Barbara Stanwyck

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Ladies of Leisure 1930After ducking out of a party with his wealthy friends, Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) happens to drive past by call girl Kay Arnold (Barbara Stanwyck) rowing along in a boat as she escaped from a different party. He offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. Jerry is an aspiring artist and decides he wants Kay to be the subject of his next painting and Kay accepts. Things are tense when she first poses for him. He doesn’t like the way she’s dressed when she arrives and his fiancée isn’t exactly happy about his new model.

Tensions continue to grow, but once Jerry finally gets what he wants from Kay, it’s magic.  By now, they’ve also fallen in love with each other and after he spends nearly all night painting her, he asks her to sleep on the couch. They spend all night pining for each other, but the next morning, their happiness is shattered when Jerry’s conservative, upper-class father arrives and demands he stop seeing Kay. He refuses, even if it means being an outcast from the entire family. Jerry and Kay plan to run off together, until Jerry’s mother personally comes to see Kay and begs her to leave her son alone.

I never cease to be amazed by the quality of many of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films. Ladies of Leisure was only Stanwyck’s 4th film, but she hits it out of the park. This was the movie that made her a star. She was paired with director Frank Capra here and he understood exactly what to do with her. There are so many great stars who, early in their careers, went through a stage where studios didn’t quite know what to do with them so they stuck them in all sorts of different types of roles to see what worked and what didn’t. The ones who seemed to find their niche right away and became big stars within their first few movies are comparatively rare, but Stanwyck was one of them (Faye Dunaway and James Cagney are a couple of others.) Her performance is by far the best reason to see this movie.

On the whole, Ladies of Leisure isn’t fantastic. For Capra, this wasn’t one of his best directorial efforts, but he certainly grew as a director over time. The story is average; nothing too exciting or original. But the things that are right about it are so right that they make an otherwise forgettable movie one worth seeing. Capra also not only had Stanwyck as a leading lady, he had cinematographer Joseph Walker on his team, who did a fantastic job of making the movie look beautiful. Between Walker and Stanwyck, they help to distract from some of the other parts of the movie that aren’t as strong.

Pre-Code Essentials: Baby Face (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck Baby Face

Plot

From the time she was just 14 years old, Lil Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) was pimped out by her father to the customers of the sleazy speakeasy he runs. She hates the dingy, disgusting world she’s stuck in and her only two friends are her co-worker Chico (Theresa Harris) and the local cobbler. When her father is suddenly killed in an accident, the cobbler encourages her to go out and make a better life for herself by exploiting men.

Lil takes the suggestion and she and Chico hop on the next train out of town, with Lil seducing any man she needs to get her way. They make their way to New York City and Lil decides she wants to work at Gotham Trust and sleeps her way into getting a job, then continues seducing other men to work her way up in the company. It isn’t long before she’s living in a swanky apartment with Chico working as her maid.

After he many affairs ends up causing a big scandal for the company, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) takes over as president. At first it seems Courtland is one of the few men who can resist Lil’s charms, but he eventually succumbs. He may have changed his tune about Lil, but has her relationship with Courtland made Lil a changed woman?


My Thoughts

I have a hard time resisting any movie that involves Barbara Stanwyck being a total tough woman and not taking anything from anyone and Baby Face is one of her best movies in that respect. The whole beginning where she’s stuck in that dingy speakeasy, breaking glasses over people’s heads or pouring hot coffee on men who try to manhandle her, yelling at her good-for-nothing father, talking smack about the guys in the joint to Chico, it’s all just spectacular.

As much as I adore Stanwyck in it, I love everything else about Baby Face just as much — the writing, the direction, the costume design, the music. I have a particular fondness for the music. A really gritty version of the song “St. Louis Blues” plays throughout the movie, and whenever I hear that song, it makes me think of Baby Face. I also really love how Lil’s promotions at work are represented by exterior shots of the building, with the camera moving up one floor each time she moves up in the company.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The entire movie, really. But I love the part when Lil goes to apply for a job at Gotham Trust and this exchange happens:

Guy: Have you got any experience?

