Friday 16 November 2012

How to be a Good Girl: Barbara in 'Ladies of Leisure' (1930)

Barbara, with a lot of tears, wise-cracks and ‘hope’ is the perfect actress for a self-sacrificing bad girl-turned-good girl in her third talky ‘Ladies of Leisure’ (1930).


Artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) is at a wild party hosted by his carefree, society fiancée Claire Collins (Juliette Compton) and his drunken, playboy friend Bill Standish (Lowell Sherman). It is filled with untamed antics, fuelled by alcohol and reckless abandonment.

Precode Party Antics
Bored, Jerry leaves the party for a quiet early morning drive. He stops by a river to fix a flat tire and, serendipitously, runs into a pretty young woman paddling frantically in a row boat. The wise-cracking and brash Kay Arnold (Barbara Stanwyck) is escaping from a ship anchored far out in the ocean; she is a ‘party-girl’ by trade and was hired out for the party. In order to save the damsel in distress from a 30-mile walk into town Jerry offers her a ride in his car. They share jokes, problems and cigarettes and Kay falls asleep on his shoulder.

In Kay, Jerry sees something he hasn’t seen in a long time – hope – and asks her to pose for him. They begin work on the portrait. But, Jerry is struggling to find the spark and position to make the picture come alive and sees her as a model or an object and not a woman. He removes her makeup and changes her clothes; however, it appears the picture is a ‘lost hope’. Optimistic the pair continues, the more Kay becomes infatuated with Jerry and engrossed in the project the more she changes into a refined lady. This goes unnoticed by the blind and art-obsessed Jerry.

One night under the stars, Kay hits breaking point and threatens to quit. Jerry, through charm and love of the project persuades her into continuing. When she is looking into the stars he sees the hope he spotted in her at the beginning. Jerry starts frantically painting into the night. They spend hours working and Kay ends up sleeping the night at Jerry’s apartment. She pretends sleep and notices Jerry lovingly covering her with blankets and tucking her in. However, next morning everything has changed; Jerry is back to his professional self, talking to Kay as an object and not a person. She breaks down over breakfast and Jerry demands to know why she is crying. Before she can open-up, John Strong (George Fawcett) – Jerry’s father – pops in eager to discuss a plan with his son. He tells of a scheme for the Strong’s, Jerry and his fiancée to move to Paris where they can finally marry and Jerry can attend a prestigious art school. Jerry bluntly refuses and Mr Strong automatically assumes he has fallen for Kay and demands Jerry get rid of her. Thankfully, he ignores the warning and they return to work despite Kay’s incessant crying. Jerry confronts her, calling her a ‘dirty blackmailer and a thief’ and shakes her. Miraculously, this breaks the tension between them; this moves to a hug and he carries her onto the bed where they kiss.

They hatch a plan to escape to Arizona where Jerry can paint under the stars in the country. But Mr Strong has other plans and vows to never see his son again if he marries Kay. Mrs Strong (Nance O'Neil), instead, talks directly to Kay and pleads with her to give up Jerry for the sake of her husband and sons relationship. After a lot of hugs and tears, Kay loses her strength and agrees to leave Jerry. She decides to go to Havana with Jerry’s best friend, the often drunk, playboy Bill who had been pursuing her as well. She tells Jerry she needs to finish packing and elopes with Bill. When Jerry realises what has happened there is little time to reverse the damage his family has caused and prevent the damage Kay’s reputation – and perhaps her life - forever.


“Most men never get to be eighteen and most women are eighteen when they are born.” Bill Standish

This film is the first in the famous Capra-Stanwyck collaboration and, as a result, is one of the most emotional and well-developed movies of the Precode era. I found it very modern in its structure – being around 30 minutes longer than normal films of this period – and less focused on newspaper style, fast-paced racy and scandalous subject matter. It is interesting to note, as this seemed like a perfect vehicle for Barbara’s wise-cracking and touching acting style, that both her and Capra barely agreed to do the film. By 1930 Stanwyck’s career appeared to be faulting and her first meeting with Capra reputably ended in tears. But, after persuasion by her then husband Frank Fay, both hesitantly started filming and Capra discovered, “Stanwyck gave her all the first time she tried a scene . . .”
In saying this there is one feature of the Stanwyck performance I didn’t like. Perhaps it’s a result of my obsession with traditional hard-edged Precodes, but Barbara does a massive amount of crying in this film – during the early painting phase, before she and Jerry become engaged and pretty much the entire time afterwards. She is a very good and believable film ‘crier’ but it was too excessive and became boring by the end.
Although this is a Stanwyck vehicle, two actors did steal the movie in many occasions, namely, a Precode favourite Lowell Sherman as Jerry’s best friend Bill Standish and the silent beauty Marie Prevost as Kay’s confidant and room-mate Dot Lamar. They are beautifully comical and witty and compliment the high drama perfectly. I especially love Dot’s food and weight issues; she is constantly complaining about her increasing size and even tries the popular vibrating slimming machine but, at the same time, unapologetically loves eating large and rich meals. 
Lowell Sherman as playboy Bill Standish

Marie Prevost as Dot Lamar
‘Ladies of Leisure’ (1930) is a wonderful and emotionally-charged film with moving acting by the lovely Stanwyck and some cute comic relief by great character actors Lowell Sherman and Marie Prevost. Although, I found Ralph Graves as Jerry Strong a little stilted and boring, the pair’s relationship blossomed and was very believable. I would recommend this movie to any person interested in classic films as this is not a traditional Precode film and would  be accessible to most people.

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