“All you need is a ticket and some courage.”
1931 marked the year that actor Lionel Barrymore directed his final film, Ten Cents a Dance for Harry Cohn’s Columbia Studios. In it, Barbara Stanwyck is employed in a dance hall where men pay a 25 cent admission and as the title says, ten cents a dance. The opening credits point out that the film is based on the popular song of the same name from writers Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
It turns out that dance hall girl Stanwyck has a rather rich suitor played by Ricardo Cortez. He can offer her the moon yet she refuses to take it which only makes Cortez respect her all the more. Unfortunately she finds herself falling for Monroe Owsley. The two rush into marriage but it quickly becomes evident that he’s somewhat of a welfare case and not to be trusted. Even after she secures him employment in Cortez’ firm.
When Owsley begins to embezzle money from Cortez and gets caught, Stanwyck will have to make a serious decision that leads to the inevitable misunderstanding as to just how she could come up with the money he needs to avoid a sure fire prison term.
I can’t say this early talkie has aged all that well but then few really have if we look at them from the perspective of today. Sure the dialogue comes across somewhat stilted but it’s a film like this that lets us look at the evolution of one of Hollywood’s most enduring female stars. Mr. Owsley was a new name to me who it turns out had a rather short career as he passed away at the young age of 36.
On the other hand, Ricardo Cortez was a much more familiar face for this viewer as he made stops in the films of sleuths like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto.
In the end, Lionel Barrymore’s swan song isn’t as risque as some of the other pre-code era talkies.
Barbara moved on to Warner Brothers for the second title featured here. It’s a subject that’s in keeping with the many gangster oriented films the studio had begun to put out and would continue to do for years to come with much success along the way. 1933’s Ladies They Talk About.
Stanwyck looks spectacular in Orry Kelly gowns as this title opens where she is fronting for a gang of bank robbers. Covered in fur and a dog under her arm she causes an obvious distraction for the bank guard and employees to allow Lyle Talbot and his gang including Harold Huber to take down the bank and make their getaway. Barbara herself is questioned as a witness but soon finds herself in hot water when recognized by an aging officer. He pieces it together and before she knows it, she’s jailed until the local D.A. can prove she was in on the robbery from the start.
“Too much deaconing took all the sweetness out of me.” Barbara says to possible romantic interest Preston Foster as to her upbringing in the church. In today’s day and age, I’m not sure if that line has more meaning to it or is it a throw away jab at her Deacon father. Foster is on his way to becoming a crusading evangelist and when Barbara admits her guilt in the robbery she finds herself doing a five year stretch.
“New Fish! New Fish!”
Upon entering the women’s penal system at San Quentin, Stanwyck plays it like Cagney or Bogie who would find themselves in similar surroundings for the balance of the decade. She finds a friend in Lillian Roth and an enemy in Dorothy Burgess with whom she will spar with till the fade out in the film’s short 69 minute running time.
Like the male oriented gangster flicks, there will be scenes of visitors coming and sitting at tables across from one another with no touching, steamy laundry settings where messages are exchanged and whispers of impending breakouts are discussed. Foster is hoping that Stanwyck’s time behind bars will straighten her out as he is dutifully waiting for her release but she of course blames him for her incarceration. So much so that she agrees to help out the old gang make a getaway from the men’s area of the famed prison from film and song.
This pre-code from dual directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley is far more daring then the earlier title above. There’s a bit more skin and garter belts on display in the all girl prison and even a hint of a domineering lesbian is briefly alluded to as a warning to Barbara upon entering the enclosure. It all adds up to a rather unlikely conclusion but once again, that’s easy to say from our vantage point looking back at this women in prison curio long before Pam Grier starred in a succession of these sub genre films over in the Philippines.
If my calculations are right, Miss Stanwyck was about 26 years old at the time of this film’s production and looks stunning whether in her Orry Kelly outfits or in her prison garb. It’s also an early showcase for the tough character she would excel at over the next few decades.
Both of these titles are commonly played on TCM or if you picked up the Columbia Pre-Code Set from the TCM Vault then you already have a copy of Ten Cents a Dance.
Most importantly these two titles give us a look at the up and coming Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden’s Golden Girl.