Ladies of Leisure (1930)
directed by Frank Capra, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves
Even if you were born rich, you can still reach for the stars. Aspiring artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) dreams of painting something that will capture the spirit of hope and longing. But inspiration is pretty thin on the ground when your whole life is made up of social engagements and obligations. His drunken friend Bill Standish (Lowell Sherman) wants him to give up ambition and settle down to a life of partying. His parents (George Fawcett and Nance O'Neil) and his snooty fiancee (Juliette Compton) just want him to settle down.
Jerry's inspiration finally arrives in the unlikely form of Kay Arnold, a self-described "party girl" (Barbara Stanwyck). She isn't Jerry's type at all. She's blunt, sarcastic, and flirtatious, totally uninterested in grand ideas or great art. Yet Jerry sees something in her that makes him believe she could be the perfect model to represent hope. Kay accepts his strictly business offer, incredulous that this guy only wants her for some nutty experiment. His friends and family are aghast that he would spend time with someone so coarse. Jerry paints Kay over and over but becomes frustrated at her inability to understand what he's driving at.
Gradually, as Kay begins to see Jerry's sincerity and ideals, she falls haltingly and painfully in love with him. It's a love she knows will bring her nothing but misery. Because even if a guy could fall in love with her for real, how could a cheap, common girl like her ever make him happy?
The most popular image of Barbara Stanwyck is of a tough, independent gal that takes no prisoners. The kind of woman that can plot murder or sex with equal authority. But that's an ideal that had to be built up over time, over decades of slinky femme fatales and gritty Western heroines. Much like her friend Joan Crawford, Stanwyck became immortalized as the polished, mature, indomitable creature she played in the 40s and 50s. But look back into her early 30s work and a softer, more vulnerable image emerges. She was typed as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, hungry for wealth and security, but almost masochistically eager to risk everything for love. The Stanwyck of the 30s was always having to sacrifice something. Whether it was giving up her child (Stella Dallas, Forbidden), her ideals (Internes Can't Take Money, The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen), or her love (Always Goodbye, Ladies of Leisure), Stanwyck did it without flinching.
Ladies of Leisure is one film where the style is so great, it creates the substance. The plot is no different from a half-dozen other tearjerkers Stanwyck would go on to make through the decade. Bad girl trying to make good, callow love interest that can't know the truth of her past, and the society snobs that threaten to destroy everything. What sets it apart first and foremost is the remarkably romantic and assured direction by Frank Capra. His focus, for most of the movie's 99 minute running length is the couple and the dreamy, almost hermetic world they create for themselves apart from society. As Barbara Stanwyck's character is gradually drawn to the high-flown idealism of Ralph Graves' artist, he in turn is touched by the depth of her feelings. While they try to bring Graves' imagined masterpiece to life, Capra isolates them, bringing in other characters only when raucous distraction is required. It's an unusual approach for a 1930 film; most melodramas of the time were shorter, snappier, and more eventful. But here, you can see Capra putting into practice an idea he would perfect in The Bitter Tea of General Yen and It Happened One Night. Let the couple alone and watch what happens. The drama is in the characters, not what happens around them.
Capra wouldn't be able to accomplish this without the incredible help of Joseph Walker, his cinematographer. Walker collaborated with Capra on eighteen films; his camera work was the perfect match for the director's lofty ambitions. To capture Barbara Stanwyck's unusual beauty, Walker keeps her backlit for closeups, letting the light linger in the curls of her hair and around the contours of her body. But the effect wasn't just for Hollywood glamor. Capra pointedly has a scene where Ralph Graves, acting as Capra's surrogate, strips off Stanwyck's makeup, ordering her into simpler clothes, snapping, "Be yourself!" To which Stanwyck answers testily, "Then what the devil are you trying to change me for?" Graves tells her, "I'm not trying to change you, I'm trying to paint you." Capra and Walker draw the same distinction with their actress, worshiping her face while still trying to let that direct, honest Stanwyck spirit shine through.
Stanwyck's performance here is especially fascinating because it's evident that Stanwyck was learning herself through this film, deciding what techniques to keep and what to discard. She throws in lots of little tricks and mannerisms in Ladies of Leisure that she would never use again. For example, in a scene where Graves forcefully pulls off a fake eyelash, Stanwyck gives a drawn-out sigh that sounds like nothing in nature. It's halfway between a girlish squeal and an accordion. Later, as she argues with Graves, she snaps, "Goody goody goody, let's fight," complete with cute little fist smacking. None of these quirks hurt the performance and for this long-term Stanwyck fan, it's a lot of fun to see Stanwyck before she became such a superb, controlled technician. She's so loose and unpredictable here and both she and her character feel as if they're rushing heedlessly into something they barely understand.
Kay Arnold is a character whose wisecracks are only a flimsy protection against hurt. When she does fall in love, it's an emotion that registers more as great pain than great joy. In a lacerating scene, Kay makes breakfast for an ungrateful Jerry. At first, she watches in adoring silence as he silently reads the paper. Then a tear rolls down her cheek. She pushes a vase with a single flower closer to him, like an acolyte making an offering. Jerry doesn't see it and knocks the thing over. When he finally looks up, he irritably shoves the vase aside. Kay almost breaks down. When Jerry glances at her, she tries to cover by tossing food in the air and catching it in her mouth."Can you do that?" she asks him, nearly sobbing even while she's laughing. Now stripped of her defenses, she's helpless in the face of love, mocking herself even as she angles for the slightest scrap of affection.
