The 1930 Frank Capra film Ladies of Leisure stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck as tough, independent party girl Kay Arnold. It’s New Year’s Eve in New York, and it may be Prohibition, but that certainly doesn’t stop the booze from flowing at the penthouse apartment of dilettante rich boy/artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), son of a railroad tycoon. The party spills over into drunken absurdities and Jerry, suddenly losing his taste for the wild high life, ditches the party and his love interest Claire Collins (Juliette Compton) and goes off for a solitary drive.
While driving through deserted streets Jerry spots a young woman as she rows towards shore away from a party taking place on a yacht. The woman, who accepts a lift back to New York, is Kay Arnold, and to Jerry she seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and unaffected, and on the drive back, Jerry and Kay impress each other for various reasons. As a party girl (which is a euphemism for prostitute), Kay fully expects Jerry to step out of line–after all, her line of work involves men just like Jerry–men rich enough to afford her company while they simultaneously don’t expect to be restricted to polite behaviour.
Jerry asks Kay to model for him, and although she’s suspicious at first, she soon ends up at his penthouse apartment putting in long hours. Jerry just can’t seem to get his painting right. In his head he has a vision of Kay gazing toward the heavens with a beatific gaze, but he just can’t seem to get the pose. He buys Kay clothes, wipes off her makeup, but there’s still something missing.
In the meantime, everyone sees Jerry’s real motive for employing Kay as his model. Jerry’s amusing, permanently boozed-up friend, Bill (Sherman Lowell) fancies Kay for himself, and he makes it clear he’s interested, even dangling a cruise to Havana in front of her nose. Claire senses a shift in Jerry’s interest, and Jerry’s parents step in with separate attempts to prise Jerry away from Kay.
The role of Kay Arnold was a breakthrough in Stanwyck’s career, and she’s really wonderful as the gum-chewing, rough-around-the edges party girl who reforms thanks to love. I’ll admit, though, that I prefer Kay in the beginning of the film. She becomes far less interesting when she falls in love and giddily dons an apron. The role of Jerry is problematic–mainly because he’s such a wanker. He’s completely out of touch with his feelings–which isn’t a problem in itself, but then he orders Kay around in a most annoying fashion. He doesn’t make much of a romantic figure especially when Kay appears to transform, dropping some of her most appealing characteristics as she tries to please Jerry. There’s a vast gap between these two and as far as the love story goes, I don’t hold out much hope for this couple.
On the other hand there are two other performances well worth noting: Lowell Sherman as Bill and Kay’s hilarious chubby best friend: Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost): a woman who believes “you can’t weigh sex appeal.”