Showing posts with label Barbara Stanwyck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barbara Stanwyck. Show all posts

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Ladies They Talk About (1933) is one of the original women-in-prison films and is perfectly suited for the Pre-Code era. Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley for Warner Bros., Barbara Stanwyck stars as Nan Taylor, a glamorous gun moll and a member of a bank robbing gang led by Don (Lyle Talbot) and Lefty (Harold Huber). Nan is a career criminal and has her job down pat. She's just needs to distract the cops and the people in charge while her cohorts do the dirty work. But one day her plan doesn't quite work out and she ends up in the clink. The comes her knight-in-shining-armor David Slade (Preston Foster). He's a hymn shouting reformer who broadcasts his religious sermons over the radio and hosts popular revivals in the city. He's got significant influence on the public and on local politicians and he takes a particular interest in Nan. It doesn't hurt that he's attracted to her too. Nan isn't quite sure about him and while he tries to save her from a conviction she winds up in San Quentin (when they used to house both male and female prisoners) anyways.

Now Nan needs to navigate the social politics of a women's prison. She quickly befriends the spunky and no-nonsense Linda (Lillian Roth) who becomes her sidekick. Linda introduces Nan to a motley crew of characters. There's Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne), a former madame and an important ally for Nan. Mustard (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) who gets into quite the battle of social dominance with a seemingly high-and-mighty prisoner. Keeping watch over the crew is Noonan (Ruth Donnelly) a hard-nose but sympathetic prison matron who always has a cockatoo on her shoulder. Nan makes an enemy in Susie (Dorothy Burgess), one of David Slade's devoted followers who seethes with jealousy at Nan's romantic connection with him. Nan soon needs to decide whether she's going to give this David Slade guy a chance or risk it all by continuing her life of crime.

You really can't go wrong with a Pre-Code prison movie. There are so many good ones of the era including 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), Paid (1930) and my personal favorite The Big House (1930) (which I reviewed here). Ladies They Talk About is thoroughly enjoyable despite a rather weak romantic storyline. The main draw really is the women-in-prison sequences. There's a reason this subgenre became popular during the exploitation era. It's titillating! Ladies They Talk About really has fun with the women's prison. Barbara Stanwyck's cell is decked out with fancy pillows, dolls, flowers, a dresser and even a gramophone to play records. The prisoners smoke cigarettes, do their hair and makeup and wear lingerie. One of them even gets to keep a pet dog. The film offers some outrageous fun with a crime drama and opposites-attract love story serving as just window dressing. How many other films boast Lillian Roth singing a love song to a picture of Joe E. Brown?!

Revisiting Ladies They Talk About sent me down the research rabbit hole about radio evangelism of the 1920s/1930s. While most people forget Preston Foster is even in this movie, I took special note of his character on this viewing. They tone down the religious elements—most likely to not offend any denominational groups—but it's clear that Foster's character represents the era when these figures influenced public morality through radio broadcasts and in-person revivals. This subject matter comes into play more prominently in another Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Code movie The Miracle Woman (1931) in which she plays an Aimee Semple McPherson type.

Ladies They Talk About was based on the play Women in Prison by Dorothy Mackaye who based the story on her own time locked up in San Quentin. In the late 1920s, Mackaye was a stage actress married to song-and-dance performer Ray Raymond and embroiled in a passionate affair with another actor Paul Kelly. On April 26th, 1927, a drunk Raymond and an equally drunk Kelly got into a fight at Raymond and Mackaye's apartment. Kelly beat Raymond so brutally that when Raytmond went to bed that night he fell asleep and never woke up. Mackaye tried to clean up the mess her lover made by bribing the coroner to change her husband's autopsy report finding from blunt force trauma to natural causes. Her scheme backfired. Both Kelly and Mackaye went to trial, were convicted and subsequently sent to San Quentin. Mackaye and Kelly reunited and married once Kelly served his time. She wrote about her experience in a play and Kelly was able to continue his acting career.  I haven't gotten my hands on the original play yet but I'd be curious to see how much of her own story was in the play and what was changed for the movie adaptation.

Ladies They Talk About (1933) is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. It’s also available on DVD in volume #5 of the Forbidden Hollywood series.

The Blu-ray is from a 1080p HD Master from 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. Bonus features include English language subtitles, a theatrical trailer and the Warner cartoon Merrie Melodies: I Like Mountain Music

Thank you to the Warner Archive Collection for sending me Ladies They Talk About for review!

