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Ladies of Leisure

original newspaper advertisement
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Harry Cohn
Written by Jo Swerling
Based on a play by Milton Herbert Gropper
Starring Barbara Stanwyck
Ralph Graves
Music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Editing by Maurice Wright
Studio Columbia Pictures
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) April 5, 1930 (US)
Running time 99 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Ladies of Leisure is a 1930 American romantic drama film directed by Frank Capra, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Graves. The screenplay by Jo Swerling is based on the 1924 play Ladies of the Evening by Milton Herbert Gropper.



Aspiring artist Jerry Strong, the son of a wealthy railroad tycoon, sneaks out of a party he allowed his friend Bill Standish to hold at his New York penthouse apartment and studio. While out driving in the country, Jerry gives self-described "party girl" Kay Arnold (escaping from another party aboard a yacht) a ride back to the city. He sees something in her and offers her a job as his model for a painting titled "Hope". In their first session, Jerry wipes off her makeup to try to bring out her true nature. Perpetual partier and drunkard Standish thinks Kay looks fine just the way she is and invites her on a cruise to Havana. She declines his offer.

As they get to know each other better, Kay falls in love with Jerry and comes to rue her tawdry past. This is reflected in her face, and she finally achieves a pose Jerry finds inspiring. He paints so late into the night that he offers to let her sleep on his couch.

The next morning, Jerry's father John shows up and demands he dismiss Kay and marry his longtime fiancée Claire. John has found out all about Kay's checkered background; she does not deny the facts. When Jerry refuses, John cuts off all relations with his stubborn son. Kay decides to quit anyway for Jerry's benefit. This forces him to declare he loves her. She suggests running off to Arizona.

Jerry's mother comes to see Kay. Though Kay convinces her that she genuinely loves Jerry, Mrs. Strong still begs her to give him up for his own good. Kay tearfully agrees and makes plans to go to Havana with Bill. Her roommate and good friend Dot Lamar races to tell Jerry, but by the time she reaches him, the ship has sailed. Despondent, Kay tries to commit suicide by leaping into the water. When she awakens in the hospital, Jerry is waiting at her bedside.



Ladies of Leisure was Frank Capra's fifth sound film, and the first project over which Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn was giving him complete creative control. Cohn assigned the director to adapt Ladies of the Evening, a melodrama David Belasco had produced on Broadway in late 1924, and after Capra completed a first draft screenplay he invited Jo Swerling to work on the script. Swerling initially declined because he thought it was a "putrid piece of gorgonzola," "inane, vacuous, pompous, unreal, unbelievable - and incredibly dull," [1] but decided to work on it nonetheless. "I went to my hotel, locked myself in my room and for five days pounded out a rewrite story of the plot I'd heard, interrupting the writing only long enough for black coffee, sandwiches and brief snatches of sleep," the screenwriter later recalled. "I was simply writing a newspaper yarn with a longer deadline than usual." [2]

Despite the fact her three previous films had been critical and commercial failures, Cohn was intent on casting Stanwyck as Kay, but the actress was on the verge of returning to her theatrical roots in New York City. She agreed to meet with Capra, but the interview went badly. Her husband, actor Frank Fay, became furious when Stanwyck returned home crying and called Capra to complain. The director was surprised by her reaction, saying she had acted as if she did not want the part. Fay urged him to screen a film test she had made for The Noose at Warner Bros., and Capra was so impressed by it he urged Cohn to sign her immediately. [1]

Filming began on January 14, 1930, and Capra quickly learned Stanwyck was unlike any actress he previously had directed. In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, he recalled:

I discovered a vital technical lack - one that shook us all up: Stanwyck gave her all the first time she tried a scene . . . All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance. This was a new phenomenon - - and a new challenge, not only to me, but to the actors and the crews. I had to rehearse the cast without her. The actors grumbled. Not fair to them, they said. Who ever heard of an actress not rehearsing? . . . On the set I never let Stanwyck utter one word of the scene until the cameras were rolling. Before that I talked to her in her dressing room, told her the meaning of the scene, the points of emphasis, the pauses . . . I talked softly, not wanting to fan the smoldering fires that lurked beneath that somber silence. She remembered every word I said - - and she never blew a line.[1]

Capra previously had worked with cinematographer Joseph Walker on four silent films. The director was impressed not only with Walker's artistic vision, but his various camera-related inventions as well. He not only ground his own lenses, but he used a different one for each of the actresses he photographed. Many of the elements typical of Capra films - the backlighting of actresses, the transformation of minimal sets into dreamlike images, the delicate night scenes and erotic rain scenes - were suggested to Capra by Walker. The two collaborated on twenty projects between 1928 and 1946. [2]

The film was released in a silent version for theaters not equipped for sound. [3]

Critical reception

Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times praised the film for "its amusing dialogue, the restrained performances of nearly all the players and a general lightness of handling that commends the direction of Frank Capra" and concluded, "The picture is sufficiently variegated in drama and more amusing moments to be attractive film fare." [4]

TV Guide rated the film 2½ out of four stars and noted, "Capra kept everyone under tight rein and any tendency to emote was admirably stifled under his firm direction." [5]


  1. ^ a b c Capra, Frank, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Macmillan 1971. ISBN 0-306-80771-8, pp. 113-115
  2. ^ a b McBride, Joseph, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Simon & Schuster 1993. ISBN 0-671-79788-3, pp. 212-220
  3. ^ Ladies of Leisure at Turner Classic Movies
  4. ^ New York Times review
  5. ^ TV Guide review

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