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Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Code Films
Remind Me


A modest little programmer designed to capitalize on star Barbara Stanwyck's burgeoning image as a plucky heroine, Shopworn (1932) is a story about a waitress and a rich student who fall in love and is best characterized as an early-Capra wannabe. Director Frank Capra had been able to highlight Stanwyck and her tough vulnerability and turn what might be far-fetched but clichéd movie plots into something more in both Forbidden (1932), about a librarian who falls for a politician, and Ladies of Leisure (1930), about a model who becomes involved with a high class artist. But without the master director's particular touch, Shopworn was more prosaic under the direction of Nick Grinde.

Columbia Studios loved making these class romances, primarily because Capra was so good at them, but the studio also attributed much of their success to the talented screenwriting team behind them. Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin were experts at fashioning stories pitting lower class lasses against upper crust swells, object romance, or at least intimate fraternization. This was a theme embraced by director Capra, and the talented trio were in their element. Swerling was a Russian refugee who had grown up in New York and fell into newspaper work which led to a playwriting career, including work with the early Marx Brothers and several Broadway successes. Columbia snatched him up in the early 1930s to write movies, Capra's Ladies of Leisure being one of his early successes. (Swerling would later have a huge success writing Guys and Dolls with Abe Burrows). His frequent screenwriting partner Robert Riskin had been a playwright in New York and was similarly recruited by Columbia to turn out movie scripts. The studio teamed him with Swerling and away they went. For Shopworn, they worked with the basic story from Sarah Y. Mason, a writer who had come to Hollywood in the silent era. First intending to become an actress but soon discovering that she didn't have the talent for it, Mason is credited for inventing the movie job of continuity person, a job she filled on Douglas Fairbanks' movie Arizona (1918) when it was on location. Now happy behind the scenes, she soon established herself as a writer along with her husband writer/director Victor Heerman and they shared a long, happy life and career.

While Swerling and Riskin wrapped up the writing of Shopworn, Barbara Stanwyck worked hard on a project of her own: saving her tumultuous marriage to star vaudeville comic Frank Fay. He was a larger-than-life personality who played hard, drank harder and had an ego that needed constant massaging. Barbara followed him to New York City for an engagement at the Palace; the unusual show mixed Fay's comedy with Stanwyck's Hollywood glamour. She acted in short skits adapted from her movie scripts dolled up in an imported Hollywood star wardrobe; all of it was designed to help drive ticket sales for her husband's engagement. But reviews weren't kind and she was clearly out of her element. Her marriage to Fay would eventually end in 1935, but at least she had the production of Shopworn in Hollywood to look forward to in the meantime as the new year approached.

Columbia assigned director Nick Grinde to Shopworn. Grinde started his career in the late 1920s, working in shorts and features, and at various studios. Early successes were 1930's The Bishop Murder Case and Good News, both at MGM. Capra's cinematographer Joseph Walker was also on the picture, and the studio was no doubt hoping for a substantial success, even with a different director in charge of the proceedings. The strong point of the production was Barbara Stanwyck herself, with her working-class appeal and strength helping her stand up to the hoity-toity society prejudices that conspired to keep her down. In Shopworn, Barbara plays a waitress in a college town who is attracted to a shy and studious medical student (Regis Toomey). Toomey was a hard-working leading man of the second string variety, never quite achieving matinee idol status through his long career but steadily working in all movie genres, and later in television.

The chief dramatic conflict in Shopworn is between Stanwyck's orphaned waitress Kitty Lane and Clara Blandick's Mrs. Livingston, the high society mother of Toomey's character. Blandick, best known for her role as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and usually cast as unpretentious, down-to-earth characters, was a late-blooming actress who didn't make her debut until the age of 33, though she worked steadily on both stage and in the movies from that point on. She is a formidable opponent in a different kind of role for her and her complete class contempt for Stanwyck is palpable and convincing. Veteran actress Zasu Pitts, a working actress since 1917 who soon became a silent comedy sensation (along with infrequent dramatic successes like Greed, 1924) was cast as Kitty's Aunt Dot, a reassuring presence who offers support to her beleaguered niece.

Blandick's society snob, fearing that her son will sully himself with a relationship with the waitress, trumps up a morals charge against the innocent Kitty, buys off a judge, and Kitty is sent away to serve her sentence. She eventually gets out and achieves her goal of becoming a successful entertainer, and of course runs into Toomey again, sending Blandick back into conniptions. (Interestingly, at this point Stanwyck is considerably less innocent than she used to be, thanks to her time in jail where she learned a thing or two about getting ahead in the world.) Toomey (now a famous surgeon) and Stanwyck again feel the love, though his mother is still clutching desperately and obsessively to her grown son, a psychological detail accented in the movie's dialogue. Swerling and Riskin's screenplay, which culminates in the frantic unveiling of a pistol by Blandick, might have transcended the pitfalls of an obvious denouement under a more nuanced director, but the story was played earnestly by the cast and in the end of course Kitty gets her man. (There are reports of censor cuts to the movie which may have eliminated the more earthy details of Kitty's rise to show biz fame.)

Shopworn was released in April of 1943. Contemporary reviews were tepid. As The New York Times said, it " beyond the powers of such capable players as Barbara Stanwyck, Regis Toomey, Clara Blandick and Zasu Pitts to make their actions in this film convincing or even mildly interesting." Still, watching the young and still-forming screen persona of Barbara Stanwyck take shape is fascinating. Though we may not be able to directly identify with such blatant class distinction as shown in Shopworn, when was the last time we heard about a Wall Street millionaire marrying a waitress, come to think of it? Maybe the characters have changed, but the dynamic goes on.

Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Nick Grinde
Screenplay: Jo Swerling, Robert Riskin, Sarah Y. Mason (original story too)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Irving Bibo, Milan Roder (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Kitty Lane), Regis Toomey (David Livingston), Zasu Pitts (Aunt Dot), Lucien Littlefield (Fred), Clara Blandick (Mrs. Helen Livingston), Robert Alden (Toby), Oscar Apfel (Judge Forbes), Maude Turner Gordon (Mrs. Thorne), Albert Conti (Andre Renoir).
BW-65m. Closed captioning.

by Lisa Mateas