Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation 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 featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933). Today…
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
A lady bank robber becomes the cell block boss after she’s sent to prison. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Preston S. Foster, Lyle Talbot, Dorothy Burgess and Lillian Roth. Screenplay by Brown Holmes and William McGrath and Sidney Sutherland. Based on a play by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles. Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley.
“Nan Taylor is arrested after acting as a decoy during a bank robbery. David Slade, a radio evangelist who has been calling publicly for tougher prosecution of criminals, recognizes Nan as a former classmate whose father was the deacon in the town where Slade’s father was the town drunk. Taking advantage of his obvious attraction to her, Nan protests her innocence and begs for his help. Walter Simpson, the district attorney, agrees to parole her to Slade’s care, although he is skeptical about her claims. When she confesses to Slade that she actually was involved in the robbery, however, Slade withdraws his support and Nan is sentenced to prison. In prison, she refuses to see Slade despite his frequent pleas, thereby attracting the hatred of fellow prisoner Susie, who is jealous of Slade’s interest in Nan.
“After Nan learns that Don and Dutch, members of her gang, have been arrested, she agrees to see Slade in order to further their escape plans. She slips a letter into Slade’s pocket which contains vital information about the plot, and through no fault of Slade’s, the letter falls into the hands of the police and the escape fails. Nan’s parole is denied because of her part in the crime, during which both Don and Dutch were killed. She believes that Slade betrayed her, so when she is finally released, she hunts him down, intending to kill him. Pretending to be sorry for her crimes, she meets with him privately, and then shoots him. Instantly remorseful, she apologizes, and when the police arrive, Slade tells them that he and Nan are getting married.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Prison was never made to look more enjoyable than in this marvelously raunchy and obviously Pre-Code motion picture about a deacon’s daughter turned bank robber who is sent to prison when her reformer beau learns of her criminal participation. Finally — this is the Barbara Stanwyck for which we’ve been waiting. She’s a hard, tough, smart-mouthed Pre-Code heroine whose morals are questionable, but, because of her sheer vitality and uncomplicated motivations, earns our respect, sympathy, and emotional investment. In other words, we’re rooting for Stanwyck’s character, even though we know she’s not a good girl. In fact, we relish in her badness. Thus, it’s a fantastic Pre-Coder, especially for the representation of women, who, unlike the men, are afforded complex characterizations and the opportunity to imbue the film with fun.
And the prison scenes are easily the most amusing and unique, as Stanwyck’s character goes from being a “new fish” to ingratiating herself with an assortment of seedy gals including a deranged madame, a cigar-smoking lesbian, and Lillian Roth as her crooning bestie. Each role is supremely well cast, and they give Stanwyck a lot of color off which she can play. (And speaking of color, it’s interesting to note the integration in the prison, and those accompanying dynamics that the film briefly incorporates.) These are undoubtedly the most interesting scenes, as the depiction of the San Quentin prison seems more like a sorority house than anything else. Unfortunately, in this, the middle part of the picture, we sort of lose the story, which only re-enters after several memorable, but ultimately tangental scenes that exist, I suppose, to establish the tone and the setting.
Yet this temporary loss of story isn’t exactly a disappointment, for the unbelievably unrealistic premise is the film’s biggest obstacle, forcing the proceedings to leave the realm of melodrama and become camp. (Actually, this is a welcome shift, especially for audiences of today.) While the interactions Stanwyck has with Talbot and her gang members are fascinating, it’s difficult to really root for the character to get her man, Preston S. Foster — even though she wants him — because the narrative makes him out to be an antagonist. And furthermore, he’s a thinly drawn antagonist. Thus, it’s exhilarating when she shoots him in revenge, and not so satisfying when they reconcile. However, it’s impossible to deny how perfect this ending is, for Stanwyck never loses her edge, even committing another crime, and doesn’t get punished. This is the modern film, and we’re meeting the modern woman — who does “bad” things, but is still worthy of a happy ending. Powerful message, and a lot of fun. Highly recommended to all.
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!