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #6 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

Double Indemnity
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Paperback ISBN: 9780679723226
128 pages

When asked to define film noir, one movie often comes to mind as the most representative of the cinematic movement: Double Indemnity (1944). Not only is it the most noirish of the noirs, it’s one of the best films ever made. With Billy Wilder’s direction, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson portrayals and key filmmaking elements such as expert pacing, lighting and set design, the whole movie comes together as a veritable work of art. Double Indemnity also paved way for other noirs, especially The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels were written by James M. Cain and the battle to get Double Indemnity past production code guidelines allowed for negotiations to finally bring Postman to the big screen.

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years ago to compare it to the movie and I was really intrigued by how lustful, violent and even racist the original story was in comparison to the movie adaptation. Then I wondered: how would Double Indemnity hold up with a novel-to-movie comparison?

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is a novella that was originally serialized by Liberty Magazine in 1936 before it was published in book form as one of three stories in a collection. The book packs a punch in just 115 pages. Like the film, the story is told from insurance salesman Walter’s (Fred MacMurray) perspective. Through his first person narration, Walter relates the details of how he and his lover Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) plotted to murder her husband and commit insurance fraud for a big payout. Instead of relating his story to a dictaphone like MacMurray does in the film, Walter is writing a long letter to his work colleague Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) while traveling on a vessel.

I was quite captivated by Cain’s novel. It’s short enough that you can lose yourself in it and read the whole book in one sitting. The novel portrays Phyllis as a much more sinister character, Keyes becomes important only at the very end of the book, and Lola (Jean Heather), Phyllis’s stepdaughter, and her boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr) have a more distinct present in the story. The novel is heavy on the dialogue—Walter’s dictation and his conversations with the other characters. But there are also some interesting descriptions of the location settings including Glendale and Hollywood, California.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.” — Walter 
“I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pul away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.” — Walter 
“Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…” — Phyllis 
“Walter—I’m so excited. It does terrible things to me.” — Phyllis 
I don’t often like somebody. At my trade, you can’t afford to. The whole human race looks—a bit crooked.” — Keyes

While James M. Cain was originally hired to adapt his own novel, ultimately Billy Wilder and fellow noir novelist Raymond Chandler were responsible for the final screenplay. Here are some of the changes they made:


  • Character names get a makeover. Walter Neff is changed to Walter Huff, Phyllis Nirdlinger (yes you read that correctly) was changed to Phyllis Dietrichson and Nino Sachetti was changed to Nino Zachetti. Phyllis’ maid Belle becomes Nettie and the original Nettie, Norton’s secretary, isn’t given a name at all.
  • Phyllis is described as having a lust for death. She’s driven by that more so than by freedom and money. Part of her backstory includes being a killer nurse. Like in the film, she’s responsible for killing Lola’s mother. In the novel she’s also responsible for killing three children which led to a malpractice suit that ultimately affected the Sachetti/Zachetti family.
  • Asian characters in the novel, Walter’s Filipino “houseboy” and Walter and Phyllis’s mutual acquaintance Mr. Ling are not included in the film adaptation.
  • The Keyes character is brought to the forefront giving Edward G. Robinson more screen time. In the film, Keyes is the moral center of the story. In the novel, Keyes orchestrates a getaway plan for Walter. That would not fly during the Hays Code era when all murderers depicted on screen had to pay for their crime.
  • Phyllis shoots Walter but Lola and Nino are blamed for it. Walter is fixated on clearing Lola’s name. They had both stopped seeing Phyllis and Nino respectively and started dating each other.
  • The final scenes in Double Indemnity are some of the most memorable. It depicts Walter confessing to Keyes at their place of work with Walter making a weak attempt at a getaway. IN the novel, Walter and Phyllis are on a boat grappling with the future that lays ahead of them. They make a suicide pact and the suggestion is that they jumped off the vessel and were eaten by sharks. Phyllis goes as far to dress up for her “bridegroom” Death, whom she describes as her one true love. She puts chalk on her face to look paler, creates dark circles around her eyes, puts on red lipstick and drapes herself in red silk for this upcoming “wedding.” Eek!


Ultimately, James M. Cain was happy with the changes Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler made to his story. He even commended them for some scenes he wish he had thought of in the first place. This is one of those rare cases in which the movie improves on the book.

Have you read the novel? If so, what did you think of it?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Miracle Woman (1931)

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing..."

