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Once were films

Barbara Stanwyck before the Hays Code
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  April 4, 2006

PRE-CODE BARBARA: She wasn't like anything the movies had seen before.The riveting young Barbara Stanwyck who stars in Night Nurse (1931), Baby Face, and Ladies They Talk About (both 1933) — three potboilers the Brattle Theatre has billed over the next week — is an embodiment of that blessedly uncorseted but sadly brief era just before Hollywood was battened down by the self-censoring Hays (Production) Code in 1934. (Baby Face, in a newly restored print that promises to be even sexier than the previously available version, is being shown on its own during the weekend; weeknights it’s double-billed with first Night Nurse and then Ladies.) Stanwyck’s performances in these years, when she became a star, explore the range of female sexual behavior from repressed and unleashed (The Bitter Tea of General Yen) to free-spirited (Ladies of Leisure) to voracious. Baby Face is located at the farthest end of the spectrum: Lily Powers — who escapes a mining town after her saloonkeeper father is killed, heads for Manhattan, and sleeps her way up the secretarial ladder at a bank — is the kind of hard-boiled dame the Hays Code forced filmmakers to vilify (though audiences continued to adore her). In the fascinating Baby Face, she isn’t the femme fatale; she’s the heroine.

Sexually forthright, with the confrontational, squaring-off presence of a tigress alert to intruders and a tender underside that always caught you off guard, Stanwyck wasn’t quite like anything the movies had seen before. That’s because her power was as dependent on what she could do with that gruff, wised-up proletarian alto voice — the way she could use it to tear a line to shreds or veer frighteningly out of control, riding up into hysteria — as on her alert, not-entirely-formed face and her confident physicality. The authority in that voice, as well as its articulation of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, school-of-hard-knocks background of her characters, was a key element in Hollywood’s movement, in the early-talkie period, toward a grittier realism than the stylization of the silents had allowed. You could say that Stanwyck and the more delicate Sylvia Sidney, who often played slum angels, were the first realist heroines in American movies. And along with Greta Garbo, who’d already developed her style in late silents, Stanwyck represented the advance guard of the great, complex ’30s actresses; Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Margaret Sullavan followed in her wake. She was stage-trained, though so instinctively camera-savvy and so economical of gesture that you wouldn’t have guessed it unless you thought about the way she handled big emotional scenes, precisely yet expansively.

Even in the early ’30s, the burgeoning Production Code exerted enough influence on Hollywood to mediate the meaner characters Stanwyck played, which is why both Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About are somewhat schizoid about their protagonists. Lily Powers’s ruthlessness toward the bank employees she beds (her first bank beau is a young, earnest John Wayne), each of whom she discards once he’s done everything he can for her career, derives from a hatred of men that’s seated in her relationship with her father (Robert Barrat). Powers pimps her out to the cop who guarantees protection for his speakeasy; the movie implies that he’s done the same for his pals and that he’s manhandled her himself. When he blows up in his own still, the flames light up her face, her jaw set in a satisfied half-smile as she hears a neighbor comment on the hellishness of his fate. Stanwyck’s Lily is devoid of softness; sentiment is a resource she can manipulate shrewdly. Her final conquest (George Brent) takes over the bank after his predecessor, who was keeping her, is killed by one of the lovers she’s jilted; he marries her, making her respectable at last. When he begs her to sacrifice the bonds and jewels he’s given her in order to save him from bankruptcy, the revelation that she truly loves him comes as a shock to the viewer. (The filmmakers, director Alfred Green and writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, manage to limn the happy ending with a bitter touch of irony.)

In Ladies They Talk About, which Howard Bretherton directed, Stanwyck plays a B-girl who lands in prison as accessory to a bank robbery. Unrepentant, she continues to help out her gangster pals from the inside, obtaining the information they need to escape from the men’s side of the penitentiary. And her response to the evangelist/social reformer (the lame Preston Foster) who falls for her and wants to lead her to salvation is to use him for her own ends and then vow revenge when she believes (mistakenly) that he’s responsible for the foiling of her friends’ prison break that leads to their deaths. Her eventual capitulation to the evangelist and to her own finer feelings isn’t any more convincing than the last reel of Baby Face. Still, Ladies They Talk About is a colorful melodrama, a few rungs below Baby Face, perhaps, but vivified by Stanwyck’s presence and by the entertaining women’s-ward scenes, with Maude Eburne as a cackling old biddy who waxes nostalgic about the brothel she operated and Ruth Donnelly as a sympathetic Irish matron who walks around with a cockatoo on her shoulder.

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Once were films
Wow -- as a longtime Stanwyck fanatic, I can say with some authority that Steve Vineberg really "gets" this wonderful actress. Beautifully observed and written, Steve. Just wish I were in your area to catch these early BS films on the big screen.
By Roger on 04/06/2006 at 8:05:35

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