SPOTLIGHT: Sizzling Pre-Code Stanwyck (X)

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)

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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.


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.

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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.

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