Second looks: Ladies They Talk About (1933)

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Progress has been pretty slow on the Barbara Stanwyck Filmography Project, and part of the problem has been my seeming inability to find Stanwyck’s films that I had already seen before the project began, to re-watch them for review. I’ve been trying to remedy this problem, so I hopped at the chance to re-watch Ladies They Talk About when it popped up on WatchTCM after airing on the channel in November.

The film follows Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck), a gun moll who almost got away with her latest scheme until a cop saw through her disguise and took her in.

David Slade (Preston Foster), a reformist radio host, uses her as an example in his speeches. Of all of the criminals pulling off these heists, why has only one woman been arrested?

Slade arranges a meeting with Nan, where she tries to take advantage of Slade’s attraction to her by asking for his help in getting the charges dropped.

District attorney Walter Simpson (Robert McWade) is skeptical of Nan’s truthfulness when she claims to be innocent and reformed, but he agrees to parole her if Slade will keep an eye on her.

Things go south pretty soon, though, when Nan confesses that she’s not really reformed and Slade decides to turn her in despite his interest in her. Nan is sent to prison for her crimes — San Quentin, to be precise.

(Image via Happy Otter)
(Image via Happy Otter)

Behind bars she meets fellow prisoners Linda (Lillian Roth), Sister Susie (Dorothy Burgess) and Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne). A watchful eye is kept over them by Noonan (Ruth Donnelly), the prison matron.

Nan soon learns that her two former partners, Don and Dutch, have also been arrested and imprisoned. They’re just a wall away, in the men’s section of the same prison. Nan decides to hatch an escape plan for herself and her old buddies.

This pre-code women’s prison drama was directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley. Ladies They Talk About is based on Women in Prison, a play by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles.

I remember enjoying this film a lot when I saw it for the first time a couple of years ago. Who doesn’t love a Stanwyck pre-code? I enjoyed it even more this time around.

Delivering one of her trademark quick-witted, “tough broad” characters, Stanwyck gives a really fantastic performance here. Some of her dialogue is great, like Nan saying that a letter she receives in jail is “probably just an old gas bill” — a great quip due its double meaning, either a literal bill or a letter that’s full of hot air.

(Image via Happy Otter)
(Image via Happy Otter)

The supporting performances are just as good, particularly Roth and Burgess.

Roth gets to play an odd scene where she sings to a picture of Joe E. Brown, putting on a musical performance for her fellow inmates. The scene is a bit drawn out considering the film’s short running time, but it’s an interesting addition to the film, and I wonder what the motivation was for including it. To the studio, it was probably just a chance to publicize the stars who appear in this film in photograph only. To me, it seemed to emphasize the fact that the women are completely disconnected from the outside world. They sit around daydreaming about movie stars because they have very little contact with the people they used to love.

Not everything about the film serves to emphasize the plight of the women, though. The jail itself is almost comically nice. The women are allowed to wear cute pajamas, play music, read mystery novels, fix their hair and decorate their cells. The film offers a touch of realism from the fact that these women are all true criminals, not just wrongfully accused ladies as we sometimes see in prison films, and they are shown doing manual labor… but I have my doubts that the film offers a completely accurate portrayal of the San Quentin women’s block.

Ladies They Talk About is a pretty great watch. It’s got pre-code Stanwyck, a decent level of drama, some great dialogue and a plot that keeps the viewer engaged throughout its tiny, 68-minute running time. Definitely worthy of a watch for fans of prison/crime dramas, or fans of the spectacular lead actress.  The score: 4/5

(Image via Happy Otter)
(Image via Happy Otter)
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