In a December 2013 article in the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot listed this as one of her 10 favorite Stanwyck films. We found the film very enjoyable, but without the punch of say, Stella Dallas or Double Indemnity. Part of the problem is that Stanwyck's portrayal is so powerful, her leading man is unable to stand up to her force of will. Whenever Stanwyck is on the screen, you watch her - Foster's David Slade is a non-entity next to her, and it's hard to understand what she - or even Susie (Dorothy Burgess) - see in him. It's not altogether Foster's fault - really, the film's focus is on the prison scenes. The romance and warfare between Nan and David are secondary to the interaction of the ladies in prison.
Based on a play by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles entitled Women in Prison, (for more information on the play, visit the AFI Catalog) the prison scenes are allegedly based on Mackaye's actual experiences in jail. When her husband was killed in an altercation with Mackaye's lover, Paul Kelly, Mackaye was sentenced to one to three years (she served 10 months) in San Quentin for "attempting to conceal facts" (TCM article) in his death. [Actor Paul Kelly would serve 25 months for manslaughter; he and Mackaye married after his release from prison, and were together until her death in 1940. He continued to a successful stage, screen, and television career following his release]. However, any attempt Mackaye may have made in the play to portray living conditions in San Quentin were surely eliminated by the film. The prison is so very nice and homey - it's more like a college dorm room. Though Warner Brothers had a technical advisor who had served time at San Quentin (San Quentin housed women until 1932, when Tehachapi was opened), they still prettied the prison up substantially. The women have decorations in their rooms, record players they can run all hours of the night, and seem to have the run of each other's cells. Almost everyone seems to get along (except for a woman who is clearly intended to be lesbian - she "likes to wrestle,' Nan is warned. You can see a picture of her at precode.com).
Lyle Talbot as Nan's partner-in-crime, Don is wasted in the film. He has so very little screen time - we would have expected him to visit her in prison, but that is given over to Lefty (Harold Huber), as the visits only start when Don also ends up in San Quentin. A shame, really, as Talbot is an engaging actor who has proved his ability to go toe-to-toe with strong women.
Lillian Roth appears in the film as Nan's prison friend, Linda. Roth is best remembered today as the subject of the Susan Hayward film I'll Cry Tomorrow. In our film, Linda gets an opportunity to sing "If I Could Be with You" to a photo of Joe E. Brown (not our idea of a heartthrob, but under contract to Warner Brothers when they released this film. Then again, so were Jimmy Cagney and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Go figure!). A noted Broadway actress, Roth's addiction to alcohol derailed her career. Between 1929 and 1939, she appeared in 22 films and shorts, often playing herself. (Starting in 1955, she began to make sporadic appearances in television and films). She also had a substantial career as a concert and nightclub performer. Married (and divorced) five times, she ended up broke when her last husband absconded with all of her money. She died from a stroke in 1980, aged 69. If you are not familiar with Roth, below is a film of her singing to Mr. Brown!