Lil: Plenty.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

I don’t think anyone will argue that Baby Face is the reigning champion of pre-code content. Baby Face was Warner Brother’s response to MGM’s Red-Headed Woman, and they certainly managed to one-up MGM. A movie about a woman who is pimped out by her own father, then actively encouraged to make her way in life by seducing men was simply completely unacceptable to censors. To get it approved, the cobbler’s speech about how Lil should exploit men had to be changed to a speech about being strong and in control, but specifically warning against going about it the wrong way. Between that and some of the suggestiveness being toned down, a watered-down version of Baby Face made its way to theaters, but still managed to cause a ruckus in many cities. The uncensored version went unseen until it was discovered in a Library of Congress film vault in 2004. The uncensored version and the censored theatrical version are included as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1” DVD set and the uncensored version is frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Pre-Code Essentials: Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck Night Nurse

Plot

When Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) lands a job as a probationary nurse at a hospital, she quickly learns the ropes with help from Maloney (Joan Blondell). One lesson she learns is that sometimes the patients she helps will be eager to show their gratitude. For Lora, that patient ends up being Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she takes care of after he’s shot. She breaks from protocol by not reporting his gunshot wounds to the authorities, keeping Mortie out of hot water.

After becoming a full-fleged nurse, Lora becomes a night nurse for the two young children of socialite Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). One of her children has already died and Lora immediately recognizes that the two surviving children are starving to death, but Mrs. Ritchey can’t pull herself away from the booze to care. She’s deeply concerned about the treatment the children’s doctor is prescribing and about how much authority their chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) has over the family. Lora does everything she can to get help, but has a hard time getting anybody to listen to her. When she finally gets help from a doctor she trusts, he advises her to stay and gather evidence.

As one of the Ritchey children is on the brink of death, a housekeeper tips Lora off about how she thinks Nick and the children’s doctor are plotting to murder the children as a way to get their trust fund. But the only person who can help Lora save the children is Mortie.


My Thoughts

Whether you’re a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck or of pre-codes in general, you’ll love Night Nurse. This is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best tough talking dame roles; she is an absolute boss in this movie. Watching her fight with people for the sake of protecting the children is truly a thing of beauty. I also loved seeing Stanwyck teamed with Joan Blondell. I really wish Blondell and Stanwyck had done more movies together. They are two of my favorite actresses from the pre-code era, so I wish I could see more movies where they play best friends who go around being sassy together.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Gratuitous undressing galore.

The fact that a bootlegger ends up being one of the heroes.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Sure, Night Nurse has plentiful innuendo and gratuitous undressing scenes, but the ending is very distinctly pre-code. Not only does a criminal end up being one of the heroes, the movie ends with him casually alluding to the fact that he just had Nick bumped off, then happily driving off with Lora as Nick’s body is delivered to the morgue. Not that anybody is sorry to see Nick go, but it’s a much darker type of happy ending than a lot of people typically think of old movies as having.

Pre-Code Essentials: Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Ladies They Talk About 1933Plot

Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is part of a gang of bank robbers and when she gets arrested after a robbery, she turns to her childhood friend David Slade (Preston Foster) for help. David is now a famous preacher who rallies for tougher punishments for criminals. She leads him to believe she is innocent, hoping having his approval would help get her off. But when she confesses the truth, David pulls his support and sends Nan up the river.

Nan adjusts pretty well to prison life, but makes an enemy of Susie (Dorothy Burgess), who adores David and is jealous of Nan’s connection to him. Even though Nan is still furious at David for what he’s done to her, he still writes to her regularly. It isn’t long before she finds out that some of her former partners in crime are now in the same prison and one of them is plotting an escape. The only way she can help is if she agrees to talk to David again, and Nan agrees. But when their plan is foiled, Nan ends up spending more time in prison, growing angrier and angrier at David, thinking he’s ratted her out again, not realizing that he was innocent. When she gets released, she wants nothing more than to find David and make him pay for betraying him.


