This so-called ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood film, part of a retrospective taking place here in London, is renowned for being one of the films which finally ensured the enforcement of the Production Code (which ruled against general licentiousness in the pictures). For its content, it’s a fascinating film: a compelling Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly, who starts out as a barmaid at a suburban speakasy, forced from an early age by her tyrannical father to sell herself to her customers, though she is hardly passive around these drunken oafs seen swilling their beer. When her father dies in a fire at the bar, it’s her face that is framed in close-up, reacting utterly impassively to his death. She soon moves to the city with her black co-worker, prompted in part by the words of a local cobbler, the only man she admires, who quotes Nietzsche at her, exhorting her to do whatever she can to control men and help herself. Almost immediately, having hopped illegally onto a freight train, she is seen bargaining with a furious railroad worker, using sex to get what she wants. When the pair arrive in the city, she follows this pattern by literally sleeping her way to the top of a company, a vignette on each floor between her and a hapless male manager followed by the camera moving up the outside of the building to frame her next office conquest. It’s only when she reaches the boardroom (though sadly she’s never a board member, just the mistress of the President) that she encounters resistance from the founder’s playboy son, Courtland (George Brent). Yet while he sees through her ruse, this is hardly the end of her story. It’s tempting to just recount the plot blow by blow, for that’s where a lot of the film’s power to shock (at least, relative to the other films of the period) lies. Dramatically, it does rely rather extensively on Stanwyck’s performance, as stretches of it is constructed from a number of fairly repetitive scenes of office conquests, married men succumbing to her insistent charms. That said, Stanwyck is fantastic, and it’s great to see a film that largely withholds judgement from its predatory female star, though she does eventually succumb to romantic feelings towards Courtland.
Director Alfred E. Green; Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck [as “Mark Canfield”]); Cinematographer James Van Trees; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014.