|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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