My Thoughts

Ladies They Talk About isn’t a particularly great movie. The story is pretty convoluted and far fetched and there’s an odd scene where Lillian Roth serenades a picture of Joe E. Brown. This is definitely the kind of movie you watch just for the pre-codeness of it all because it’s a pretty mediocre movie in every other respect.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

As fellow inmate Linda shows Nan around the prison, she points out one inmate, a butch looking woman, and says, “Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Ladies They Talk About may not be a particularly great movie, but at least it delivers big time on the pre-code material. The prison scenes are full of gratuitous shots of women in their stockings and garters, plus the aforementioned lesbian inmate. Not to mention that the whole movie is about a criminal who ends up with a happy ending. It even starts with the exact same version of “St. Louis Blues” that was so famously used in Barbara Stanwyck’s other pre-code triumph Baby Face. If I were to pick a theme song for the pre-code era, it would definitely be that particular version of “St. Louis Blues.”

Cry Wolf (1947)

Cry Wolf 1947 Poster

When Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck) gets word that Jim, her husband of five months, has passed away, she does what any good wife would do and goes to see his family. But Sandra and Jim’s marriage wasn’t exactly conventional. Their marriage was a secret and they had an arrangement to stay married for six months so he could collect money from his trust fund. Sandra visits Jim’s scientist uncle Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), who is naturally surprised, yet skeptical, to hear his brother had a wife. But until her claims can be proven, she stays at the family home.

The more time Sandra spends with Jim’s family, the more strange behavior she sees.  First of all, Jim’s funeral was closed casket, which is odd considering he allegedly died of pneumonia. When Sandra visit’s Jim’s room, she finds all his sport clothes and pipes are missing. Mark is also disturbingly controlling of Jim’s younger sister, Julie (Geraldine Brooks). He has the family’s servants constantly monitoring Julie, he reads her mail, and he refuses to let her leave the estate. Sandra and Julie quickly become friends and when Julie hears screams coming from Mark’s laboratory, Sandra goes with her to investigate. Although Mark later tries to dismiss Julie’s claims of hearing screams as nothing more than her imagination, Sandra heard the screams too and suspects it may have been Jim’s screams they heard.

For the most part, I liked Cry Wolf. I like movies that keep me guessing and Cry Wolf did just that. It also did a good job of not letting me quite pinpoint Mark’s motives up until the very end. But unfortunately, since I couldn’t fully figure out what type of person Mark was, it made it a little hard for me to be satisfied with the ending. However, I did enjoy seeing Errol Flynn in a role different from the usual swashbuckler/adventure type movies I”m used to seeing him in. He was good, as was Barbara Stanwyck. However, the script isn’t quite strong enough to elevate Cry Wolf from being a good movie to a great movie.

What’s on TCM: July 2014

Maureen O'HaraHappy July, everyone!  With summer now in full swing, TCM has plenty of great movies to watch on hot summer nights.  Maureen O’Hara is July’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Tuesday night this month.  TCM will also be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I every Friday by showing some of the best WWI movies, including The Big ParadeSergeant YorkGrand Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

The night I am most looking forward to this month is July 10th.  TCM will be featuring six classic documentaries such as Salesman, Harlan County USA, and Sans Soleil. I really like documentaries and that night’s movies is a nice mix of things I’m looking forward to re-watching and ones I’ve been wanting to see.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…

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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940

Barbara Stanwyck Steel True Victoria WilsonIf you’ve ever had any questions about the life of Barbara Stanwyck, Victoria Wilson’s “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940” is bound to have the answers.

At over 800 pages long, “Steel True” is the very definition of an extensive biography.  (Keep in mind this book only covers Barbara’s life up until 1940.  The other fifty years will be covered in future volumes.)  In fact, this may very well be the most extensive movie star biography I will ever read.  In “Steel True,” Wilson doesn’t simply offer a look at Barbara Stanwyck’s life, she immerses the reader in Stanwyck’s world.  Barring any advances in the field of time travel, “Steel True” is the closest thing to actually being there with her.   You don’t just learn what Stanwyck was doing, you learn about her friends, family, and co-workers, what they were doing,  and what was happening in the world at the time.

Whether or not I would recommend “Steel True” solely depends on what type of biography you’re looking for.  Even though I really appreciated Wilson’s in-depth approach, I can see how it might not be what other people are looking for.  Perhaps you’ve just seen a Barbara Stanwyck movie for the first time and you want to learn a bit more about her.  In that case, “Steel True” may be a bit overwhelming.  However, if you’re already a big Barbara Stanwyck fan and want to know about her life in greater detail, this is absolutely the book you want.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.