Listen, don’t think you can walk in here and take over this joint. There’s lots of big sharks in here that just live on fresh fish like you.Susie (Dorothy Burgess), Ladies They Talk About
On the silver screen of the 1930s, beauty and talent counted for some but personality was worth a lot more. Lucky Barbara Stanwyck had all three – and how! One of the most quintessential actresses of the Pre-Code era, Stanwyck could be both tough-as-nails and vulnerable at the same time, as showcased in two of her best movies from this time period, Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933). In both movies, Stanwyck plays the “good bad girl”, a term coined by Henry James Forman in his 1933 book Our Movie-Made Children to describe a leading female character who combines “sweetness” with “loose morals”.
If there were any doubts that Depression-era audiences adored the “good bad girl”, the trailer for Ladies They Talk About casts them aside, exclaiming:
Men called her BEAUTIFUL! Women called her BAD! Police called her DANGEROUS! You’ll call her WONDERFUL!
Released on February 4th, 1933 and starring Stanwyck as Nan, a “beautiful gun moll” who helps rob a bank and gets sent to the slammer, Ladies They Talk About was Warner Bros’ feminine take on the prison film, a genre that was incredibly popular in the early 1930s. In 1932, Warner Bros. released the hard hitting classics I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, although both movies were predated by RKO Radio Pictures’ Hell’s Highway (released in September of that year; Fugitive followed in November and Sing Sing in December). The success of Ladies They Talk About encouraged Warner Bros. to do for the gangster flick what Ladies did for the prison movie, with the surprisingly feminist Blondie Johnson (1933), starring Joan Blondell as an organized crime boss.
Pre-Code Hollywood loved gangsters and the feeling was reciprocated. The infamous Bonnie Parker adored the movies and, like many poor and working class girls of her time, saw in them a way out of drudgery and poverty. In March 1930, Parker hid a gun under her dress to help her boyfriend Clyde Barrow escape from jail. It was April of 1933 however when the two bank robbing love birds became household names: when authorities investigated the Barrow gang’s hideout, they found rolls of unprocessed film containing posed images of the couple that were soon splashed across newspapers nationwide. It was the photos of Bonnie that captured the public’s imagination the most: tight sweater, gun at her hip, cigar wedged between her lips: women like this had only ever existed in the movies. Until now. Did Bonnie see Ladies They Talk About and was she influenced by it? It’s certainly plausible.
Ladies They Talk About is not the first “women in prison” movie – predated by Chicago (1927) and Ladies of the Big House (1931) – but it is the earliest most archetypal film of the genre. The movie is based on the play Women in Prison written by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles. (Mackaye herself spent ten months in San Quentin State Prison for felony conspiracy after she falsely denied being romantically involved with the man who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of her husband.)
An orchestral arrangement of “Saint Louis Blues” plays over the film’s opening credits; most famously recorded by the great Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1925, “Saint Louis Blues” would become a staple of Pre-Code movies – a theme song for its “good bad girls”; misunderstood and abandoned women whose sexual desire is at the root of their loneliness, making it feel like an appropriate song choice for a women’s prison movie.
Although it opens with a bank robbery, the fun only really starts when Nan is sent to the slammer and is taken under the wing of Linda (Lillian Roth, who is full on adorable here) who offers to show her the ropes. “Out here you’re in a few feet of the two things you want most but you’re always a few feet away,” Linda explains during a stroll through the prison yard. “Freedom. And men.” She introduces Nan to the other inmates and here Ladies They Talk About displays the kind of diversity that in 1930’s Hollywood films could only be found in the prison movie genre. We are informed that the bow-tie wearing, cigar smoking Helen Dickson “likes to wrestle” (wink, wink) and that the fifty-something Aunt Maggie (character actress Maude Eburne) watches over the girls because it makes her “feel at home” (she used to run a brothel). Black actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan gives a memorable performance as an inmate who works in the laundry room and refuses to be bossed around by a white society lady (who herself is in jail for grinding up “the finest glassware” into an enemy’s caviar). When Sul-Te-Wan stands up to her, the bullying society dowager threatens to call the prison matron. “Call her!” Sul-Te-Wan replies. “I’m not afraid of nobody in this jail. I’m doing life and that’s all I got!”
A working class Black woman standing up to a wealthy white woman and refusing to take her sh*t is not something you usually see in a 1930’s movie. But the powerful subversion of this scene is unfortunately demolished by a racist stereotype when the prison guard shows up with a parrot on her shoulder and Sul-Te-Wan’s character runs away in horror, terrified of the bird.
Ladies They Talk About lacks the gritty realism of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a film noted for its pull-no-punches portrayal of the violence and inhumanity of the prison system. By contrast, the prison in Ladies has a hair salon and a green house – the chain gang this is not. There are numerous “Pre-Code peep show” shots of inmates dressing and undressing, snapping on stockings – according to this film, 1930’s women’s prisons were not short of sexy lingerie. Yes, it’s more than a little campy. There are two subplots involving Nan trying to help her fellow gang members escape from the men’s prison while falling in love with a moral reformer (how does she win his heart? By shooting him in the arm!). The romance between criminal and moral reformer is not unusual to Pre-Code movies and it makes one think about the relationship between the film studios and the real life moral reformers that they were both battling and trying to appease.
One of my favorite lines in the film is when Nan says to a police detective “You have your racket and I have mine.” The copper laughs in agreement. This scene could never be shown in a Code-era film as it goes against the Code’s rule that “law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed.”
Ladies They Talk About showcases fine performances by some of the best women character actors in Hollywood at the time, as well as a dazzling turn by the inimitable Stanwyck. It is nicely lit and while it lacks the realism of its male centered predecessors, it is not as exploitive as the “girls behind bars” movies that would flood the drive-ins in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Ladies They Talk About would make a great “good bad girl” double bill with Baby Face (1933).
Written by Heather Babcock, 2022