Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)

I haven’t had much time for blogging lately, even for the shorter postings I keep vaguely promising – but here are a few thoughts on another Capra pre-Code melodrama, again starring Barbara Stanwyck as a fish out of water. This is said to be the movie which made her a star. Here she is working-class “party girl” Kay Arnold (though it is made fairly explicit that this is a euphemism, like “escort”) who is impulsively picked up by artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) to use as a model. She soon falls in love with him, but it seems as if it is impossible to get away from her past or bridge the huge social divide between them.

Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed her scenes with her character’s best friend, fellow escort Dot, played by silent film star Marie Prevost. The two have a humorous relationship but definitely care about each other – and Prevost has a great scene late in the film where she runs up several flights of stairs to try to save the day for her friend.  Graves is somewhat outshone by these two, plus a scene-stealing Lowell Sherman as his drunken best friend,  but he does have a fair amount of chemistry with Stanwyck. (Sherman is a comic drunk in this, just a couple of years before his devastating role as a tragic drunk in What Price Hollywood?)

Barbara Stanwyck, Lowell Sherman and Ralph Graves

Sadly, this film isn’t on DVD, although at the moment it is available to watch on YT in a good quality print. (I have read that a shorter silent cut of the movie, made for cinemas which weren’t yet equipped for sound, did get a video release, but I haven’t come across this version.) Although this early talkie was made in 1930, it doesn’t have the static quality of many films from this period, which is a tribute to Capra’s skill as a director – and the cinematography by Joseph Walker is excellent, with many dark, moody and rainswept scenes along the way.

I seem to keep coming across films which are based around versions of the Pygmalion theme, with a man taking up a woman from a poorer background to mould into something different – then falling in love with the part of her he didn’t manage to change. All the different versions of A Star Is Born have elements of this, and I suppose you could see Capra’s Meet John Doe as a version with the sexes switched round, where Barbara Stanwyck takes up and uses a half-starved Gary Cooper for a newspaper stunt, though in that film she is short of money too. Come to think of it, his comedy Platinum Blonde is another one which reverses the roles – but, anyway, in films with this theme it is more often the man who has the upper hand, not surprisingly.

Barbara Stanwyck and Marie Prevost

Ladies of Leisure is adapted from a stage play by Milton Herbert Gropper which had the title Ladies of the Evening, but, even in the pre-Code period it was felt this was a bit strong for the screen. However, it is clear enough that Stanwyck’s character has been working as a prostitute – in one scene another character almost says so, but she interrupts, pleading “Don’t say it.” Capra himself wrote the first draft, which was then reworked by Jo Swerling, who also scripted many of Capra’s other films, and who probably contributed a lot of the sharp dialogue.

Graves’ character, Jerry, is the son of a rich businessman, but is resisting going into business himself and trying to make it as a painter. In the opening scene he is fed up with a society party thrown by his shallow fiancee, Claire (Juliette Compton), drinks too much and makes his escape. He gives a lift to Kay,  who falls asleep on his shoulder as he drives – despite his drunken state, they arrive safely at their destination and he goes on to hire Kay as his model, because he has glimpsed something in her which he sees as ideal for his portait of “Hope”.

I was interested to see that the way the central couple meet in this film is rather similar to the way the rich boy and poor girl (another Kay) are thrown together in William A Wellman’s 1930s comedy-drama Small Town Girl. In both films, drink loosens the wealthy young man’s inhibitions. However, also in both films, when the man sobers up he re-assumes the air of superiority that he was born to. When Kay turns up to model for Jerry, he insists on taking off her brassy make-up – this is a powerful scene, as it is both him showing his mastery over her and him stripping away her mask to find what is underneath all the defences she has built up. It’s also intimate because it involves him touching her – but, despite this, it becomes clear that, at first anyway, he isn’t really interested in her as a woman and doesn’t see her as anything more than an element in his painting. He offers to buy her a dress, but she indignantly asserts her independence by buying it herself.

Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Graves

There are painful scenes where Kay hungrily watches Jerry with the snobbish Claire, trying to remodel herself to fit into this other world, but being ignored, almost feeling as if she is invisible. Eventually, after staying late in the evening to model, she snaps and forces Jerry to look at her, insisting “I’m a human being!” Many Pygmalion-style movies have scenes like this one, where the artist/master is forced to realise that the woman he is ordering about has a life of her own.  Eventually the couple do fall in love, after a night where she is forced to stay at the studio because of torrential rain. However, while Jerry insists that their relationship can work, Kay knows that his parents and his society will not accept her.

I discuss the ending in this next bit.

