Many of the greatest movie stars had not one, but two film debuts. First, there were the debut roles; the films that placed the phrase “and introducing” in front of their names in the opening credits. But the second debut is when they went from being mere actors and actresses and became immortals. After all, Marion Mitchell Morrison’s first leading role may have been in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), but it wasn’t until nine years later when John Ford gave him a Winchester 1892 and a quick-zoom close-up that he became John Wayne.
And so we have Ladies of Leisure (1930), an early sound film by future master director Frank Capra. The film is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it demonstrates some impressively ambitious cinematography and camerawork for an era when even moving the camera from side-to-side was considered impractical due to the size and noise of early sound cameras. The opening scene set at a rooftop party is particularly noteworthy for an extreme long-distance crane shot that stretches vertically from the street to the top floor. Of course one has to assume that it was achieved with a model.
Yet it represents an ingenuity so immediate that it is easy to compare it with another certain rooftop camera shot from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)…
But I’ve delayed for too long.
The second and primary reason why Ladies of Leisure hasn’t disappeared into the basement of forgotten Hollywood detritus involves a certain scene featuring a disaffected young bachelor, a dock, and a very wet young woman:
“Can I do anything for you,” Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), wannabe artist and heir to a railroad tycoon, politely asks.
“Yeah, you can look the other way,” the indignant woman shouts back. Pulling herself onto her feet, she kicks her rowboat back into the water.
“You’ll lose that boat if you don’t watch out.”
“That’s great. I wanna lose it. It ain’t mine.”
Within minutes he’s giving the drenched woman a ride back to New York City.
“I suppose you’re wondering what I was doing at that party. Well, brother, that’s my racket. I’m a party girl. You know what that is…you need a girl, I’m the one you call for. I’m the filler in.”
He asks for a cigarette.
“Sure,” she coos. “And for taking me home, I’ll even light it for you.”
Such repartee might seem downright primitive compared with Hollywood films from later in the decade. In a few years, romantic melodramas would make way for the screwball comedy, that wonderful genre of fast-talking babes and fools falling in and out (and usually back in again) of love. And as this genre grew, so did that soaking young woman.
In just a few years she would be one of the undisputed queens of Hollywood; a master of genres as diverse as the aforementioned screwball, the film noir, and the Western. As a teenager, she performed as a dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies under her birth name: Ruby Catherine Stevens. But the world will forever remember her by another name: Barbara Stanwyck. And yes, it was in this unassuming romance by Mr. Frank Capra that Stanwyck caught her first big break and the attention of both the American public and Hollywood.
The plot is standard Hollywood fare: Jerry wants the party girl named Kay Arnold (who had actually been fleeing a job gone sour on a boat when they first met) to model for a painting. She accepts, they fall in love, they get engaged, and predictably, Jerry’s parents threaten to disown him if he besmirches the family name by marrying a fallen woman.
The film is typical in its handling of a romance between two characters from opposite sides of the tracks, even indulging in that most cloying saccharine of melodramatic endings: the hospital bedside reconciliation. Additionally, it would be wrong to count Kay Arnold alongside Stanwyck’s more progressive or memorable roles like Stella Martin, Jean Harrington, and Phyllis Dietrichson. In fact, the film could almost be examined as socially regressive since the film is bookended by two scenes of Stanwyck jumping off a boat: the first time is an escape, the second time a suicide attempt. Where originally she risked her life to preserve her own personal autonomy, she concludes by trying to end that very same life because she can’t marry the man of her dreams.
But in spite of it all, Stanwyck steals the show, delivering an above average performance in a mediocre story. She wasn’t a master actress yet, but glimmers of her talents abound: her ability to communicate innuendos and inner thoughts with the tilt of the head or a smile; her broad and extreme emotional range; and that funny way she had of staring at the leading man like he was the only person in the world who truly mattered.
Ladies of Leisure demonstrated that Stanwyck was a proactive talent rather than a reactive one. Other actresses would stand back and wait for plot points and emotional cues to hit them in the face. But Stanwyck seized control of the narrative and made other people react to her. Whether she was jumping off a boat or agreeing to pose for a painting, only Barbara Stanwyck could tell Barbara Stanwyck what to do.