Pre-Code Crazy: Ladies They Talk About (1933)
Because Barbara Stanwyck, that’s why. Super-sassy, pulling no punches (literally!), name-above-the-title Barbara Stanwyck.
Just to sweeten the pot, the cast of this gem includes Lyle Talbot (always a plus in my book), Ruth Donnelly, Dorothy Burgess, Lillian Roth, and Maude Eburne. And if that isn’t enough for you, that sultry pre-Code standard, “St. Louis Blues,” is featured in the film not once, but twice – bonus!
What’s it all about?
The film opens with a close-up of a sharply dressed, blonde by the name of Nan Taylor (Stanwyck), earnestly telephoning for police: “There’s a man running wild here, with a butcher knife, stabbing people!” she reports. But as she hangs up the receiver, her oh-so-sincere visage transforms into one soaked in cynicism and contempt, and we know in an instant that we ain’t dealing with no ordinary dame.
Turns out that Nan is a member of a motley crew of hoods, and her telephone call was the opening volley in their plot to knock off a local bank. Once her call successfully leads the cops on a wild goose chase, Nan not only charms the bank security guard into opening up early, paving the way for her pals to come in, but she cleverly prevents the guard from reaching for his gun and later distracts him by faux-fainting into his arms. The guys get away with the loot, but unfortunately for Nan, the detective on the scene remembers her from previous illegal exploits: “For a dumb dick, you have a memory like an elephant,” she grouses.
Enter David Slade (Preston Foster), a crusading radio evangelist, who happens to hail from Nan’s hometown – she was a deacon’s daughter and he was the son of the town drunk. Believing Nan when she insists on her innocence, Slade arranges for her to be released into his care. But before Slade can sign the papers, Nan has an attack of conscience and confesses her role in the stick-up, leading the highly moral Slade to withdraw his sponsorship. And Nan’s honesty is repaid with a two-to-five year stretch in the slammer.
And that’s when the movie really gets going!
What’s my favorite scene?
I love the scene that introduces us – and Nan – to the prison population. Our first glimpse of the goings-on comes courtesy of old-timer “Aunt Maggie” (Maude Eberne), who has just discovered that her favorite chair is being occupied by a fellow inmate – one who happens to speak not a word of English. Aunt Maggie first tells the other prisoner to scram (“I’ve got a season’s ticket for this chair, and it’s got three years to go!”), and then she physically evicts her, punctuating the action with a swift kick to the rear. Before she stalks away, the woman lets out a barrage of Spanish, complete with gestures, prompting Aunt Maggie to nod as if she understands every word and respond, “Well, if you do, you’ll clean it up yourself!” Minutes later, as Nan enters the large common room for the first time, cries of “New fish!” fill the room. Like those old E.F. Hutton commercials (or are you too young to remember those?), everyone stops what they’re doing to give her the once-over – every eye in the joint looks her up and down as she passes through the crowd. Nan maintains a demeanor of unflappable calm – until she hears the upcoming program of David Slade announced on the radio and angrily shuts off the sound. This raises the ire of Susie (Dorothy Burgess), an inmate who is notorious for her zeal over “Brother Slade.” Susie confronts Nan, warning her that “there’s a lot of big sharks in here that just live on fresh fish like you.” And when she learns that Nan had come close to being released into Slade’s care, Susie spits that “there isn’t any punishment bad enough for you.” Nan isn’t fazed. “Yeah?” she rejoins. “Well, being pinned up here with a daffodil like you comes awful close.”
(Honorable mention for the scene where a black inmate named “Mustard” is confronted by a fellow prisoner about doing her laundry. “I promised to wash your drawers if you’d give me some bleaching crème and hair straightenin’,” Mustard tells her. “Until I gets ‘em, you don’t get no drawers!”)
Who sez my favorite quote?
When Nan first enters prison, she’s befriended by Linda, who takes Nan under her wing and shows her the ropes, introducing her to key players in the prison. One of the women Nan meets is Blondie. “This little cream puff met a guy at a diner one night and wanted to know what his name was,” Linda shares. “So she shot him and read it in the morning paper.”
Linda is played by Lillian Roth, a singer whose decades-long battle with alcoholism was described in her book, I’ll Cry Tomorrow. The book was later made into a film, with Susan Hayward portraying Roth. (Incidentally, Ladies manages to make time for Roth to warble “If I Could Be With You,” which she sings to a picture of wide-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown.)
The screenplay for the picture was written by actress Dorothy Mackaye. In the late 1920s, Mackaye became involved with actor Paul Kelly (seen in such films as Crossfire and The File on Thelma Jordon), even though she was married at the time to musical comedy star Ray Raymond. After several months, the love triangle reached a fever pitch when Raymond suffered fatal injuries following a fist fight with Kelly. Kelly was arrested on suspicion of murder and Mackaye was charged with compounding a felony in seeking to conceal circumstances surrounding Raymond’s death. Both Kelly and Mackaye were convicted; Kelly served a little over two years in prison, and Mackaye was released after serving 10 months. Based on her experiences, Mackaye wrote a play, Women in Prison, that later became Ladies They Talk About. It was remade in 1942 as Lady Gangster, starring Faye Emerson. (Incidentally Mackaye and Kelly married in 1931, but Mackaye was killed less than a decade later in a car accident.)
In a scene where Nan is alone in her room, penning a letter to one of the members of her gang, we hear an inmate singing “St. Louis Blues” off screen. The song was sung by Etta Moten, who was seen that year in Flying Down to Rio and Golddiggers of 1933, where she sang “Remember My Forgotten Man.” George Gershwin reportedly wrote the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess with Moten in mind, and she was the first black star of the stage and screen to sing at the White House; she was invited there by the Roosevelts in the early 1930s.
Ladies They Talk About airs November 3rd on TCM. Do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.
Barbara Stanwyck. That’s all I’m sayin’.
Don’t forget to visit Speakeasy to check out this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick from Kristina, my partner in pre-Code crime!