Posted by Jeff Stafford on August 2, 2008
Among the many actors and actresses receiving their own 24-hour salute on Turner Classic Movies during August, I’m particularly pleased to see a day devoted to Barbara Stanwyck with an emphasis on her early, Pre-Code movies for Warner Bros. and Columbia. It’s not a comprehensive program by any means – Ladies of Leisure, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies They Talk About and The Purchase Price aren’t on the schedule – but some of the most important ones are here such as BABY FACE (1933), probably the best and raciest of all the Pre-Code films…and that’s saying something. It was also the last straw for the Production Code office and the swan song for the Pre-Code period, bringing major changes to the way sexuality, violence and social behavior was depicted in American movies. Stanwyck’s Lily Powers in BABY FACE – a company employee who uses sex to entrap and control men as she climbs from bottom floor to penthouse apartment – is probably her boldest performance in the lot.
NIGHT NURSE (1931), ILLICIT (1931), SHOPWORN (1932), and TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) are coming up as well on Tuesday, August 19, along with her first film in a leading role, THE LOCKED DOOR (1929), and Frank Capra’s unsuccessful attempt to copy the style of a Fannie Hurst tearjerker, FORBIDDEN (1932).
For those whose mental image of Stanwyck is stuck in the time warp of her “Big Valley” TV Western or the mini-series “The Thorn Birds,” the sight of this incredibly sexy and provocative twenty-something-year-old actress may be quite a surprise in these earthy, street-smart melodramas. BABY FACE is such a marvel of bravado and economy in its storytelling and editing style that it puts the A pictures of its era to shame. But the film’s raw power is due more to Barbara Stanwyck’s gutsy performance than Alfred E. Green’s lean, mean pacing. Stanwyck’s Lily Powers may be the only “bad girl” in American cinema to launch a career of male exploitation based on the philosophy of Nietzsche. In the prerelease version of the film, Lily, who is stuck working in her father’s sleazy speakeasy, is encouraged by an immigrant shoemaker in her neighborhood to read the writings of the German philosopher and learn (revealed in the clip below) – “Exploit yourself! Be strong! Use men to get the things you want?” And boy, does she. (In the theatrical release version, the shoemaker’s advice is consideredly altered to impart a more moral and cautionary approach to life – I assume from the 76 minute running time listed on TCM’s schedule that they are showing the prerelease version which is a “must see” if you’ve never experienced BABY FACE).
Lily’s journey from steel mill town to the big city whizzes by quickly, pausing only for a freight car seduction in order to “pay” for her passage – another scene that didn’t make it to the theatrical version (watch it below).
Lily is a truly ambivalent creation, one whose single-minded, amoral behavior is both alienating and admirable considering the horrible life she escaped – and the film makes it pretty clear that she was sexually abused by her father and also forced to service his male customers as a young girl. [Spoiler alert] The fact that she goes unpunished in the end of the prerelease version but ends up with bank president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) is a smack in the face to bourgeois conventionality. This was, after all, a woman whose cold-blooded manipulations caused one man to murder a rival and kill himself and almost forced her lover Trenholm to commit suicide after refusing to help him in a financial crisis. BABY FACE is a great entry point for Pre-Code viewing – funny, provocative, lowdown and shrewd.
NIGHT NURSE is just as much fun but much more rambunctious and unstructured in comparison. Director William Wellman appears to be experimenting with tonal shifts in the storyline which veers from gangster melodrama to hospital soap opera to domestic screwball comedy and gives the whole enterprise the feel of a wild west town. Stanwyck shines as private nurse Lora Hart, a tough, no-nonsense working girl, who discovers the children she is caring for are being starved to death by the family doctor so he can gain access to their trust funds with the help of the family chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable).
