|Kay Arnold …
|Ralph Graves …
|Bill Standish …
|Dot Lamar …
|Claire Collins …
|Mrs. Strong …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Yes, we have Barbara Stanwyck in a bathtub, please hold your applause until the end of the review.
- The film is based on a stage play that was titled “Ladies of the Evening”, though in the retitling the characters get an upgrade from being ladies of the evening to the classier sounding ‘escorts’ who happen to spend a lot of late nights with married men for a living.
- Near the end of the film we see two lady friends kiss on the lips.
- Self righteous suicide attempt.
- Dot Lamar (Marie Provost) is constantly poked fun at for her girth, and because she won’t stop eating. We later see her exercise:
Ladies of Leisure: Bad Girl Makes Good
“Brother, that’s my racket– I’m a party girl.”
The thing I love most about Frank Capra’s films is how cohesive they are. The man’s pictures have a singular viewpoint that take his ideas and see how they reverberate on his selected characters. He doesn’t shy away from the humanity of the people he’s portraying in melodrama, and he isn’t afraid to poke at classism even when he’s creating his lightest comedies. He’s a craftsman, too, using sound and visuals in ways that few others tried
Take, for example, the opening of this film, an incongruous sequence where we see drunken revelers tossing bottles off alcohol off the top of a building in front of an idyllic penthouse. The rich are, as usual, essentially shitting on the poor.
The revelers at the party are more than a bit hectic, and we see drunkard Bill taking requests for paintings to be made on the bare backs of beautiful ladies. The only abstainer from this chaos is Ralph Graves, who happens to the be tenant of this penthouse. His wealthy parents have provided it to him, though he most decidedly would rather be a painter. Like a lot of faux bohemians, he envies the lower class in everything but their hunger.
Feeling particularly stick-in-the-muddy, Graves departs for a late night drive out to the suburbs. When he gets a flat, he pulls to the side of the road, only to witness a sole woman rowing her boat on a lake nearby. After observing her fixing her dress, he offers to give her a ride back to the city.
This is a predictably world weary woman named Kay, who has just escaped a party much like the one Graves had been attending, has the running mascara and broken strap on her dress to prove it. She’s worried that he’ll try to make fresh with her, but is surprised the next morning when she arrives home after napping during their trip unmolested.
Graves for his part is also impressed by Kay, who didn’t lift his wallet when the opportunity was clearly present to her. He invites her to be a model for one of his paintings, one he’s tentatively titled ‘Hope’ and portrays Kay majestically staring off into the stars. Only she can’t get the look quite right: she can’t see past the ceiling.
It’s a battle of the wills, a Pygmalion/Cinderella sort of ditty where Kay slowly transforms from trodden working girl to sterling example of morality, while Graves snaps out of his upper class stupor and begins to treat Kay as a human.
Along the way there are small battles and fights. Graves’ upper crust fiancee, Claire, pushes against Kay repeatedly. His parents are also against their courtship, especially considering that a lady of leisure isn’t the best wife you can ask for for your son. Ralph’s drunkard pal, Bill, takes a different sort of interest for Kay, taking good long looks whenever she lets him. And Kay’s best friend and co-worker Dot helps by being a confidant to Kay, even explaining that she can have her cake and eat it too– as long as there are two cakes.
The tipping point for the action is when, after a romantic interlude up in his garden, Kay finally looks at the stars in exactly the manner that Ralph wants her to. They end up staying up until three posing and painting, and when Kay is too tired to return home, she sleeps on his couch.
This is the moment where Capra lays it on thick. The two undress in parallel; will Ralph take advantage of Kay? Will he confess his love, or prove to be just like every other man and use the opportunity to take advantage of her without her consent?
Well, if you’ve made it this long, Ralph ain’t a jerk, and Kay is thrilled when a late night visit from him is merely to deliver an extra blanket on the rainy night. Capra effuses all of this with a steamy sense of eroticism crossed with quiet unease. At breakfast the next morning, both are forced to confess their feelings after Kay’s attempt to break the tension by tossing toast in her mouth grows incredibly pathetic.
