Leisure is only for the Barbara Stanwyck devotees, for they will certainly enjoy her performance.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!