There is a lot of inappropriate behavior on display here – some of it hilarious (Stanwyck and the always delightful Joan Blondell have plenty of double entendre conversation scenes in their underwear), some of it shocking (Gable is no Rhett Butler here but a brutal SOB who sucker punches Stanwyck in the face at one point, knocking her unconscious). My favorite moment though is when she tries to rouse the drunken mother of the children and gives up in disgust, looking down on her as she mutters, “You, MOTHER…” The ending is equally outrageous with a well-deserved murder going unpunished and, in fact, treated as an amusing kiss-off line in the happy fadeout.
ILLICIT doesn’t meet the high expectations set by BABY FACE and NIGHT NURSE but the first half of the film in which a free-spirited, unconventional couple (played by Stanwyck and James Rennie) tease, taunt and spar verbally with each other is surprisingly modern and witty in its attitudes and humor. Once the couple feel the social pressure to get married to please James’ family, the film becomes formulaic and less interesting, piling up the melodramatic contrivances. Still, Stanwyck makes it worth watching, displaying some of the crack comic timing in the first half that she later brought to THE LADY EVE.
Here’s the ILLICIT trailer http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?o_cid=mediaroomlink&cid=32116
TEN CENTS A DANCE is also a case where the first half is stronger than the second but the seedy atmosphere of the dance hall where Stanwyck works, the sexual tension between her and wealthy admirer Ricardo Cortez and Monroe Owsley as Eddie, Stanwyck’s no-good, chiseling husband keep things lively. In so many of these early films, Stanwyck’s profession is clearly some form of prostitution without being explicit about it. Here she is paid to dance with male customers in a public dance hall and to “entertain them up to a certain point” without arousing the suspicions of the police. As usual, there’s lots of great wisecracks and colorful street patter.
I haven’t seen SHOPWORN yet but it sounds promising. Stanwyck plays a waitress who falls for a high society beau (played by Regis Toomey) whose mother tries to wreck the relationship, even bringing a morals charge against her and having her sent off to a reformatory. A comment by mukava991 on IMDB notes some of the risqué dialogue such as this detail: “In one scene Stanwyck, trying to memorize the dictionary as a means of self improvement, shows her suitor a list of words beginning with the letter “e” which she has written down. He reads them aloud, stops after “ejaculate,” looks at her with some curiosity and says that even he would never use such a word. That moment immediately pigeonholes this film as pre-Code. The scene continues artfully with one-word exchanges all starting with the letter “e.”
Among the other Stanwyck Pre-Code films that TCM won’t be showing this time is another favorite, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933), which is right up there with NIGHT NURSE and BABY FACE. In this women-in-prison melodrama, Stanwyck plays a gangster moll who winds up in the big house after a failed bank heist and becomes the “fresh fish” in the tank. But since this is Stanwyck, she is no shrinking violent and mixes it up with the worst of them from butch prison matron to hellcat inmate, coming out on top and practically running the joint. There’s plenty of tough, lowlife characters on display, several lesbian references, and bawdy humor to spare.
THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933), which TCM showed during its Asians on Film series recently, is a very offbeat Pre-Code for Stanwyck. An interracial love story between a missionary and a Chinese warlord, it was a rather taboo topic for its era and director Frank Capra brings out the exotic sexuality of the pairing. Once you get used to the fact that a non-Chinese actor (Nils Asther in heavy Fu Manchu-like makeup) is playing General Yen, the stereotyped depiction, Hollywood style, of Asian culture gives way to an intriguing and unusual love story.
There’s not enough time or space to go into the other Stanwyck Pre-Codes now but THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932), also directed by William Wellman, is worth checking out for individual scenes, even if the picture doesn’t ever gell. The biggest problem with the picture is credibility. Stanwyck’s motivation to flee city life and her gangster boyfriend and become a mail order bride to a farmer in North Dakota is never convincing or satisfactorily explained. But it has a crude energy and plenty of off-color humor and dialogue to make up for the artificial romance at the film’s center. The praire wedding celebration that turns into a moonshine orgy is over the top and so is Wellman’s presentation of some of Stanwyck’s farm neighbors who are either cretins, drunkards, sexual deviants – or all three combined.
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