Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies They Talk About (1933)


(directors: Howard Bretherton and William Keighley; screenwriters: Sidney Sutherland/Brown Holmes/William McGrath/based on the play, “Women in Prison” by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles; cinematographer: John Seitz; editor: Basil Wrangel; music: Leo F. Forbstein; cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Nan Taylor), Preston S. Foster (David Slade), Lyle Talbot (Don), Dorothy Burgess (Susie), Lillian Roth (Linda), Maude Eburne (Aunt Maggie), Ruth Donnelly (Matron Noonan), Harold Huber (Lefty), Robert McWade (DA Walter Simpson), Helen Ware (Miss Johnson, warden), Grace Cunard (Marie), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Mustard), Helen Mann (Prisoner Blondie), Grace Cunard (Prisoner Marie), Harold Healy (Dutch), DeWitt Jennings (Detective Tracy); Runtime: 68; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Raymond Griffith; Warner Bros.; 1933)

“This film’s only claim to fame was that it established the WIP genre film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Dated women’s prison flick that needs more than mustard and a hardboiled Barbara Stanwyck to make it tasty. It’s based on the play “Women in Prison” by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles. The play tells about Ms. Mackaye’s brief prison experience at San Quentin (sentenced for withholding facts about her boyfriend killing her husband in a dispute). Writers Sidney Sutherland, Brown Holmes and William McGrath, fail to make the screenplay anything but risible. Codirectors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley fail to get a handle on how to keep the story from being so ridiculous. Some racy dialogue was left in because the film came out in the “pre-Code era.” This film’s only claim to fame was that it established the WIP genre film.

Gun moll Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is ratted out by the evangelist radio preacher David Slade (Preston S. Foster), a prison reformer calling for stiffer sentences and an end to corruption. Nan has a love/hate relationship with the aspiring political animal, and is thrown into San Quentin for a two to five year stretch over being a decoy during a bank robbery. She was first paroled to him by the DA Walter Simpson (Robert McWade) and then confessed to him her guilt, which he passed on to the DA. Nan has known Slade ever since childhood, where her father was the town deacon and his father was the town drunk. He ratted her out because he believes it’s the only way to save her from a life of crime, and plans to win back her love by being in her corner.

Most of the action takes place in the San Quentin’s women’s reformatory where Nan is a tough cookie inmate, along with other inmates such as her best friend Linda (Lillian Roth), the former whorehouse madame Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne) and the Negress called Mustard (Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Nan finds prison life dreary and battles rival Susie (Dorothy Burgess), who resents that Brother Slade favors Nan over her. The Hollywood version of what a prison looks like resembles more a rec center than a prison. It runs through the usual stereotyped characters one finds in the joint, which wasn’t interesting. There’s also a glimpse at a lesbian relationship between a butch type with a cheery blonde, in an honest attempt to be realistic.

After Nan learns from gang leader Lefty that Don and Dutch, members of her robbery team, have been arrested, she agrees to help them escape when they tunnel through to the women’s side. After refusing to see Slade, Nan decides to see him in order to further their escape plans. The boys get plugged in their prison break, and Nan somehow gets paroled to Slade. But she’s bitter than her crime partners got it and after attending a revival meeting, confronts Slade for possibly squealing again. He was to mail a letter she slipped him that had details of the breakout, but the cops got hold of the letter without his knowledge.

In a film where nothing was believable, this following scene takes the cake. The free on parole Nan loses her temper with her soft-spoken benefactor, and draws a gun from her handbag and shoots Slade. Nan is immediately filled with remorse and says “I didn’t mean to do that.” As Slade takes a bullet in his shoulder, he rises from the floor to tell her “Why, that’s all right, Nan, it’s nothing.” When the cops soon arrive, he fixes things up by saying we’re getting married. If you can stomach a scene like that, then you have a stronger stomach than I have.