His parents aren’t fans of this turn of events, and as is required in this plot, Mrs. Strong is deemed to come in and explain to Kay that a marriage to her son would ruin his reputation and by extension his faux bohemian life. Kay acquiesces, despite Dot’s best objections, and decides to run away to Cuba with Bill. Dot rushes to get Ralph, but will she make it in time?
It’s almost inconsequential, actually, in the way it plays out. Capra’s deft hand actually brings some tension to this tired story, though even his many skills aren’t enough to save the film. Clunky with a number of early talkie foibles, the film was made a few years before the technology behind it could be used flawlessly. As it is, there are plenty of bad models, bad dubbing, and bad acting.
Chief among those in that last category is leading man Jerry Strong, who has the presence of a concrete brick. His failure to add any subtlety to his role is to the film’s severe detriment, making the love affair one sided.
It helps that Capra seems to know this as well, as most of the film comes from Kay’s reactions and emotional turmoil. Stanwyck, in her fourth role, is molded perfectly here, exhibiting all of the toughness and tenderness that she would demonstrate time and time again over the next fifty years. This performance is a great success on both of their behalfs.
The supporting cast is also quite delightful, with Bill and Dot being silly but human in their needs and beliefs. Bill’s carnality and Dot’s cravings make for nice background gags, and both payoff wonderfully in an era where foreshadowing was rarely employed. Ralph’s parents even get bits of humanity to them as well, showing that they’re not needlessly cruel, but only desperate for their son to come around to their point of view.
Ladies of Leisure comes from a lot of similar stories from that era, and could almost be seen as a combo between Shopworn and The Song of Songs, both about a woman fallen from grace being rescued by love. This story was popular with Depression-era audiences because of the transgressive nature of the love affair, where wealth and love were only a few steps away from the hellhole you were trapped in. This is pretty much underline and bolded as soon as Ralph starts molding Kay into representing ‘Hope’, which, after some growth, she does.
The film’s craft helps set it above others. The literate script by Jo Swerling plays with viewpoints and characters, avoiding stagey complications often. He imbues the tragedy with some ironies; Ralph’s family’s last name of Strong would seem to be a misnomer here, much like in the completely unrelated film Christopher Strong; rather than being a representative of strength, they are weak and scared.
I wish I liked this movie more, and the commentary track on the DVD can help with its appreciation, but it’s such an old story that I’ve seen done better elsewhere. The film also sags in its 100 minute run time, often reemphasizing points its made before without a need to. All things considered, Stanwyck shines, and Capra has got some great moves, but both went on to do much better.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- This movie is Barbara Stanwyck’s breakout role, and widely regarded as the one that made her a star. She would go on to work with Capra four more times after this, including The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and Forbidden.
- If you get this from the Capra collection, the movie comes with a commentary track from film historian Jeremy Arnold. He’s a little monotone and there are a couple of long pauses, but he makes some great points about how Capra used sound differently than most other filmmakers of the time. You can tell he has a deep appreciation for the director, and the track did make me like the movie a bit more.
- If you’re ever interested and if you can find it, there is a silent version of this film that was distributed to theaters that hadn’t been upgraded to handle talkies. Presumably, it’s less wordy.
- The cast for the film is interesting because the two male leads actually went on to doing more distinguished things behind the camera. Leading man Ralph Graves would go onto write a dozen screenplays, including the pre-Code Loretta Young classic Born to be Bad. Lowell Sherman, the drunk sidekick, was a mildly prolific director. He directed Born to be Bad as well as Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong and another infamous pre-Code The Greeks Had a Word For Them.
- Movie Classics has a good review. I liked this observation:
When Kay turns up to model for Jerry, he insists on taking off her brassy make-up – this is a powerful scene, as it is both him showing his mastery over her and him stripping away her mask to find what is underneath all the defences she has built up. It’s also intimate because it involves him touching her – but, despite this, it becomes clear that, at first anyway, he isn’t really interested in her as a woman and doesn’t see her as anything more than an element in his painting. He offers to buy her a dress, but she indignantly asserts her independence by buying it herself.
