If any woman from the annals of American cinema could deservedly claim to embody female empowerment, it must have been Barbara Stanwyck. She was, at once, the most world-weary and ambrosially beckoning actress of all the great stars who emerged in the 1930s. What made her so subtly irresistible to so many men was that she could just as easily kiss you as kick you, so to speak, and she routinely did both. She wasn't smothering in her sexuality. She wasn't ostentatiously teasing or tempting. She wasn't an archetype like Mae West or Jean Harlow. She was usually cynical. Ironically, Stanwyck, whose performances were made up of forthrightness and emotional honesty, typically played dubiously deceitful women who shielded themselves with an almost impenetrable front of one sort or another. That dubiousness and deceitfulness was hard-earned, however; in role after role, the actress raised by her older sister in Brooklyn, straightforwardly won over the inherent sympathy of the audience, including men, by personifying the feminine backlash/uphill battle against a man-dominated world. Baby Face (1933) remains the frankest and most essential picture, capturing as it does Stanwyck's wisecracking, hard-as-nails frontal callousness that she had to wear like a uniform in her objective of penetrating the corporate world. Separated by a chromosome from her male counterparts and rivals, she triumphantly compensates by being singularly tenacious.
Stanwyck's portrayals of the hard-edged carnivore with the carefully protected winsome exterior of an innocent lamb foregrounded for the sake of the unsuspecting chumps, criminals, bullies and schemers were numerous. Her early films, especially beginning with her second feature and first “talkie,” The Locked Door (1929), Ladies of Leisure (1930), Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Night Nurse, The Miracle Woman (all 1931), Forbidden, The Purchase Price (both 1932), Ladies They Talk About and Baby Face (both 1933), Gambling Lady and A Lost Lady (1934), among others, all played to the delicious duality, turbid and dazzling all at once, of her “standard” character, the beleaguered but never even remotely beaten tough dame, with subtly differing shadings. (Interestingly, one of her best performances was of an entirely different kind of woman in William A. Wellman's underrated gem, So Big from 1932.) Whether she was Annie Oakley (1935) or The Lady Eve (1941), or a Ball of Fire (1941) or a Lady of Burlesque (1943), she was the walking, talking, dancing, prancing definition of the alluring darling-meets-women's liberation, the supernova sweetie who calculatedly reasoned just how much smooching and bedding down was necessary to wrap the hapless men of her world around her little finger.
The general rules of pre-code “women's pictures” apply to Shopworn (1932), a speedily-paced sixty-five minute film, which finds a young woman named Kitty Lane (Stanwyck) becomes a waitress at a greasy spoon restaurant near a college campus after her father is killed in a mining accident. The following lines of dialogue display the rigors, the trials and tribulations of her job, particularly when it comes to dealing with the men who swarm around her:
Toby: [tries to grab Kitty's hand, but she pushes it away] Say Kit, won't you go to the show with me tonight?
Kitty Lane: For what?
Toby: Well, you can't do much with a crowd around.
Kitty Lane: That's why I like crowds. [Fred calls out an order from the kitchen, and Kitty walks away.]
Toby: [following her] But Kit, there's a lot of things I want to tell you.
Kitty Lane: Only one, Toby. And the answer is "no."
Toby: Don't you know any three-letter words?
Kitty Lane: Nix!
Toby: [good naturedly] Why you...
Toby's chum at diner #1: Hey Toby, come on! We got places to go!
Toby's chum at diner #2: Come on, cut the romance!
Toby's chum at diner #2: [as the crowd of young men leaves en masse, with Toby] Boy, you couldn't lure a woman out of a burning building.
Kitty Lane: [waiting on David at the diner] ... How come *you* never annoyed me?
David Livingston: Well, I don't like to compete with the whole college.
Kitty Lane: If I owned this joint I'd bust ya in the nose for that.
David Livingston: [looking up from the book he has been studying] Yes, and if I were your brother instead of a customer here, I'd spank you. I'd like to finish this chapter.
Kitty Lane: Well, go ahead, finish it someplace else where they burn incense or something.
David Livingston: Alright, I will. I don't like this place anyhow. You may be hot, but the coffee's cold. [gets up to leave]
David Livingston: Keep the change.
Kitty Lane: [throws David's coin on the floor; then, under her breath:] Pinhead .... Nitwit ....
Kitty Lane: [finds his hat on the chair] Hey, you forgot your hat. [runs after him]
Kitty Lane: Hey stupid, you forgot your hat!
It is with the prim and proper David Livingston (Regis Toomey), giving an intentionally flat and somnolent a medical student at the nearby university, that Stanwyck's Kitty falls in love. She's from the “wrong side of the tracks”; he's a young man of privilege, with a scarily possessive mother worthy of Hitchcock (played to the hilt by Clara Blandick). This being pre-code, almost anything can happen. Kitty and David quickly fall in love: a modern segue begins the saga properly, as the viewer is thrown from the animalistic mating rituals to the actual glow of love.
