“Don’t worry about my conscience, sweetheart.”
The pre-Hays Code film Ladies They Talk About stars Barbara Stanwyck as Nan Taylor–a gun moll who helps knock off a bank. When the robbery goes sour, Nan is caught. Anti-crime crusader, Dave Slade (Preston Foster) rages against Nan from his pulpit, but when he meets her in person, he recognizes her as a childhood friend. She was the daughter of the town deacon, and he was the son of the town drunk. A romance is kindled, and Slade is prepared to pull strings to save Nan, but when she comes clean about the robbery, Slade is horrified. Nan goes off to jail, but their paths are destined to cross again.
This is a splendid role for Stanwyck. She switches her behaviour back and forth–depending on the audience she’s playing to. In one scene, she’s ushered in the district attorney’s office, where she coyly displays her legs while playing the innocent victim of circumstance. When the district attorney tells her she’s “wasting that panorama” Nan immediately drops the coy act and slides back into her tough gang girl demeanor.
A great deal of the film is spent inside San Quentin. While the men’s prison is shown as militaristic, the women’s prison is depicted as a social club with cliques. There are all types in here–including one prisoner who’s besotted with Slade, and also the motherly Aunt Maggie who insists her only crime was she ran a beauty salon. There’s even a pet Cockatoo brought in to make the female prisoners behave, and some scenes focus on the female prisoners adjusting their undies. Class politics exist within the jail–an upper-class woman totes her Pekingese around while expecting to get her laundry done free by the ‘maid’ Mustard. Nan soon finds her footing in jail and declares, “I never let anything lick me yet, and I never will.” Unfortunately, the lead male role just can’t get the backbone to hold his own against Stanwyck, but it matters little since this is her film anyway. Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, Ladies They Talk About is a delightful film for Stanwyck fans.