Ladies They Talk About (1933)

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In this early (the first?) women in prison classic, Barbara Stanwyck plays Nan Taylor, a deacon’s daughter who strayed to a life of crime, a lady for whom the lessons of reform school “didn’t take,” and who is now a gangster’s moll caught participating in a bank robbery. When she’s the only one of the gang arrested and denies knowing anything about the heist, she becomes a political football in the battle between evangelist Dave Slade (Preston Foster) whose tough-on-crime stance threatens to unseat the District Attorney. In this small world, it turns out Slade grew up with Nan, remembers her very fondly and tries to bend rules and arrange for her release.

Slade promises to forgive Nan’s past bad behaviour and pledges to love her no matter what she’s done, which prompts her to come clean and confess to her part in the bank robbery. To her surprise, Slade is horrified and sends her to prison for 2 to 5 years. Nan quickly adjusts to to life at the penitentiary, relying on her bravery, resourcefulness and quick wit to make friends and confront enemies. When her gang buddy Don (Lyle Talbot) ends up an inmate on “the other side of the wall,” in the men’s section of San Quentin, Nan tries to help him escape. She suddenly accepts Slade’s peace offerings just so she can use him, and then vows revenge when the breakout is foiled and it looks like Slade is the squealer.

A brief detour now into the lives of some actors that inspired this movie. I wrote an article on the life of character actor Paul Kelly where you can read more about this, but the short version is that he spent time in San Quentin for manslaughter. In a fistfight he killed the husband of Dorothy Mackaye, an actress with whom Kelly was involved at the time and later married. Mackaye was found to have concealed evidence in the case, so she also served time. She wrote a play about her San Quentin experience which was the basis for this movie (its title changed from the original, Women in Prison, to Lady No. 6142 to Betrayed, and finally to Ladies They Talk About).

This movie’s picture of prison is campy, colourful and highly entertaining, thanks to the actors and the details of the community’s quirks and hierarchy. Singer Lillian Roth plays Linda, the prisoner who sees Nan as a sassy kindred spirit, immediately strikes up a close friendship and shows her the layout, where to find more allies and who to avoid (namely the butch inmate who likes to “wrestle”). Maude Eburne plays the brassy, lovable Aunt Maggie, a former madam who now hogs the common area’s rocking chair (“I’ve got a season ticket!”) and keeps an eye out for Linda and Nan’s interests. A formerly well-to-do lady nastily bosses around “her” servant, laundry woman Mustard (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), Ruth Donnelly is one of the nicer matrons whose kindness is exploited by Nan during the escape scheme, and Susie (Dorothy Burgess) is a nasty inmate whose fanatical crush on David Slade remains problematic when both she and Nan are released. The inmates are allowed to decorate their cells as they wish so Nan makes hers frilly and homey and relies on her record player to conceal Don’s tunneling. Linda pins up a photo of Joe E. Brown and serenades it, giving Roth one of two memorable musical moments. The other is getting to hear Etta Moten sing “St. Louis Blues” while Nan writes a letter. 

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Stanwyck makes Nan fascinating, as tough as she is sympathetic, a woman whose hard shell and smart mouth protect a vulnerable and wounded heart. She arrives in prison emotionally defeated, further depressed by the indignity of getting an old rag as her prison uniform, and terrified by the scary scrutiny and hazing she gets as the “new fish.” She later admits to being scared of her first encounter with her fellow inmates, but you’d never know it the way she marches right up to the radio and turns it off at the first sounds of David Slade’s revival meeting broadcast.

Characters’ backgrounds, actions and mistakes say a lot about about hypocrisy, forgiveness and potential. Slade is the son of an alcoholic loser who becomes a famous evangelist with a huge following and considerable political influence. He’s no phony but just when he could alter the course of Nan’s life, he fails to forgive her. Nan is a good girl gone bad with enough conscience and common sense left to feel and do the right thing, and she chooses honesty right when a lie would buy her freedom. Susie hangs on Slade’s every moral teaching and religious lesson but is motivated by jealousy of and hatred for Nan. And the police detective (DeWitt Jennings) who recognizes and arrests Nan, is more her understanding equal than her enemy (“you have your racket and I have mine,” Nan says). He’s the one who ends up making it possible for Nan and Slade to truly forgive each other and be together, when he follows a different law than the one that could put Nan away again.

It’s a redeeming romance and a juicy part for Stanwyck and it’s part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck block of fun hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood– please click here to read all the other posts.

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21 thoughts on “Ladies They Talk About (1933)”

  1. Maude Eburne AND Barbara Stanwyck – you can’t go wrong. I remember thinking (on a gloomy, grey day) that if you really could decorate your cell like in “Ladies They Talk About” then prison couldn’t possibly be all that bad. Those gloomy, grey days will get you every time.

    1. It’s very Martha Stewart-y the way Stanwyck decorates her cell. Kind of a funny picture of prison but is it ever entertaining!

  2. Love the Kelly /Mackaye back ground story to this. And that poster of Stanwyck is awfully provocative! Even the posters had to be toned down once the “code” came in I guess.

    1. I know, I can just see Mackaye walking into the prison as the “celebrity” and getting this same treatment, that’s a fascinating angle to me too. It is provocative and so are the comments and very clear relationships inside the prison! Typical pre-Code daring!

  3. Love the relationships between the women in this film, which are far more interesting than the romance. I didn’t exactly want Nan to stay in prison, but those scenes are so much better!

    1. I agree, the prison part was great fun, perfect combo of story and cast. Not realistic but if you had to stay in prison that would be the one to pick! Thanks!

  4. I’ve seen this a few times but knew very little about the characters that inspired the movie so thanks for all the info.
    I love how Nan is willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants – but it’s ok folks, she’s trying to make life better for herself. That’s pre-code morals for you!

    1. That was a fascinating case (Paul Kelly & Mackaye), the scandal and celebrity trial of the century and yet not many people know about it now. As for the Depression-era woman of limited opportunity, options, they used whatever tool of skill they could! Thanks!

  5. Now…I’ve never been a Stanwyck fan (dunno why, she just rubs me the wrong way), but fun little films of the 1930’s are right in one of my main hunting zones! Not such a big fan of lady prison pics either…but this may be the one! Thanks!

    1. There are a lot of other great actors and characters here for your entertainment so I bet you’d get a kick out of it even if Stany doesn’t impress you, give it a whirl sometime.

  6. I remember enjoying this one – your review brings it all back. Interesting to wonder about whether this was the first women in prison drama, or whether there were any silents on that theme?

  7. I really love this comment: “Stanwyck makes Nan fascinating, as tough as she is sympathetic, a woman whose hard shell and smart mouth protect a vulnerable and wounded heart.” This is one of Stanwyck’s strengths – toughness and vulnerability at the same time.

    Tam

    1. That’s the key isn’t it? she was both tough as nails and so sympathetic, made you ‘get’ her pain and reasons. Thanks!

  8. Hi Kristina. Sorry for the late response. I’ve just returned back to blogging full time after taking a long absence, and have only gotten a chance to read all the entries now. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon with such a great entry. I’ve always enjoyed this film, and you certainly done it justice.

    Also, I’m not sure if you seen the announcement post the other week. I’m hosting another blogathon in April, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/announcing-the-bette-davis-blogathon/

    1. No worries, nice to have you drop by and comment anytime! This is such a fun movie, isn’t it? Early entry in the women in prison genre.
      I will check out the blogathon announcement, and join if I can, thank you!

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