FaceOff

Welcome to my second Noir Face-Off. This time, the films have different names, were produced in different decades, and share a very non-noir visual style. But they make for a great face-off!

For those interested, Lady Gangster (1942) can be found on YouTube, while you can only see the trailer or little excerpts of Ladies They Talk About (1933) free online.

SUMMARY 

Both films tell the tale of a woman gone bad who is saved by the love of a good man, a fabulous gender twist on a familiar crime film theme. After acting as a front for a bank robbery planned by a gang of cohorts, our smooth operating protagonist is eventually caught and put behind bars. Key to her conviction is confessing the truth of her involvement to a childhood friend turned radio broadcaster whom she thought she could trust, an upstanding fella who has always loved her but cannot let her go free after he knows she was part of the heist. Much of the film takes place in the women’s prison/wing, where we meet other female prisoners both kind and cruel. Despite the interference of a particularly noxious gossip and stool pigeon, our antiheroine is eventually released to live happily ever after with her fella.

And now, the face-off:

GENRE AND TONE

Ladies They Talk About (LTTA) is a pre-Code film, ripe with references in word and image to much that would soon after become taboo, from prostitution to lesbians behind bars. Like the remake, LTTA is a “crime drama” with romance, but it’s also absolutely out to have fun, including a wacky cast of prisoners and even a musical number sung by spunky, dimpled prisoner Linda (Lillian Roth), our heroine’s best pal. The ending is a bit slow, as we wonder whether this is going to finish as a comedy or a tragedy, but like the cop who looks the other way so she can have her happily-ever-after, all turns out well without much repentance at all. By contrast, Lady Gangster (LG) is far more earnest, less playful, and less fun. The tone is serious and the genre is crime flick with noir overtones in the double-dealing male leader of the gang who wants to cheat the protagonist out of her share of the loot. After a few twists and turns, the happy ending comes because the “lady gangster” wants to go straight. Ultimately, although I originally watched the latter film first and enjoyed its tough dame and B noir plot, I had so much more fun watching the earlier, pre-Code picture, especially because she is accepted for the troublemaker she’ll always be rather than having to prove herself worthy of a man’s love.

The WinnerLadies They Talk About

LEADING LADY

This is probably the most difficult category for me to compare. I adore Barbara Stanwyck, and her portrayal of lifelong criminal Nan offers a perfect combination of tough and endearing for the role. She’s a bit campy and over-the-top, but you can’t help adoring her anymore than best pal Linda, straight-as-an-arrow David (Preston Foster), and even the members of her gang. She’s full of youth yet maternal, giving embraces and punches with equal aplomb. She suits the film and wraps it around her.

Faye Emerson’s Dot (no idea why the name change) is equally right for her version of the film, tough and cold and elegant. She’s determined to survive prison with her pride in tact, and she gives as good as she gets re her double-crossing gang. She’s a perfect B noir tough girl to Stanwyck’s chin-up baby face.

The Winner: Call it an awesome draw

THE LOVE INTEREST

If I have trouble choosing between Stanwyck and Emerson, I have no such problem with the leading men. Preston Foster in LTTA is utterly adorable as “right guy” David Slade, a graduate of theological school and radio personality who is proud to “meddle” in politics by giving speeches against police and judicial corruption, even as he loves criminal Nan. I particularly enjoyed the backstory that reveals him to be the upright son of a drunk while Nan is the daughter of a deacon in the small town in which they grew up together. Frank Wilcox’s Ken Phillips, by contrast, is less developed and far less endearing. He cannot match Emerson’s charisma and energy, and he barely seems to try.

The WinnerLadies They Talk About

DRAG ACTS

I didn’t expect to find images worthy of queer studies analysis in both films, but I did! LTTA has a matron sporting a suit and smoking a cigar (Helen Dickson in an uncredited appearance), while LG has a gangster who shaves off his moustache and dresses up as Dot’s “sister” to sneak in a visit (Roland Drew). Both images are played for homophobic humor, though the pre-Code image is portrayed as about personal preference not a goofy scheme, making it more interesting if not palatable.

The WinnerLadies They Talk About

LOCAL COLOR

Both films feature African American women in their prisons, though they are mostly in the background. In LG, black speaking roles are limited to one unnamed character who loves to dance. She serves primarily to play the radio loudly and keep others from hearing the matron cry out as Dot escapes. In LTTA, however, the character is more developed (relatively speaking) and given a name: Mustard (played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan, uncredited. While I assume this name is a racist reference to skin color (cf. “high yellow”), she actually gets in a good line in response to the arrogance of Lady Arlington (the awesome Cecil Cunningham) — who murdered her high society friend by putting ground glass in her food. Mustard complains that she agreed to wash Lady Arlington’s panties in exchange for some lightener and relaxer and won’t give them back until she’s paid. Sadly, her moment of triumph is destroyed when the head matron tells her to get back to the laundry (considered grunt work and punishment when Nan must do it) and then frightens her off with the ward’s cockatoo. I presume this is some racist myth that black people are afraid of birds.

How does one decide whether to prefer what bell hooks calls a “present absence” in a black character who has no name and likes to dance or a named black character who only wants some hair relaxer and is afraid of birds?!

The Winner: Call it a cringeworthy draw

CONCLUSION

There are other matters worthy of note, such as Jackie Gleason’s appearance in LG as the sympathetic getaway driver who gives his life for Dot and Maude Eburne as a bawdy prisoner who formerly ran a house of prostitution disguised as a beauty parlor that was busted when a cop came in for a manicure. And both films feature absurd plot elements I won’t even bother going into because they don’t detract from the overall impact. But I think I’ve shared enough detail to reach my verdict for this face-off. I recommend both films, but there is a clear winner…

The Winner: Ladies They Talk About

 

Nan (Stanwyck) and pal Linda (Lillian Roth) make prison look good!

 

 

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