There’s a moment in almost every one of Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-Code films when the actresses’ energy and fire breaks through into her character, creating a moment of pure emotion and intensity. It’s pure speculation to suggest that Stanwyck’s working-class background and upbringing directly influenced the snappy, back-chatting roles she took and how she chose to play them, but her brusque and no-nonsense approach allowed audience sympathy to remain on her side, no matter what role she was playing. Bank robber, gold-digging opportunist, a scrappy nurse: in the pre-Code era, Stanwyck played them all (and more). Her ability to walk the line between good and bad enabled her to get away with the characters – although that’s not to say the films escaped censorship.
Take 1933’s Baby Face (directed Alfred E. Green, also starring George Brent). Stanwyck’s promiscuous character Lilly Power set in motion a chain of events that would change film history forever: Darryl Zanuck – who co-wrote the screenplay – resigned from Warner Brothers, and calls for increased film censorship heightened. Of course, Zanuck, Green and Stanwyck were merely following the standards that had been set by I’m No Angel, Sign of the Cross and more, but Baby Face seemed to provoke particular outrage. Although previous characters had showed little remorse at ‘bad’ actions, there was something too natural about Stanwyck’s performance – it seemed like this was a course the everyday woman could follow – right to the top.
Various reports suggest Stanwyck herself had a hand in the creation of the character. She was keen to take on the role because it promised a transformation from dowdy to glam (see above). Fans ‘disapproved of all the ‘gingham and ‘flannel roles she had been playing, and wanted her to ‘go back to her evening gowns’ (and go back to them she did – Orry-Kelly’s social climbing wardrobe is truly wonderful and worthy of a post in it’s own right). Of course, the external transformation is part of a wider plot to attract the next man up the food chain. At an early age Lilly Power understood what men could – and did – take, she flipped the coin and used sex for her own gain. By playing the helpless innocent she allowed each man to retain control – they believed they were ‘in charge’ but, in reality, she was running the show. It’s no coincidence that most of Powers’ (female) co-workers guess what she’s up to pretty quickly. The first man to call her bluff is the bank’s newly appointed President, Mr Trenholm (Brent). He works out exactly who she is, and packs Lilly off to Paris, with the promise of a job and a ‘new start’. Not to be outsmarted for long, Lilly commits to the long game, bides her time and becomes the model employee. Trenholm’s reaction when he pays a visit to the Paris office is priceless.
Sex is just part of the scandal when it comes to Baby Face. Powers’ ambiguous relationship with her maid Chico (Theresa Harris) always teeters on the unknown. Their relationship, born out of a mutual dislike of Lilly’s father, is the film’s one real consistency. Clearly the bonds formed at the hands of abusive men hold firm, and Lilly is protective of her companion. Chico never rises above her place (she remains Lilly’s maid until the very end) but she’s a confidant and comrade – and most notably of all, she doesn’t have to put out to be rewarded. And lets not forget the system in which Powers chooses to operate. In Depression-era America, audiences must’ve enjoyed seeing bankers and their associates give way so easily to feminine charms. Most of the men Lilly seduces are older and wealthy, or young and flattered – but their common trait? Ignorance (even stupidity) and an inability to see Lilly for who, and what, she is.
Yet in spite of all her wrongdoings, audience sympathy remains firmly with Stanwyck. She’s just using what she knows to get ahead, her machinations don’t necessarily reflect her true self – she’s just doing what she can to better her own life. Who wouldn’t do the same? It’s a sentiment that plays out across many of Stanwyck’s pre-Code characters. In Ladies They Talk About (also released in 1933, directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley) Stanwyck’s cool and calculating Nan opens the film assisting some bank robbers. Except this time, her ‘poor me’ act doesn’t fool anyone, and she’s packed off to prison for her role, despite her best efforts to sway preacher and childhood friend David Slade (played by Preston Foster) to get her off the hook. As in Baby Face, she willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants – but it’s ok folks, she’s trying to make life better for herself.
There are other similarities between Lilly and Nan – plucky backchat and a strong female friendship (in Nan’s case, with Linda, another inmate). Punishing Nan from the start allows her to rebel against the system but she remains unrepentant, yearning after fellow gang member Lefty, who always promises to visit but never does. Nan might be bad, but many of her emotions are relatable. Whilst previous gangster and prison-related films focused solely on the male protagonist, Ladies They Talk About is interesting look at crime from a female perspective. Life behind bars isn’t glamorised – indeed many of these women have a limited moral compass and are indifferent to their wrongdoings. When Linda shows Nan how prison life works, she remark: ‘you’re always a few feet away from what you really want – freedom. And men’.
Despite the dysfunctionality there’s a strong sense of female solidarity, and the bickering and catfights are undercut with real warm relationships and true characters that have found their niche. Many of the characters are stereotyped – including the butch inmate who ‘likes to wrestle’ – and, in a lesson that could have been preached by Lilly Power herself, it’s intimated that only those willing to adopt masculine characters or values will survive. The remorseless Nan assists a prison breakout from the men’s cellblock because she believes her chum Slade can get her off the hook. She too will use the right man for a get out of jail card.
Clearly Stanwyck was comfortable playing strong, sexually empowered women and her self-assured, down-to-earth demeanour and crooked front tooth must’ve made her more relatable to audiences of the day than say, Mae West or Jean Harlow. Capable of depth and conflicting emotion – cool passion, cynical emotion, sensitive rage – she played everyday characters in just-about-feasible situations. That’s probably one of the reasons why Baby Face (and to a lesser extent, Ladies They Talk About) contributed so strongly to the implementation of the Hayes Code – this was dangerous behaviour that women could imitate and men could accept.
But ironically, today even her most progressive roles appear wildly sexist. Lilly Power might sleep her way ‘to the top’, but ‘the top’ isn’t independence or a successful career, it’s marriage to a wealthy man who will provide security and stability. Her strength is simultaneously celebrated and exploited. And both she and Nan still need a man in their corner. How is it possible to reconcile contemporary feminist discourse with pre-Code? The key is that – most notably in Baby Face – sexuality is championed and grudgingly respected. Powers’ knows it’s her ‘golden ticket’ to a better life and she’s not judged for using it by the men she seduces, perhaps because they know they would do the same if the roles were reversed.
Lilly and Nan might be anti-heroes, but they’re real and likeable. The and/or concept that governs much of contemporary characterisation is refreshingly absent in many of the films from era, as is the lack of punishment for refusing to conform to ideals. The idea that pre-Code provided women with more complex roles is hardly revelatory but too often the true value of these characters is obscured by reading the story lines with a contemporary eye whilst refusing to acknowledge how modern ideas have yet to catch up.
Further reading: Complicated Women – sex and power in pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on day 1 (the Silent era), day 2 (the Golden Age) and day 3 (the modern classics).