A confrontation between Kay and Jerry’s mother, played by Nance O’Neill, should really be the film’s climax but to me doesn’t work very well because O’Neill’s style of acting is much more old-fashioned and stiff than that of anyone else in the film. This clash of styles may be partly intentional, showing what different worlds the two women live in, but the scene feels artificial and overwrought, with Mrs Strong sentimentally sighing over Kay’s heartbreak even as she urges her to give up her lover.

The final minutes of the film plunge deep into melodrama, as Kay decides to flee Jerry in order to save him from the degradation of a life with her, and nobly goes back to her old life, accepting an offer from Bill to accompany him to Havana and setting off on a boat with him. She intends to get so drunk that she doesn’t care what happens to her, but instead makes a suicide attempt, jumping from the boat. This leads to a sort of happy dream/rebirth ending where she recovers in hospital with Jerry at her bedside and he insists that everything will now be all right and she mustn’t worry about his parents. I know that several Capra films have failed suicides in them, including of course It’s A Wonderful Life, and it will  be interesting to compare these as I look at more of his movies in the future.

17 thoughts on “Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)

  1. Judy,

    I believe this film has popped up on TCM here in the States but I have yet to see it, which is sad because Stanwyck ranks up there as one of my top favorite actresses. Terrific and informative review of a film I will now have to look out for next time it shows up in Turner. Thanks!


    • Thanks very much, John – even online it looks like a good print, so I had a feeling it had probably been shown on TCM in the US. I love Stanwyck too! Hope you get to see it some time.


  2. This has been shown on TCM over here. I tried to watch it a couple years back, but couldn’t get into it. It struck me as one of Capra’s weaker films, but I do always love to see a great actor Stanwyck work her magic.


    • I do tend to go for melodramas and films from this period, so it was right up my street even if not one of Capra’s greatest. Thanks for commenting, Jason, and totally agree with you about Stanwyck!


  3. This is a truly interesting posting on this movie, Judy. Much thought here for your readers to mull over. I suggested the “wacky-girl persuades strait-laced young man” of the validity of her non-conformist ways — in private — is an archetypal movie trope in my last blog (Ellen & Jim have a blog, 2); but perhaps the Pygmalion is so much more prevalent and has so many permutations, such as mature man educates & raises in class young girl (a paradigm at the heart of the Poldarks, but also all male tutor-female pupil stories). I found painful — and realistic — the working out where the young woman repeats how the man is “too good” for her That reading is found in other paradigms too. But it’s a back-handed approach to hidden injuries; more frontal is the assertion “I’m human too,” the sense she is not valued for real, somehow seen as not quite human. This excoriation has its varieties in class distinctions today.

    Probably I might find the melodrama too over-wrought so am grateful to learn about these movies which I do not have time, money or patience to seek out.



    • Thank you very much for commenting, Ellen – sorry to be slow in replying but I’ve had a somewhat frantic time at work over the last few days.

      I will go over and have a look at your posting about the wacky girl/strait-laced young man, which I agree turns up all over the place – in fact there is an element of that in this movie, and in a way I suppose it is the flip side of the Pygmalion story, as the woman educates the man too – they create each other, so to speak. As soon as I spot one of these paradigms it seems to turn up in every film I see! Thanks again for your thoughts on this.


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  5. “Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch.”

    Judy: Walker’s cinematography is indeed an asset, and those are interesting points you bring up about failed suicides in Capra. and the narrative parallel with Wellman’s SMALL TOWN GIRL. Seems like Stanwyck’s character here is just as resistent to making that one taboo admission as Miriam Hopkins was in TEMPLE DRAKE. Anyway, as always a wonderful essay on a noteworthy film during the peak of Stanwyck’s pre-code powers.


    • Sam, I knew you would like Walker’s cinematography too. I need to watch a lot more Capra – I took a while to get into him because of the cheesiness at times, but that element doesn’t seem to be there much in his early work, and I suspect now if I go back to some of the later films it is going to worry me less than it did.

      Stanwyck was great in the pre-codes and so different from her later personality in the noirs that she is probably better-known for. I haven’t seen ‘Temple Drake’ yet but intend to do so soon. Thanks very much for taking the time and trouble to comment, and for the kind words.


  6. Back from the grave. My computer, I mean. Great review, Judy. I have not seen this movie. Well, I have not watched all of it. A couple years ago I had watched about of it on YT when the channel it was on got canceled, and phthththt, that was it. But thanks to your review, I see that it is available once again. Yay. I hope to watch it soon.

    It is interesting to watch these early Capra films and recognize themes and motifs that recur in many of his later, more famous films. Always a pleasure to read your reviews, Judy!


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  9. Ladies of Leisure used to be available on DVD from Vintage Film Buff, but they no longer exist unfortunately.


  10. Pingback: Ladies of Leisure (1930) Review, with Barbara Stanwyck | Pre-Code.Com

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