Movie Reviews

MOVIE REVIEW: Ladies of Leisure

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, a movie review here.

I was not until a few years ago a big movie watcher. But I’ve had occasional problems with insomnia, and when I got tired of laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, I’d watch a movie. (I didn’t read a book because movies are usually less than two hours long and books can go a lot longer than that.) Netflix and a little poking around got me started on various movies, and now I watch them pretty regularly. My favorite movies are from 1930s-1940s Hollywood, or martial arts movies.

So why post the review here? I don’t know. Because. You know that houseguest who was staying with us? I wrote about her last year. Well, she died. She died last summer. She wasn’t much older than me. So now when I think about something I want to do that’s stupid and I hesitate, I think, “Well, hell. Why not. How much longer am I going to be here anyhow,” and I do it anyway. Since my big world-shattering events are things like friending people on Facebook whom I’m not sure I should, and posting movie reviews to my own blog which I’ve been running for sixteen years, I don’t expect I’ll set the world on fire. But how long am I going to be here anyway.


Ladies of Leisure is a 1930 film directed by Frank Capra. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Graves. The plot is pretty basic: Graves is Jerry Strong, the son of a railroad tycoon, who wants to be a painter. Stanwyck is Kay Arnold, a good-time girl whom he picks up escaping from a party on a boat, and ends up hiring to be a model. They fall in love. Eventually.

This was apparently the movie that made Barbara Stanwyck a star, and it’s easy to see why. She’s an edgy flapper who has enough common sense and humor to keep the movie from becoming really tawdry and melodramatic. Unfortunately there’s enough of the “silent movie acting” here for a couple of wince-worthy scenes; Capra leaves the camera on her a little too long when she’s realizing that perhaps Jerry has feelings for her too, and when she’s supposed to be looking at the stars in the sky she instead seems more like she’s following the path of a hyperactive fly on the ceiling. These are aberrations though and mostly she gives a witty, rueful performance as a woman who wishes she was better than she is.

Unfortunately Ralph Graves is no match for her. She acts circles around him while he lumbers through the movie like a lump of hamburger in a nice suit. He’s most convincing when he’s irritated with her; when he’s in love he looks either unbearably awkward or slightly loopy. There’s one scene where his giddiness is, I guess, supposed to be interpreted as True Love; sadly he just comes off looking drunk. I’m going to build a time machine and find the parallel universe where Melvyn Douglas is the leading man in this movie instead — he would have been perfect. Or maybe Ralph Bellamy.

The supporting characters acquit themselves well. Marie Prevost, as Barbara Stanwyck’s roommate, steals every scene she’s in and gets the best line in the movie (“Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”) Comedy lost a lot when she died so young in 1937. Lowell Sherman is sly, drunk, and dude, what in the world is up with those eyebrows. Despite a couple of scenes where he doesn’t seem clear on his purpose, he makes a great counterpoint to Jerry Strong as someone who sees Kay Arnold for what she thinks she is – and quite prefers her that way. (He wants to whisk her off to Havana.) Juliette Compton has a couple of brief scenes as Jerry’s fiancee, Claire, but despite a good run up never materializes into a strong character. (At one point it looked like she was going to come off a bitch, but it never quite happened.)

Jerry’s parents are for the most part ciphers at the beginning — George Fawcett was a silent film star and he shows it with a dinner scene containing astounding amounts of twitchiness, and his wife laughs a lot. Later, though, his wife (played by Nance O’Neil) has a grim scene with Barbara Stanwyck that comes out of nowhere and just smacks you in the head. Nance O’Neil is so restrained she makes Greta Garbo look like a scene-chewer, which only gives the interaction more impact.

I am not much of a Capra scholar. I have seen several of his movies (my favorite probably being You Can’t Take It With You) but I have managed to avoid seeing It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Still, there are some scenes here that look Capra-esque to my amateur eyes: the shot of Jerry’s slipper-clad feet as he leaves his room; the silent shot of Jerry’s parents after he’s told them that he’s fallen in love with Kay. The ending is not so much feel good as feel better – lots of problems are left unresolved but you get the feeling everything’s going to be all right. (And I will say this for Ralph Graves: he was excellent in the last scene. I will also note that the last scene features just the back of his head.)

Ralph Graves aside, I quite enjoyed Ladies of Leisure. As a pre-code movie it leaves you with the impression that everyone in New York spent all their time getting sloshed, and there’s some 1930s melodrama here, but it’s wry and self-aware and there are some great lines. If you want to get into pre-code Hollywood movies, it’s a good place to start.

Categories: Movie Reviews

1 reply »

  1. Surely it IwasI a surprise, but your message was simply too nice to ignore./ And,in my mind, your review was pretty darned neat. I than you for the surprise. —ed nelson

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