Barbara Stanwyck stars in The Miracle Woman (1931) as Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher. Her father dies of heartbreak when his parish replaced him with a younger man. The disillusioned Florence lashes out at the parish. Witnessing this is con man Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy). The delivery of her impassioned speech inspires him and he convinces her to use her talents to make a tidy profit. He proclaims, "religion is great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away." Bob transforms Florence into Sister Fallon, a radio evangelist whose religious messages make her a nationwide sensation. They put on elaborate shows at Fallon's tabernacle using trickery to fool the masses into believing she can perform miracles.

Everything goes to plan until John Carson (David Manners) comes into Florence's life. John is a former Air Force pilot gone blind. He spends his days in his apartment, composing music, practicing with his ventriloquist dummy and interacting with his landlady/helper Mrs. Higgins (Beryl Mercer). Depressed about his situation, he writes a suicide note and plans to jump out of the window. He hears Florence's radio broadcast and her words save him. John seeks out the woman who gave him a new lease on life. During one of Sister Fallon's tabernacle spectacles, John joins Florence on stage while they are both in a cage of lions. John doesn't realize Florence is a scam artist when he falls in love with her. As the two spend time together, Florence falls for John too. Florence starts to doubt herself, the people she's hurting and starts to imagine a different life. Will she be able to get out of her situation and keep John? And can she wrangle herself away from her manager Bob's stronghold?

Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners in The Miracle Woman (1931)

The Miracle Woman (1931) is a Pre-Code film with a critical eye and a tender heart. It explores the dangers of using religion for greed and also what it means to see someone for who they truly are rather than what they pretend to be. Florence and John experience awakenings and rebirths as their stories progress. One could see this as a criticism of religion but I saw it as a warning against using faith for personal gain. I was enamored with the love story which is the heart and soul of the film.

Directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Studios, The Miracle Woman was based on John Meehan and Robert Riskin's play Bless You Sister and acquired by Harry Cohn. The story is loosely inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist famous in the 1920s and 1930s. The original play was a failure on Broadway. However Capra saw potential in the story especially after the success of George M. Cohan's The Miracle Man which was later adapted into a movie in 1919. Capra brought on Riskin to adapt the screenplay. Riskin was still traumatized by the failure of his Broadway production didn't think the story would work as a film. Capra then hired screenwriter Jo Swerling to take over. With a hat tip to The Miracle Man the title was changed to The Miracle Woman. Some details were changed including the name of the protagonist as well as the details involved with Florence meeting John Carson.

The movie was Capra's second of five collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck. David Manners was loaned out by First National for his part. He became famous for his role as John Harker in Dracula (1931). In later years he claimed to have never seen Dracula and asked that fans not send him copies of the film. Manners is absolutely charming in his role as John Carson. And it's clear that Capra was captivated with Stanwyck. The close-up shots and lighting of her character demonstrate the camera's attraction to its subject. Stanwyck and Manners would put in two very dangerous situations. This was in the days when the technology of movie making could only go so far. In the lion den scene Stanwyck and Manners were separated from the lions by an invisible net. During the film's climactic scene, both actors risked their lives as real flames shot up around them.

Unfortunately The Miracle Woman (1931) was a box office failure. With all of Capra and Swerling's good intentions not to make a movie that was anti-religion, audiences still didn't flock to the theaters for this one. The film was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors for its content and as a result never released theatrically in England. The box office failure had no effect on Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra's careers which were both on the rise.

The Miracle Woman (1931) is available on DVD through Sony Classics Choice Collection series. I recently watched the film on TCM. I highly recommend checking out Danny's excellent piece on the movie, completely with lots of visuals, over at

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940by Victoria Wilson

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940
Volume #1
by Victoria Wilson
Hardcover – 9780684831688
1,056 pages
Simon and Schuster
November 2013

Barnes and Noble

Imagine you’re on a nature walk in a historic park. If you just want fresh air and exercise, you’d walk at a brisk pace or maybe even go for a jog. If you want to take in some of the scenery, you might slow down your pace and look around a bit. However, if you want the immerse yourself in the experience, you’d explore all of the side trails, read every sign along the way, stop for every bird or wild creature you see, take photos of the various wildflowers, etc. It would take much longer but you would get everything out of the experience you could.

And that’s the kind of experience you’ll get reading The Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson. It’s not the quick walk through the life of Barbara Stanwyck nor is it a leisurely stroll. This book is an immersive experience with sidelines and context galore.

Despite its size and page count, this book is not an overwhelming read. Even though the total page count is 1,056, you’ll only be reading 860 because the backmatter (Film, Radio TV and Stage Chronologies, Notes, Selected bibliography and Index) takes up almost 200 pages.

