Ladies They Talk About

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Howard Bretherton

REVIEWED: 03-01-99

In l930, a pinch-faced, snaggle-toothed ex-postmaster named Will Hays wagged a priggish digit at Hollywood and established the Production Code (aka the Hays Code), which went on to color the content of Hollywood movies for the next 30 or so years. About the same time, the pugnacious Paul Kelly (a former child star) beat actor Ray Raymond to death. Kelly spent two years in prison for manslaughter; Raymond's widow, the stage actress Dorothy MacKaye, also spent time in the women's unit of San Quentin (Kelly and MacKaye were later married). MacKaye went on to co-author the play Women in Prison, based on her experiences, which was later made into the film Ladies They Talk About. Stanwyck plays Nan Taylor, the attractive female member of a heist gang who is caught when one of their bank jobs goes bad. She nearly makes good her escape until a detective recognizes her from their previous dealings and soon she finds herself en route to the penitentiary. Her fate takes an unexpected turn, however, when her prosecutor (a radio evangelist with political aspirations) turns out to be a childhood friend. She convinces him of her innocence, but when her conscience gets the better of her and she confesses, she finds herself on the way to the Big Q. Soon, however, straight-arrow prosecutor Dave Slade (Foster) realizes he's falling for her and sends her letters regularly, which she ignores. As the "new fish" at Quentin, she fits right in and, along with her friend Linda (Roth, whose alcohol-demolished career was dramatized in l955's I'll Cry Tomorrow, with Susan Hayward), is running the show among the prisoners. What's a women-in-prison film without some conflicts and a good catfight, though? She soon finds herself at odds with Susie (Burgess), a goody-two-shoes Bible-beatin' prisoner with a big fixation on Dave Slade, and before long the fur is flying. When Nan discovers that other members of the stickup gang are in the men's section of the prison, they communicate and lay out the groundwork for an escape plan. With a running time of only 69 minutes, Ladies They Talk About keeps a runaway, 18-wheeler momentum throughout (actually, the narrative is fairly compressed). The dialogue bristles with dime-novel Thirties slang and timing that borders on screwball comedy. Sample lines: When asking about the prison food, Stanwyck quips, "What do they use on you?" or after being screamed at in rapid-fire Spanish by a hysterical inmate, the calm response is, "You do, and you'll clean it up yourself." Surprisingly, the movie pushes the envelope of Hays Code strictures with some fairly racy dialogue, a bit of skin here and there, and a burly cigar-smoking lesbian inmate. Many elements of the women-in-prison genre come into play in this early outing; the old crone inmate (Maude Eburne, veteran of over l00 character parts), the sadistic warden, an escape attempt, revenge, etc. The star performance, though, belongs to Stanwyck as she reminds us how good she was at being bad; her delivery is tough as nails but still smooth and sexy, pointing the way to the persona she would develop in movies like Double Indemnity or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

--Jerry Renshaw

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