Kitty wants to learn all of the “big words” David knows, and one evening he spies a piece of paper on which she has written medical terms from his oft-carried book. She is going alphabetically through the book's index and writing down words to which she does not know the meanings. The letter she is on is “E,” and among the words present on the paper David looks at and reads aloud from is “ejaculate.” The one-word statement, the reaction... David protests that he would never use such language. It is a jarring moment, another piece of persuasive evidence suggesting that pre-code Hollywood films were as adult as any kind of feature, however constricted and shaped by the sometimes regrettable unwritten “rules” of pre-code melodramas they may have been.
Just as it appears as though Kitty and David will enjoy imminent wedded bliss, David's dictatorial mother throws a terrible wrench in the proceedings, conspiring with a crooked judge to send Kitty to a draconian reformatory, while allowing her son to believe Kitty elected to take five thousand dollars as compensation for not being able to marry him, all in an effort to drive the two apart. The repartee between Stanwyck's hurt and incensed Kitty and the odious Judge Forbes (Oscar Apfel) demonstrably showcases the radicalism on display in more than a few “pre-code” pictures. Class distinctions are repeatedly made abundantly clear, but they are presented with dire cynicism and Depression-soaked bitterness.
Judge Forbes: [trying to bribe Kitty to give David up] I thought you'd prefer cash. Five thousand dollars. Merely for leaving town, immediately.
Kitty Lane: [She looks down at the bills in his hand, and slowly raises her head with a look of
anger and contempt in her eyes.] What are you trying to make of me--what you wish I was? Something cheap and common, something that money can buy? [her anger rising]
Kitty Lane: Well, you can't. Nobody can! You and the nice, decent people who sent you here are the real cheap ones ... trying to put a price on something there isn't any price for. [almost hysterical now]
Kitty Lane: If that's being decent, I'm glad I'm common! [crying and screaming]
Kitty Lane: If that's being rich, I'm glad I'm cheap, and I'm gonna stay cheap! Because no matter how cheap I am, I'm not for sale! [She throws the money in his face and runs out.]
Shopworn was directed by the appropriately named Nick Grinde, one of the largely individually unremembered workhorses at Warner Brothers, who churned out over fifty “B” movies of all types and genres, making fast-paced, modestly-scoped pictures with workmanlike ability. Where Shopworn's peculiar magic emanates from is its screenplay, which was worked on by Sarah Y. Mason (credited with the original story), Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin. Surveying their respective screenwriting credits, one can surmise with significant certitude that it was the writing contributions that ensured Shopworn was more than merely Stanwyck showing off her talents.
Mason aided in continuity for The Broadway Melody (1929) and wrote screenplays for films such as The Age of Consent (1932), Little Women (1933), The Age of Innocence, Imitation of Life (both 1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935), Stella Dallas (1937) and Golden Boy (1939) (the latter two Stanwyck-starrers), creating indelibly rich and traditional melodramas. Swerling would go on after Shopworn to write screenplays for Man's Castle (1933), Pennies from Heaven (1936), contribute uncredited writing for Gone With the Wind (1939), write The Westerner (1940), Lifeboat (1944) and help shape the screenplay of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Riskin wrote the play of the Stanwyck-starring film Illicit (1931), The Miracle Woman (also 1931), contributing dialogue that snappily enlivened films for Frank Capra such as American Madness (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Meet John Doe (1941). The three disparate sensibilities combined for a winning recipe in Shopworn, a breezy Depression-era melodrama that has a lot of fun and makes its points in practically the same cinematic breath.
As noted here with regards to Possessed (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932), many of the “pre-code” pictures starring women like Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and many others sadly mark the fragility of sincere artistic and societal advancement. The women of these pictures were routinely outwardly flamboyant and sensationally captivating, yet over and over they were called upon to draw back into their instinctively maternal shells and sacrifice the things they wanted the most in favor of what they knew was right for someone they loved. It's not an altogether implausible scenario, however repetitiously reenacted it became, standards and morals and actual real-life cynicism of a different kind colluded to frequently twist the characteristics of the woman at the heart of the film. In its concluding scenes, Shopworn, perhaps most bizarrely—comforting, rewarding, or absurdly naïve and unrealistic, take your pick—has its cake, eats it and has another one, too. It's more than a little ungainly at the finish line, but Stanwyck's potency and assuredness help to steer it away from being outright grotesque. She gives her character everything she has, and in doing so, lets her experiences as one of the ultimate go-getters rub off on all of her onscreen personas. This was a beautiful and sassy lady, the real thing, and she made her characters in their worlds just as genuine as she was.