After 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.