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.
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.