Scene Dwellers – #4 Ladies They Talk About

#4 Decorate and Alter: Aesthetics of Style in Ladies They Talk About (’33) [EPISODE 6]

Two short scenes in this gem starring Barbara Stanwyck capture the essence of how women cope in prison, through an escape in aesthetic balm, which revivifies their humanity from the institutional mandate to discipline and punish. The scenes connect by one of those pages- flying-off- the-calendar montages that illustrate time’s elapse.

When Stanwyck’s Nan hears the skinny about life in prison from Lillian Roth’s Linda, she asks saucer-eyed when she can see her cell. Aghast, Linda replies ‘Room my dear, let’s not be vulgar’. Linda’s emphasis on the colloquial resists diction of surveillance and control. A tracking shot surveys rooms that resemble a sorority house rather than panopticon. Undeterred, Nan wants to know if it’s true that they can decorate their rooms.

AFRICAN QUEEN, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, 1951

Indeed the jailbirds feather their nests through inventive interior design. In the first room of six, several gals listen as Lillian Roth croons ‘If I Could Be with You’ to candid headshots from a roster of Warner’s leading men, including Joe E. Brown and Dick Powell (we’ll refrain from offering an extensive discussion of an impossible level for suspension of disbelief right here and chalk it up to in-house marketing). Linda appears like a wholesome slumber party host instead of hoosegow inmate. Similar glossy fan pics could be found on any young woman’s bedroom walls. The camera slides next door, where Dorothy Burgess’s Susie reveals a complete reversal from the holy-roller persona as devout congregant of preacher David Slade (Preston Foster). Only one man—the preacher—adorns her walls, in multiple pictures in a straight line. Leg resting on the bed, she snaps hosiery into a garter belt as she scans her effect. Dressed in a slinky black lace teddy, the revivalist stages a seductive pose for her fantasy paramour; again, as any woman would do on the outside.


In the next room, Maude Eburne’s Aunt Maggie has her enormous pile of hair combed out by a young woman at a loss with how to manage. Aunt Maggie tells the hairdresser, ‘there’s a canary bird in there somewhere, if you can only find it’. Their everywoman beauty parlour spectacle transcends the prison setting. Alongside, a lady grooms a small dog and takes pleasure in baby talk, a fur baby scenario that occurs endlessly as a norm outside barred windows. Next, Helen Dickson’s cigar-chomping dead ringer for Gertrude Stein shows off for a lover with a round of calisthenics. The young woman seems duly impressed by the clear athletic prowess of the butch prisoner. Their scene of private courtship extends beyond correctional limits. In the last room, a trio of Latina ladies conduct a gossip session in lingerie. Gossip acts as glue for female bonding despite the carceral setting. Half a dozen rooms are personalised, made homey and comfortable as they would be in a rooming house or sorority on the outside. Coverlets, cushions, bric-a- brac, area rugs, lampshades and wall art remove the sting of incarceration.


After calendar pages whizz by, the camera cuts to a roll call for a postal delivery scene, where we have an opportunity to inspect their sartorial impact. Earlier scenes, such as when Nan first enters the prison are composed to blur individual women in favour of the press of their numbers on ‘new fish’ Nan. But here, the mise-en- scéne provides enough space for and between each woman that invites a perspective on their distinctive appearance. Orry-Kelly ‘s design for the custodial sentence uniform offers a brilliant insight toward how women brandish fashion as a tool for self-expression and esteem. Somehow, he revamps one standard look into multiple variations, which testifies to the creative and life-affirming potential within fashion.


Men in the adjacent wing adhere to a strict military grade uniform and marching formation, but by contrast, we see the women revel in their individuality and personal taste. Although the square-neck, lower-calf length pinstripe frock differs only in two basic shades (one a bit lighter than the other), each prisoner intervenes with the penitential garment so that no two are exactly alike. Women pride themselves in presenting a singular style. Orry-Kelly underscores the imaginative faculty fashion manifests; furthermore, each modification of the standard garb proffers a subversive protest to state authority. Each bit of smocking; every stretch of linen and lace; the ingenious range of yokes designed to soften and change the harsh neckline; the assorted collars, cuffs, sleeves, ruffles and bows all serve as a fashion votary that reflect an acute desire to communicate with clothing. Ladies of the cellblock defy state authority through their dress, a glamorous flight from their grim reality.