Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- So, uh, you ever seen a woman in prison movie? Catfights and other assorted nastiness, though nothing as extreme and as crazy sexist as you’d get about thirty years later.
- There’s a nice long scene where our protagonist is introduced to her fellow inmates who have done all manner of cretinous behavior from murder to running a house of ill repute. One introduction is simply a warning: “Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.”
- We get a good look at a lady putting on garters for visiting day.
- This is a line in the film. Say…
“You’re always a few feet away from what you really want– freedom. And men.”
The Particulars of the Picture
Ladies They Talk About: Stanwyck Behind Bars
“Shall I sit down or will I take it easier standing up?”
Once again straying into a new territory where an awful lot of tawdry imitators followed, we have Ladies They Talk About, a ‘women in prison’ film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Set in San Quentin prison, we get to wander through catfights, prison break attempts, and a sadistic warden.
Well, the warden isn’t actually that bad, save for a rather mean cockatoo on her shoulder. If that sounds odd, well, strap on in. For one of the first films of its type, it’s one of the stranger rides you’ll get in Pre-Code.
It doesn’t start that way, as Stanwyck coolly yells murder into a phone. She’s sending the police on a wild goose chase while her compatriots rob a bank. She gets fingered as a mole, and looks to get sent away until preacher David Slade (Foster) shows up.
Both grew up in Benicia, but she was the daughter of a priest and he the son of the town drunk. OH HOW THE POSITIONS HAVE CHANGED. Now Slade, despite his ‘tough on crime’ stance, agrees to help Nan get off the hook, and those dopey looks he keeps digging up have a lot to do with it. All’s going well until she decides in a fit of devotion to admit her guilt to him. She promises to reform; he testifies against her.
This does not sit well with Nan, and she goes to prison, cursing his name. The women’s prison at San Quentin seems like an okay place, though there’s plenty of cattiness to be found. This includes the cry of “New fish!” that arises whenever a new woman steps in.
Nan is escorted around by Linda, who gives her the skinny on each prisoner. One “ground up her finest glassware and put it in Mrs. Banks’ caviar.” She points at another: “Aunt May’s up here for running what she called ‘a beauty parlor’!” Aunt May begins cackling gleefully.
Nan eventually fits in, though she doesn’t enjoy her time in the big house. She’s still hankering for Lefty, the ringleader of the bank heist who keeps promising to visit but never does. He only makes an appearance after two more of their gang are sent to San Quentin; he wants Nan to help break them out.
She agrees to it, even though it’ll add more time to her sentence. Besides smuggling out a copy of the matron’s key, she also gives them a map leading them to her cell. She agrees to play her phonograph while they tunnel their way in.
Yes, she has a phonograph. Her cell is also decorated like it’s in a woman’s dormitory, and the women are pretty unimpeded in their travels around the prison. If everyone didn’t hate each other’s guts and the constant threat of violent wasn’t present, boy, it might almost be fun.
Like, when’s the last women in prison picture you know of that featured a musical number? Now, random musical numbers are nothing unsurprising in the early 30s, but how many of them involve a woman crooning to a picture of Joe E. Brown?
Other weirdness: one extended sequence where one old white dilettante starts berating a black prisoner because she thinks that the woman is her slave. The black woman almost wins the argument until Noonan swoops in with her bird to scare everyone into submission.
Ladies They Talk About may have one of the goofiest endings in all of Pre-Code. Skip past the next picture if you want to save the craziness for yourself.
The escape attempt goes badly, with both of Nan’s friends getting gunned down. Her prison term is extended, and Nan blames her pals’ deaths on David Slade, who she’d ask to deliver a crucial letter for her.
She finally gets out of prison and buys a gun (remember when you could do that on the same day?). Heading into the city, she shows up at Slade’s revival show and corners him in his back office. He’s still head over heals for her, but she’s gone nutsy and shoots him in the arm.
“Oh, David! I didn’t mean to do that!”
Immediately she regrets it, and grabs him. However, the gunshot was overheard, and a police officer enters. They pretend that it was a car backfiring, and Slade assures the officer that him and Nan are getting married. The police officer winks, allowing them to go to the chapel, but slyly warning them that they should probably head to the hospital first to check out that gunshot wound.
It’s a completely goofy (but still charming) ending, that continues the movies themes of being silly as all get out.
Ladies is a fun movie, if not for the strange situations the constituted someone’s idea of 1930 female prison life, than for Stanwyck’s seething performance. She’s always good, and ends up being pretty great here.
Trivia & Links
- The problem with evaluating how accurate this film is (besides that I can’t really find much about prisons of the 1930s on Bing after five minutes of looking) that it’s based on a play by Dorothy Mackaye who had spent 10 months in prison herself.
- Andre Sennwald at the New York Times seems to like it, even if he doesn’t buy it. He praises Stanwyck and Foster but notes that “the story does not permit them many believable moments.”
- Michael Phillips over at Goatdog really likes this one, saying:
Barbara Stanwyck, nee Ruby Stevens, was the best woman in Hollywood at playing hard as nails, or playing someone who is hard as nails in an imitation of softness. My favorite art historian pointed out that there’s something about her that tells the audience, but not her costars, know when she’s just pretending to be contrite or soft. Here, she plays an essentially good person whose strict moral code requires her to buck the law on a few occasions. She’s absolutely stunning, and even if the rest of the film wasn’t any good (although it was), she really made it worth watching. I think I could watch her reading the phone book.
- Reading a couple of reviews I can tell you that this movie is actually fairly unpopular with fans of the “Women in Prison” genre, who reallllly don’t like how old and strange it is. Which is fine since I find people who self identify as big fans of the “Women in Prison” genre reallllly creepy.
- Ladies They Talk About is on DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 5. You can buy it from Amazon or Warner Archive or rent it from Classicflix.