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?)
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.
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.
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.