This is the movie that made Barbara Stanwyck a star. Her actual first film, The Locked Door, was like an object lesson in every way a melodrama can go wrong. A contrived plot, bizarre performances (by actors struggling with the technical constraints of the early talkies), and misguided attempts to be titillating, including a scene with Stanwyck in an artfully torn dress, holding a gun. Ladies of Leisure shows how the genre can be given real emotion and complexity, allowing time for character and feeling. And Stanwyck shows what she can really do. In his Stanwyck biography, The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan awards her an alternate Oscar for Best Actress of 1930. Looking at her performance here, I'd have to agree.
Ralph Graves falls somewhere in the low-mid range of Stanwyck's leading men. He's too stiff and dour for the role of idealistic artist Jerry Strong and as an actor, he hasn't a prayer of coming within Stanwyck's league. It's like taking your eyes off a great dancer to stare at the polished hardwood floor under their feet. You imagine someone like Lew Ayres playing the conflict between Jerry's dreams and his guilty desire to escape back into upper-class ease and Ladies of Leisure falls into place as one of the best romances in Stanwyck's career.
However, Graves' cold immobility kind of works for the first half of the movie. It's very hard to sense what he really feels for Kay and makes Stanwyck's tentative love for him all the more fragile. In a scene where he stands over Stanwyck's bed and she pretends to sleep, there's a split second where it almost looks like Graves intends to rape her. The immediate revelation that no, he just wanted to tuck a blanket around her is a moment of pure grace and relief. That said, when Jerry does admit his love for Kay, the transition feels too abrupt to be real. It's as if we spent most of the movie with a grumpy, petulant Mr. Hyde and now we're confronted with a grinning, blindly romantic Dr. Jekyll.
Ladies of Leisure keeps such an intense focus on the relationship between Kay and Jerry that the supporting cast function solely as satellites. Marie Prevost makes the strongest impression as Kay's ditzy, loyal friend Dot Lamar. Dot's really the only ally Kay has in the film (Jerry may love her but boy does he make her pay for it) and her kindness keeps the movie from tilting too far into maudlin misery. There's a lot of cracks about Dot's weight but Prevost thankfully plays her as someone happy and confident in her attractiveness. You wish it could have gone that way in real life for Prevost. Lowell Sherman's also a joy as the perpetually drunk layabout Bill, Jerry's dishonorable friend. He may be a sleazy guy trying to put the moves on Kay ("Take a good look, it's free," Stanwyck snaps at him), but Sherman's comic timing is so good, I still kind of wanted him to find not-so-true love with Dot.
Juliette Compton, as Jerry's fiancee Claire, is breathtakingly snobbish, ordering Stanwyck to turn around for her so that she can get a good look at Jerry's new model. Stanwyck raises her eyebrows but does a slow turn, her humiliation obvious. The Stanwyck of later films would have told her to stick it where the sun don't shine. For some reason, Claire disappears halfway through the film, never to be mentioned again. Jerry doesn't even have to dump her, she just vanishes. But then, Jo Swerling did say he wrote the script for Ladies of Leisure in a breathless five-day writing binge, "interrupting the writing only long enough for black coffee, sandwiches and brief snatches of sleep."
The real weak link of the cast is acclaimed stage actress Nance O'Neil, as Jerry's mother. In a scene that could be cut and pasted to a dozen different 30s melodramas, she goes to Kay and begs her to give Jerry up. But of course, she has to pretend not to love him or he'll never accept it. This Camille-lite garbage really drags down the film's climax since there's no plausible reason why Stanwyck's character should be swayed by O'Neil's cliched speeches. And O'Neil's acting is pure Victorian theater training, hopelessly outdated. All tragic nobility, hands-clasped sentiment, and low, "thrilling" voice.
But Stanwyck manages to save the scene with a single line. After O'Neil has made her case, choking back a sob and saying, "I must fight for him. That's what mothers are for," Stanwyck simply answers, "I wish I had one to fight for me."
Ladies of Leisure isn't a perfect film but for this Stanwyck fan, it's just like Austen's Emma, "faultless in spite of all (its) faults." It's romantic, it's strange, it's lovely, and it has a compelling lead performance by a woman that would go on to become one of the greatest stars in cinematic history. No Stanwyck library is complete without this one.
"Do I look like a small cup of coffee?"
The scene where Jerry goes to cover Kay with a blanket. Capra keeps the rhythm of the scene achingly slow, with Stanwyck trying to sleep and the rain beating gently against the windows. Capra always said he found rain romantic and uses the image of it here to effectively seal the lovers off in a private world of their own. Walker takes advantage of the rain to cast a flickering play of light and shadow on Stanwyck's expressive face, as if her thoughts are changing with every raindrop. Kay hears Jerry's footsteps at the door and you can see the realization dawn on her face that the man she cares for is just coming to use her, like every other man she's known. She closes her eyes, pretending to sleep. Then she feels, Jerry drawing the blanket over her and Capra cuts to a simple shot of his feet, walking away. Cut back to Kay, radiant with delight. In a gesture she would find again for Stella Dallas, Stanwyck bites the blanket with her teeth and stares up at the ceiling, smiling (in an earlier scene she had mocked Jerry for making her stare raptly at a ceiling). It's a blissfully sweet and sensual scene that captures the moment when a cynical, broken woman gives herself over completely to love.
Final Six Words:
Stargazing romance with transcendent Stanwyck performance