- I don’t know if I have to point it out, but there were two things that bugged me throughout the film: Kay’s hairstyle is awful, and Ralph can’t paint worth a damn. Not deal breakers (and that latter one may be on purpose to again highlight how pathetic the guy is), but they’re just little things that drove me nuts.
- The indispensable Movie Diva goes into detail about the film’s background and making. I thought this part was interesting:
Capra had never worked with sophisticated dialogue…at the dawn of talking pictures, who had? The script for Ladies of Leisure was courtesy of Jo Swerling, one of the hoards of newspapermen who went Hollywood after The Jazz Singer hit. Swerling threw out many (but unfortunately not all) of the sentimental “weeper” elements and added jazzy lingo and a hard-boiled attitude. Elizabeth Kendall points out that the heroine is a new kind of Cinderella. “Kay is no slum flower: she’s an opportunist. Living off men is her job. Swerling’s script has given her a cynicism that is surprisingly gritty even to us today.”
- Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times really digs this one, and has more than a few nice things to say about it:
The fact remains that the photoplay is a searching portrayal of a type of metropolitan girl known as a “gold-digger” and stands quite alone for its amusing dialogue, the restrained performances of nearly all the players and a general lightness of handling hat commends the direction of Frank Capra.
- The article for the TCMdb touches on a number of things that others have hit, but also mentions an interesting tidbit. Capra’s initial meeting with Stanwyck went poorly, and he wasn’t going to cast her until her then-husband, Frank Fay, gave him her screen test. Capra was bowled over, and gave her her role here, which made her a star. As it turns out, the test, which was a scene Stanwyck did from the play “The Noose”, was directed by Alexander Korda, who would later become one of the most preeminent English film producers of the time. Ladies of Leisure‘s success ensured Stanwyck’s stardom for a long time.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available in the Early Frank Capra Collection via Amazon and TCM, and can be rented from Classicflix.
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brianpaige · July 26, 2013 at 3:27 pm
The thing that strikes me about Capra’s early talkies is how crisp they look. Ladies of Leisure is hardly a tedious 1930 flick when seen today (neither is Rain or Shine, another 1930 Capra outing that isn’t especially pre code). I can see why you would be indifferent…I’d probably go with a mild like on it.
I liked Graves better in some of the action flicks he did for Capra. Flight and Dirigible are fun stuff.
Danny · July 26, 2013 at 10:59 pm
Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard about Graves. I think this is probably the weakest of the Capra pre-Codes I’ve seen, just because the plot is a bit flabby and Graves doesn’t really bring it as a romantic lead. But it looks great– Capra had some great cinematographers, and his fluid movements show that the transition to sound (it’s astounding that this is 1930) didn’t hold back every director.
Marsha Collock · July 27, 2013 at 4:59 pm
Thoroughly enjoyed your post – in fact, I really love your page – beautifully done.
Danny · July 27, 2013 at 10:37 pm
Thanks, I appreciate it!
Judy · August 1, 2013 at 8:13 am
Danny, I hadn’t remembered Ralph’s paintings being weak (well, I hadn’t remembered his paintings at all, which pretty much bears out your comments). I think I liked the film overall more than you did, but anyway we are agreed on the fine supporting cast and the great look of the film – looking at your shot of Stanwyck in front of the window, it reminds me a bit of the stills of her in front of the lion’s cage in ‘The Miracle Woman’. Thanks very much for the kind plug, and for all the food for thought here.
Danny · August 2, 2013 at 8:17 am
That’s an excellent observation there. I think this is one I found more interesting than engaging, because it’s technically well made, but I think the film’s subtleties were too subtle for me. And, as always, thank you back for all your excellent writing!
