Written by Gene Markey
Directed by Alfred E. Green
1933, 76 minutes
The more things change... Before there was an MPAA, there was the Hayes Code. And before the Code, you could make and release motion pictures that were... dirty. Undeniably filthy. Such as this delightful little gem, in which Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) shows a great deal of back, quite a bit of leg, and kisses (on-camera!) several men whom she is not shown being even romantically interested in, much less married to...
Oh, wait. None of that is very shocking to us, today. What might still be shocking, though, is her reasoning for doing so: she is the simplest kind of gold-digger, manipulating and sleeping with the men in her life simply so she can get ahead. She has been given a volume of Neitzsche by a cobbler she knows, and after her father's speakeasy where she and her "colored" friend Chico (Theresa Harris) works burns down, she makes her way to the big city with the explicitly-stated desire to crush all of her sentimentality and to use her wiles and her feminine power to gain the things that she needs to improve her status in life.
Oh, and it's stated on-screen that her father has been pimping her our since she was fourteen. Not bad for 1933, eh?
At just over an hour and fifteen minutes, this film covers a lot of ground. There's no fat here, and Lily's several "love affairs" are dealt with quickly. Along the way her manipulations break hearts, destroy lives, and overall make the people around her miserable, but so long as she always has another step up Lily takes it all in stride. In the end, Lily finds love and repents her wicked ways, but this seems an afterthought after her behavior through the film -- clearly, there was only so far filmmakers and movie audiences were expected to go.
What's interesting is the unspoken assumptions of movie audiences at the time. Lily is shown as being more racially-conscious than those around her, but the movie leaves her friend Chico behind whenever she is inconvenient, and Chico seems perfectly content to be her friend's maid. (Ironic, isn't it, that eighty-two years later Sandra Bullock's character in Crash would be considered brave for having much the same relationship as Lily has here....) While the sexual content of the film is now considered tame and expected, the unspoken racial and social constructions are more apparent than they would have been at the time of the film's release.
Today, no one would consider this to be daring or breakthrough material. But seen in context it was revolutionary, incendiary. Anyone looking for insight into the sexual politics of the first half of the twentieth century in motion pictures would be well advised to give this a look.
An aside: with this film and Following, I find myself liking the seventyish-minute-long movie format. Not quite the length of a modern feature, but longer than a short film -- it might be interesting to see a modern revival of the double-feature concept, with two hourlong films (which are forced to be lean and straightforward) separated by a short. But I'm probably just dreaming here....