10. Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley
Written by Brown Holmes and William McGrath
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, and Lyle Talbot

At the scene of the crime, Nan pulls her good girl, “Who, me?” routine. But the keen-eyed detective doesn’t fall for it. Neither do we; this is a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck movie, after all. Nan’s no snitch, but she confesses to her role in the bank heist after the dashing David Slade, radio preacher and childhood friend, brokers her release. Their budding romance won’t last if it’s built on lies. Off to the women’s prison for two to five years. Imagine a college dorm. The inmates have candles, cigarettes, record players, guitars, posters of cute men on their walls. Lillian Roth as Linda sits on her double bed and sings a love song to an audience of convicts. I’m charmed by the imperfections in her voice. Small glissandi mask sour notes. It took me years to make peace with my own flawed performances. It helps to hear other musicians botch their parts. In regional and community theater, the stakes are low, and the audience never pays attention to the pit anyway. What’s worse: the absence of people of color in old movies or their token inclusion as bumbling fools? Not that much has changed a century later. The one black woman in the prison is named fucking Mustard, for God’s sake. It’s disheartening to know Stanwyck admired Ayn Rand and supported McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. I can’t reconcile my politics with my love of old, white people movies. I also listen to Burzum and other sketchy black metal bands. Two dudes from Nan’s gang end up in the adjacent men’s prison and are shot during an escape attempt. It’s all Slade’s fault, Nan thinks. After her release, she tries to kill him in the back office of his church. The bullet hits his arm. The sight of blood breaks the spell of Nan’s murderous passion. Slade saves her soul with — what else? — a marriage proposal. For a pre-code movie, it’s strange how little sex played into the story. The number of wipes rivals Star Wars. I forgot that one of the matrons threatens Mustard with a parrot.

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