This article on Ladies They Talk About (1933) originally appeared on tcm.com and is reprinted with permission. The film will be airing on TCM on December 20, 2012.
The women-in-prison movie genre has always been a favorite stable for lovers of cult and exploitation films and it's one that's enjoyed a long run in popularity that continues to this day. Starting with the seminal, cliche-establishing Caged (1950) the genre continued to gain momentum and popularity with such films as Women's Prison (1955) featuring Ida Lupino as the psychotic superintendent, House of Women (1962) with Shirley Knight, and the Spanish/Italian production of 99 Women (1969) starring Mercedes McCambridge. The 1970s offered up what is probably the best WIP (Women in Prison) film of the decade, director Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974) featuring Barbara Steele as the evil, wheelchair-bound warden. Since then, the WIP genre has upped the level of nudity and violence as well as showcased a more tongue-in-cheek approach with such outrageous and sleazy fare as Chained Heat (1983) and Reform School Girls (1986). With all that in mind, it's surprising to learn that the genre was actually established in the 1930s with Ladies They Talk About (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Stanwyck plays Nan Taylor, a gangster moll who is sent to prison after assisting her goon buddies on an early morning bank heist, wearing a platinum blonde wig (looking very similar to her character in her next film, Baby Face, also released in 1933). While in prison, Nan encounters all of the standard prison genre cliches that would make the later films so memorable; large, burly matrons, the scheming, jealous rival inmates, the no-nonsense warden, odd and grotesque older prison inmates or "life-ers" (including, most notably, veteran character actress Maude Eburne as the beloved and former bordello madam, Aunt Maggie, whose former profession makes up for most of the films running jokes). The film also showcases some brief, subtle references to lesbianism through the character of a masculine, cigar-smoking inmate who flexes her muscles for an adoring fellow prisoner (a quite strange, fleeting scene that no doubt ruffled some feathers during this Pre-Code era of film making). No women-behind-bars spectacle is complete without the expected cat fight, which this film also includes.
Unfortunately, the prison dramatics play backseat to the real focus of the story, which revolves around Nan's romantic relationship with the city's politically aspiring evangelist character played by Preston S. Foster. As with all of her performances, Stanwyck radiates a natural, down-to-earth quality devoid of heavy theatrics; she tosses out snide one-liners and viciousness as well as coming across quite sympathetically in her true desire to "go straight" and leave her wicked ways behind. However, with any film on retribution, the character has to go through one final test of wills. In this case, during the second act of this considerably short film (69 minutes), the action is focused on Nan's role in helping her crime buddies escape from the men's prison (which is located on the other side of the women's section).
The period music used in the film is quite memorable - a mixture of classic blues and jazz tunes. One highlight being a scene in which fellow inmate, Linda (played by Lillian Roth, who would later chronicle her troubled life in her autobiography, I'll Cry Tomorrow, which was subsequently made into a film starring Susan Hayward) croons "If I Could Be with You" to a photo of comedic actor Joe E. Brown.
The film was based on a play called Women in Prison by actress Dorothy Mackaye, who incidentally, served a brief sentence in the San Quentin Penitentiary. Mackaye was sentenced for one to three years for "attempting to conceal facts" in the beating death of her husband, stage actor Ray Raymond. Raymond died as a result of a fight between himself and screen actor Paul Kelly. Kelly and Mackaye were having an affair which instigated the confrontation between Raymond and the couple. (Mackaye later married Kelly in 1931). While in prison, Dorothy made productive use of her time. Being an actress herself, Dorothy started an acting group for her fellow inmates. Amusingly enough, one of her productions included a cast of all convicted murderesses; Clara Phillips, the "Hammer Murderess" and Dorothy Ellington, the "Jazz Slayer".
Dorothy also made note of the women's plight and living conditions within prison, great material that she would use to piece together her play, which was received positively. That ultimately led Warner Bros. to purchase the rights and bring it to the screen as Ladies They Talk About (before settling on that title, it was alternately called Women in Prison, Lady No. 6142, Prisoner No. 6142 and Betrayed.)