It’s not to say that those 860 pages are a small feat. There is a vast amount of information and the author not only includes the chronology of Stanwyck’s life from her birth in 1907 up until 1940 where the book stops (right at the point when she's about to make Meet John Doe with Frank Capra) but also starts with her family before her birth and also sidelines into details about key characters in Stanwyck’s life and in the movie industry. You’ll learn more about directors, producers, authors, screenwriters, actors, actresses, even hairdressers, costume designers and agents. Political figures like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt are discussed at length. You'd think all that extraneous information would weigh down the book but for me all of that context made the absorption of new information a lot easier. Those breaks slow down the pace of the narrative but I never felt lost or overwhelmed. Instead the book progresses nicely and before you know it you’ve already taken in a couple hundred pages and look forward to reading more.

Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck

Interspersed throughout the book are black and white photographs placed wherever relevant to the corresponding text. There are many wonderful photos of Barbara Stanwyck, publicity shots, candids and family photos as well as photos of people in and out of Hollywood who were involved in Stanwyck’s life in different ways. You’ll find photos of directors, authors, other actors, etc.

Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

Barbara Stanwyck started out life as Ruby Stevens and the author refers to her as Ruby for most of the beginning. It’s only when the actress adopts the stage name Barbara Stanwyck and begins to be identified with the new moniker (and not a moment before), does the author switch to using Stanwyck. This was a little confusing to me but it was clear what the author was doing and made sense in the narrative. It also serves to demonstrate Stanwyck’s progression into adulthood and her career as a full-fledged actress.

I didn’t know much about Stanwyck’s life and although the book only covers 33 years I got a good sense of who Stanwyck was as a person and as an actress. She had a rough childhood. Her mother died when she was four years old. Her three older sisters were adults and had already left home and started lives on their own, her father abandoned her and her older brother By (Byron) Stevens. By and Ruby/Barbara were left to fend for themselves and were transferred to various foster homes and sometimes stayed with their older sisters. Such an unstable and transient childhood had a profound effect on Stanwyck.

Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck

There is a lot to learn about Stanwyck in this book. As a woman she really valued relationships. However, some of those relationships turned out to be toxic ones. The author explores Stanwyck's doomed marriage with her first husband, actor Frank Fay. By the end of their relationship, Fay was a domineering brute and a drunkard. When you read about their relationship, which progressively gets worse and the narrative goes along, you can't help but root for Stanwyck to kick him to the curb. The book also explores Stanwyck's love affair and the beginning of her marriage to fellow actor Robert Taylor. Stanwyck had a complicated relationship with her adopted son Dion that got worse over the years. Dion was very generous to author Victoria Wilson and sat down for countless interviews and proved to be a great resource for the book! Stanwyck had a close friendship and working relationship with Marion and Zeppo Marx and was best buds with Joan Crawford. I admire her devotion to her brother By, even when some of his actions frustrated her.

Barbara Stanwyck and her son Dion

I was intrigued by Stanwyck's reluctant fashion sense (she had a simple hat, hated adornment) and her lack of materialism. This is something that the author brings up throughout the book and it provides an interesting glimpse into Stanwyck's personality.

Each and every film Stanwyck made before 1940 is explored. Certain films are given more attention; Stella Dallas (1937) gets its own chapter. Stanwyck was well-read, appreciated a good script, had a strong work ethic to the point of sometimes being a workaholic and she often a victim of a harsh studio system.

The author sometimes shows bias towards her favorite Stanwyck's films. For example, Remember the Night (1940), a film I don't particularly care for but has a cult following thanks to TCM, is given additional attention and praise in the book. I always appreciate some sort of positive bias in a biography because it demonstrates how passionate the author is about the subject they are writing about. This book is frank about much of Stanwyck's life but there is a clear affection for the subject.

Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas

The book isn't without faults. There are some points where the author repeats herself. After so many pages devoted to the marriage of Stanwyck and Fay, later in the book she recaps Fay's background as though we hadn't heard of it before. I thought that was odd. Plot descriptions sometimes were broken up with asides and I found a couple instances where a plot point was repeated. There are a few errors in the book too (a couple I noticed but didn't jot down and one someone else pointed out to me). I think perhaps another pass is needed to fix any minor errors and weed out some repetition. Otherwise, I thought this was a well-written and very organized book and author Victoria Wilson's 15 years of research, interviews, writing and editing pays off handsomely.

Are you a Barbara Stanwyck fan? Then this book is required reading for you. It's long, and there is more coming, but it's well worth your time.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy.

Watch the video below to hear the author speak about the book and find out what "Steel-True" refers to!

This was my second review for my Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook