As I watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray releases of the crime flicks Ladies They Talk About (1933) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), I was struck by how differently the stories unfolded. Aside from the gender differences in the leads, their tone varied, from pre-code naughtiness, to post-code morality. I think both are classics in their way though.
Ladies They Talk About is the purest distillation of the pre-code era. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a moll who ends up in a prison with unusual privileges. Women in lingerie live it up in cells that look like dorm rooms and they delight in their bad behavior. You wouldn’t see any of this enjoyment in the crime films that came with code enforcement.
Stanwyck is perfect for her role as a slightly marshmallow-hearted dame gone wrong. While you never really believe that the crusading preacher (Preston Foster) who wants to save her could ever satisfy her, she doesn’t seem to have many other options. While she’s in prison for helping her gangster boyfriend pull off a bank robbery, she has plenty of time for racy literature, listening to her pal croon adorable songs (the always delightful Lillian Roth), and enjoying the salty repartee of a seasoned madam who lays claim on the rocking chair in the common room.
It’s snappily-paced fun that’s clearly a precursor to the women-in-prison films to come, from the grimmer, but equally lively Caged (1950) to exploitation flicks like Caged Heat (1974).
Special features on the disc include the cartoon I Like Mountain Music and a theatrical trailer.
Every time I watch Angels With Dirty Faces, I wonder what it would have been like if it had been made in the pre-code era. There are moments when it could use a little more edge or a bit of spice, but there’s also a craft to it that came with the maturation of cinema.
The story blazes into action with that special brand of Warner Bros. efficiency, introducing tow childhood friends who take different paths with sharp, short scenes and a snappy montage sequence. When we finally settle in with the grown up Rocky (James Cagney), who is a lifelong gangster, and his friend Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien) who is working to help the boys in the neighborhood avoid the same fate, you know the important details; the characters have come alive.
In typical Warner Bros style, the supporting players are as dynamic as the leads. While the Dead End Kids have always struck me as a bit corny, they are always lively and fascinating. Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart also make a lot out of less showier parts.
Cagney and O’Brien are great in their roles because they subvert the typical expectations of the parts they play. While Rocky is a morally loose tough, his eyes mist when he hears a young boy sing a soaring solo in a church choir and he is gentle and encouraging with love interest Sheridan, instead of crude and possessive. O’Brien has an appropriately street-smart edge as a priest who rather than taking a scolding or moralizing tone, faces the challenges of the kids he wishes to save realistically, meeting them where they live.
The film has become a classic because of the emotional power of its shock ending, but that finale wouldn’t have half the impact without the strong character development and artful filmmaking preceding it.
There are several special features, all of them carry-overs from the DVD release, it features the Leonard Maltin-hosted Night at the Movies 1938, which includes a newsreel, the musical short Out Where the Stars Begin, a Porky and Daffy Cartoon, and theatrical trailers, there’s also a featurette about the film, commentary from film historian Dana Polan and a radio production with the film’s stars.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.