Prison sure was different in the 1930s. Sure, men still had cells with bars on them and bunk beds within, and apparently marched everywhere they went, but for women, the penitentiary was like a mini community but one from which you could not leave. In Ladies They Talk About we get a surprising look at what imprisonment meant for female offenders. Barbara Stanwyck spends most of the story behind bars after assisting a bank robbery for a load of gangsters.
Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor could have fought to maintain her innocence in the crime, but a man from her home town –now a big-time political preacher in the big city– falls for her. Their kiss inspires Nan to tell David Slade (Preston Foster) the truth about the robbery, which he finds staggeringly upsetting. She therefore admits her crime to the district attorney and away for two to five years she goes.
In the clink she gives up her fur and fine dress for a plain frock, although not a uniform. The women in here have made themselves a comfortable lifestyle, complete with beauty shop services, rocking chairs and a socialite with a lap dog. The cells are private apartments with windowless doors, which the girls have adorned with photos of their favorite celebrities. Nan keeps a picture of Slade to remind her of the hatred she feels for him. Her newly found arch enemy inside, however, keeps several photos of the man out of adoration.
Nan refuses to see Slade, who writes to her regularly and stops by every visiting day. Around the same time she learns that the man is actually trying to help her get an early release, she has also been contacted by her former partner in crime, Lefty (Harold Huber). Two other members of the gang have been pinched and reside in the men’s prison on the other side of Nan’s wall. They have a plan to dig their way out, with her help.
Upon seeing Slade for the first time, Nan allows for the reestablishment of their romance and slips a letter to Lefty into the man’s pocket. Slade later finds the note and drops it into the mail. But Lefty is in local lock-up and his forwarded letter gets opened by the warden, who then traces it back to Nan. She assumes Slade ratted on her.
Ladies They Talk About is interesting to the degree it shows some version of life inside a women’s prison. On the other hand, however, it tries to drive some sort of romantic yarn through the plot even though Stanwyck’s character has shown only loathing or tolerance for the man who unreasonably adores her. Stanwyck’s performance is lack-luster. At the start she shows shades of bad acting in instances when Nan is herself putting on a show for the authorities. This is nevertheless frustrating to watch.
None of the other characters offer anything special. Foster is milquetoast and oft-criminal Huber is in so few scenes as to make his presence nearly unnoticeable. Dorothy Burgess as Susie –the Slade-lover, Nan-hater– attracts some degree of interest. She looks like a less interesting Tallulah Bankhead and is as obnoxious as she is meant to be.
There are plenty of other flicks in which to see Stanwyck playing the hard-boiled blonde or brunette and/or the sex pot, but Ladies They Talk About should not be sought out for that reason. Sit down with Baby Face instead.
- Ladies They Talk About is set for 2:15 p.m. ET Dec. 20 on TCM.