There was nothing ordinary about the famous partnership of Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck. He was one of the worlds most influential directors. She was Hollywood’s greatest asset, and together they produced five notable films that have now been stapled as cinematic masterpieces.
The teaming of Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck was much more than that. Not only did the two become close friends, it was Frank Capra who transformed Barbara Stanwyck into a star. When she first arrived on the Hollywood scene, Stanwyck was appearing in films that were largely panned at the box office, but once Capra got his hands on her and chose her for his 1930 production Ladies Of Leisure, a new road awaited for Stanwyck; a road that would lead to endless opportunities and success.
Ladies Of Leisure might not be the most famous pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra, but it sure holds a mark of distinction for the fact that it was the birth of a legend and the beginning of a miraculous partnership.
The story first came to life in 1924, when the stage play titled Ladies Of The Evening by Milton Herbert Gropper was receiving auspicious results on Broadway. With the shows consummation, Frank Capra saw this as great movie material and decided to adapt the melodramatic play for the screen, so he started writing a first draft screenplay. As soon as the draft was completed he invited the eminent New York playwright, Jo Swerling to work on the script. For Capra, hiring Swerling proved to be an onerous task. When Swerling took one look at the draft he declined and described the material as a putrid piece of gorgonzola, which is inane, vacuous, pompous, unreal, unbelievable – and incredibly dull”. However after a few days Swerling changed his mind and commenced work on the script.
Once the script was completed, Harry Cohn demanded that Barbara Stanwyck be cast in the role as Kay. Stanwyck however was still recovering from the inferior results of her three previous films and was in the midst of returning to her theatrical roots in New York, but with Cohn’s suggestion she agreed to meet Capra.
From the moment Barbara Stanwyck arrived at the meeting she had bad vibes running through her mind. As a result, she returned home crying, where Frank Fay became furious and immediately called Capra to complain. Frank Capra who was in a rather shocked state of mind explained to Fay that he was surprised by her reaction and said that she acted like she did not want the part. Fay listened contentedly before imploring him to screen a film test she had made for The Noose at Warner Bros, which Frank Capra did, and the rest is history.
On the first day of filming, Frank Capra soon realized that Barbara Stanwyck was unlike any actress that he had previously directed. She inhabited a unique quality that Capra was instantly intrigued by. In his autobiography The Name Above The Title he recalled: “I discovered a vital technical lack – one that shook us all up: Stanwyck gave her all the first time she tried a scene … All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance. This was a new phenomenon – and a new challenge, not only to me, but to the actors and the crews. I had to rehearse the cast without her. The actors grumbled. Not fair to them, they said. Who ever heard of an actress not rehearsing? … On the set I never let Stanwyck utter one word of the scene until the cameras were rolling. Before that I talked to her in her dressing room, told her the meaning of the scene, the points of emphasis, the pauses … I talked softly, not wanting to fan the smoldering fires that lurked beneath that somber silence. She remembered every word I said – and she never blew a line.”
Filming for Ladies Of Leisure began in December 1929 at Columbia Studios and Malibu Lake. By January 1930, shooting had come to a cessation and was ready to be finalized.
The films plot is simple and rather provocative in nature with the story mostly focusing on the two key players and the decisions they make. At the start of the movie we see Jerry Strong ( Ralph Graves ) the son of a wealthy railroad tycoon, escaping a party to enjoy a leisurely drive in the country, where he meets Kay Arnold ( Barbara Stanwyck ) a party girl, shy of being a prostitute.
Even though Kay is from the wrong side of the tracks, Jerry witnesses something special in Kay and immediately offers her a job as his model for his upcoming painting titled Hope. Kay instantly accepts the position, and as time progresses, the two find themselves falling in love, but before she knows it, Kay starts coming to terms with her meretricious past, which she is now ashamed of and yearns for a reputable place in society as Jerry’s girl.
With Kay’s tawdry background the couple face difficulty with altercations ensuing from Jerry’s family circle. The question is: Will Jerry damage the relationship with his father to marry Kay? Or will Kay respect their wishes and leave Jerry?
Ladies Of Leisure is a commendable film that would pave the way for many other creditable Barbara Stanwyck productions. Of course being an early talkie, it contains faults with the editing and certain character foibles, but the production is not entirely flawed as what some make it out to be. It’s also interesting to note that this was Capra’s fifth talkie, and since sound was not fully established at the time of filming, it’s only natural that Capra’s direction might appear rather awkward and dull at times.
The glowing aspect of the film is Barbara Stanwyck. By watching her thunderous portrayal of Kay Arnold, you wouldn’t believe that this was only her third movie. Stanwyck as Kay displays such complexities in emotion as she gets swept into an intense love affair with Jerry that causes her to be more pain stricken rather than elated. Kay loves Jerry and wants to make good in life, but with her sordid reputation, people think of her as trash, especially Jerry’s father who threatens that if he marries Kay he will strip all family ties with his son. On the other hand, Jerry’s mother wants her son to live a happy fulfilled life and encourages him to fight for want he wants, but even though she is alright about Jerry marrying Kay, she doesn’t want Jerry deserted from the family, so she must fight for her son by imploring Kay to give him up, which leaves Kay in a sorrowful state of mind.
Ladies Of Leisure also features Joseph Walker’s masterful cinematography. In a career that spanned over thirty years, Walker collaborated with Frank Capra on twenty films. Capra who was known for his lofty ambitions considered Walker his perfect match. He was one of the worlds greatest cinematographers, who not only attained four Oscars for his work throughout the years, he also held twenty patents on various camera-related inventions he devised, and those skills that Walker possessed were certainly well executed in Ladies Of Leisure, as he was able to capture Barbara Stanwyck’s remarkable beauty by allowing her back to be lit for closeups in order to have her hair and contours of her face abounded in a delicate glowing light.
The Pre-Code genre in cinema is now a bygone era which is only brought back life through the indelible classics and stars that made this period so magical. For a glimpse into the true world of Pre-Code, check out Ladies Of Leisure to observe the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck in a glorious production that is proliferated with racy scenes that is sure to capture your attention.
It’s Barbara Stanwyck, It’s Pre-Code, Ladies Of Leisure is a sumptuous melodramatic delight.
Ladies Of Leisure was originally adapted to the screen for the 1926 silent version of the same movie.
Frank Capra later admitted that he was so infatuated in Barbara Stanwyck at the time of fiming, that if she was free he would of asked her to marry him.
Kay Arnold: “You know the old bromide: when in Greece, open a restaurant.”
Kay Arnold: “When a dress costs over a hundred bucks, it’s a frock.”
Dot Lamar: “Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82.
Ralph Graves: Born Ralph Horsburgh on January 23rd, 1900 in Cleveland, Ohio. Died: February 18th, 1977 in Santa Barbara, California. Aged 77.