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Frank Capra was the closest thing to a star director that Columbia Pictures had going for it as it moved into the sound era when the studio was still a minor player compared to Hollywood's five major leaguers. Studio head Harry Cohn made his respect for the director clear when he gave him the screen credit "A Frank Capra Production" on the 1928 film Say It with Sables and other studios were taking notice. Yet, at the dawn of the talkies, Capra was still a rising young director and not a household name yet.
Ladies of Leisure was Capra's first film of the new decade - he began shooting in January, 1930 - and film critic and Capra biographer Joseph McBride argues that it marked a turning point in Capra's career. Based on the 1924 play "Ladies of the Evening," written by Milton Herbert Gropper and produced in Broadway by David Belasco, it dealt with mature subject matter and turned on the clash of social classes in the heart of the depression. It also featured a character endowed with passion, ambition and street smarts, brought to life by an actress whose screen career almost ended before it began.
Barbara Stanwyck is Kay Arnold, a "party girl," by her own definition. Her racket is simple: she gets called when rich men need to fill a lavish party with pretty young women. (The title of the play was changed for the screen to avoid a suggestion of prostitution, but for all the script's attempts to whitewash her career, she's unmistakably a lady of the evening.) Ralph Graves is Jerry Strong, the high society son of a railroad titan and former politician (he calls his father "Governor," never "Dad"). Jerry is trying to make a career as a painter from the cushy environs of a lavish penthouse apartment that is generally filled with ne'er do well revelers. They meet when the aspiring artist, escaping the chaos of a penthouse party with a midnight drive, finds Kay rowing away from a yacht party and gives her a lift back to town. Given her experience with society men, she's taken aback when Jerry delivers her home without making a pass at her. Instead, he hires her to pose for a painting, which in this case means exactly that, despite what his frivolous fiance (Juliette Compton) or his soused playboy best friend Bill (Lowell Sherman) assume. Of course, this cynical, streetwise girl falls for the idealistic lug, while his status-conscious parents try to buy her off.
Stanwyck almost didn't get the part, as Capra writes in his autobiography. He had another actress in mind (he never reveals who it was) and Stanwyck, a Broadway star whose brief Hollywood tenure had been a string of flops, all but blew her interview with Capra. According to legend, Stanwyck's husband Frank Fay convinced Capra to watch her studio screen test (shot, according to one source, by Alexander Korda) and, impressed with what he saw, signed her up.
"Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt," writes Capra. "Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, clothes or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces." Capra found that Stanwyck's first takes were invariably her best (Stanwyck attributed that to her stage background, where you only had one shot a night at getting a scene) and shifted the production around her. He rehearsed the rest of the cast and the technicians and brought Stanwyck to the set only when they were ready, shooting with multiple cameras to get "the heart of the scene" in that first take. "I try to let a person play himself or herself," Capra said in 1931. "Miss Stanwyck is a natural actress. A primitive emotional. I let her play herself, no one else." That made it difficult for his cameraman, Joseph Walker, who was forced to light the set for multiple cameras and for sudden changes in blocking. That was fine for Capra, who was less concerned with camerawork and lighting than engaging with his cast, and he chose not to present Stanwyck in the usual glamorous image. He preferred her more earthy and natural looking, a woman that the working class audience could identify with, and Stanwyck delivered with spunk, spirit and a hard-earned resilience. Ladies of Leisure became the first of five pictures she made with Capra.
It was also Capra's first film with screenwriter Jo Swerling, a New York playwright brought to Hollywood by Harry Cohn. The outspoken writer had nothing but disdain for the scripts he saw and he let it all pour out at a production meeting when asked his opinion of a draft of Ladies of Leisure. Capra, who had scripted it himself, asked if he could do better. Swerling said yes and, with Capra's blessing, delivered a script full of smart and sophisticated dialogue. The film is at its best when the characters spar in witty exchanges and Stanwyck rises to the occasion with her unapologetic attitude. "Have you posed for anything before?" asks Bill as he flirts with Kay in Jerry's penthouse studio. She answers with tart honesty and a flirtatious flourish: "I'm always posing." It's less sure in the realm of romance, in part due to the stiff, wooden performance by Capra's buddy Graves and the creaky melodrama of the social clash story. Reviews of the day acknowledged the melodramatic hokum of the source material but reserved praise for Stanwyck. The Variety notice proclaims that Stanwyck "delivers the only really sympathetic wallop of the footage" and "saves the particular picture with her ability to convince in heavy emotional scenes."
Perhaps most importantly, Capra had finally found what would become the bedrock themes of his most memorable films: the plight of everyday Americans in the face of power and money and the arrogant judgments of high society. It's rather obviously played out here and leading man Graves is a soggy firecracker next to the shooting star of Stanwyck, but the film crackles when she's on screen, whether she's sparring with Nance O'Neil (poignant as Jerry's oh-so-practical society matron of a mother), trading quips with Marie Prevost (as her happy-go-lucky roommate) or simply staring dreamily up at the stars, radiating for a few brief moments the unguarded hope and optimism that such a streetwise tough cookie dare not reveal.
Producers: Frank R. Capra, Harry Cohn
Director: Frank R. Capra
Screenplay: Jo Swerling; David Belasco and Milton Herbert Gropper (play "Ladies of the Evening")
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Harrison Wiley (uncredited)
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Maurice Wright
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Kay Arnold), Ralph Graves (Jerry Strong), Lowell Sherman (Bill Standish), Marie Prevost (Dot Lamar), Nance O'Neil (Mrs. Strong), George Fawcett (John Strong), Juliette Compton (Claire Collins), Johnnie Walker (Charlie).
by Sean Axmaker
Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith (Crown Publishers)
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster)
The Films of Barbara Stanwyck by Homer Dickens (Citadel Press)
The Name Above the Title by Frank Capra (Random House)