Jandy · August 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm
I watched this on TCM a few months ago (when they had their Barbara Stanwyck month, which also happened to be when my cable started cutting out all the time and we didn’t have time to be home for them to come fix it, which was SO IRRITATING, but I digress), and I was pretty much where you are, except I was even more maddened by Ralph’s character. Here’s my brief Letterboxd review from the time:
“I was really hoping to like this film – I mean, Frank Capra/Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Code? What’s not to like? Well, the story has Stanwyck as a call girl who gets picked up by a painter to be his model. She inexplicably falls for him even though he treats her like crap, until he finally does a complete 180 and decides he loves her too and is willing to give up his society family to marry her. It’s completely unbelievable, and even worse, Stanwyck’s character basically loses any shred of self-esteem she might’ve otherwise had in subservience to this jerkwad. Part of the problem is really stiff acting on the part of the guy playing the painter, but most of it is the writing. All that said, there are still glimmers of enjoyment in the film. Even though I dislike most of the script choices for Stanwyck’s character, she sells it with all she’s got, and her couple of big emotional scenes are golden taken out of context (i.e., if you can manage to forget what a worthless guy she’s mooning over, they’re great). The best friend played by Marie Prevost is a ton of fun, too. And Capra has already figured out how to make Stanwyck shine visually in their first collaboration – the pinlights in her eyes are perfection, and there’s a backlit scene of her undressing that, well…let’s just say this is why Pre-Codes exist.”
Argh, I was so pissed off by the end of the movie, at Ralph and at her for mewling to Ralph. I wanted better for Babs! Marie Prevost though – total win.
Danny · August 5, 2013 at 8:43 pm
Thanks for chiming in Jandy. I think there’s a narrative weakness coming from the fact that we never get into Graves’ head. His change is too sudden, too convenient for modern audiences to buy. I think Capra realized this too to a degree, since his next few Stanwyck pictures, Bitter Tea and Miracle Woman in particular, do a better job of making the men just as deep and passionate as Babs could be.
And, yeah, Prevost was awesome. Definitely going to look out for her in the future.
filmfanatic2 · April 18, 2014 at 1:32 am
Am coming to this review somewhat late, but have to say I always enjoy your thoughts and stills on Pre-Code titles. Thanks! (Sylvia at FilmFanatic.org).
P.S. Yes, he’s a terrible painter (like you said, probably intentional), and yes, her hairdo is simply awful.
Danny · April 18, 2014 at 5:53 pm
Thanks for coming by, Sylvia! I hit your site pretty often myself and always enjoy it. Thank you for the kind words!
Jon · August 21, 2014 at 5:18 am
Firstly, LOVE your site. I’ve been a fan of silents and very early talkies ever since I grew up watching early 1930’s RKO films on AMC (not to date myself), and it’s nice to finally see some comprehensive analyses of them and not feel so alone with liking this time period.
I have to say that Ralph Graves just doesn’t do it at all for me. His acting struck me as so limp in this film, and watching Flight from 1929 recently didn’t make me think any better of him. When he is “off the cuff” he is slightly goofy in a pleasant way, but that’s his only merit (to me). Otherwise, I end up rooting against him, seriously. Can’t imagine why Capra banked on him from ’28-’31 as a lead. Lowell Sherman was much more interesting, and I wish that he could have been integrated into the film more. He’s so decadent and worldly.
(Not so) Fun fact: the scene where the percolator is brewing in this film stirred me into an interest in 1920’s/early 1930’s percolators. No idea why, but it happened, and I now have several that are in great working condition.
Danny · August 27, 2014 at 3:02 pm
Thanks for coming by, Jon, and I know what you mean about Ralph Graves. Uh, not so much on the percolators, but, hey, whatever floats your boat! 🙂
J.R.D. · May 27, 2016 at 9:05 am
I just watched this movie a few days ago and have to agree that Ralph Graves acting is almost horrid! He just really brings nothing to his character. I wonder if a Robert Montgomery type would have been a better choice.
As for Marie Provost, I’ve seen her in a few movies and have to admit, I really love her characters. She comes across as fresh and genuine. She was great in “Three Wise Girls” with Jean Harlow and Mae Clark. So sad to hear of her tragic ending.
Barbara Stanwyck jut blows me away in these early 30’s movies. I grew up knowing her from The Big Valley and a few other notable movies she did in the 40’s (“Double Indemnity” and “Sorry Wrong Number”) but had no idea or knowledge of her movies from the pre-code era. Such a fantastic actress.
I just can’t get enough of these 30’s and early 40’s movies. I feel that Hollywood was at their best and the stable of actors that the studios had blow anything or anyone from the last 30 years away. Thank God we have TCM and some channels that show these gems. They just never lose their appeal.
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