It stars Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers, a young woman with more than her share of hard knocks. A speakeasy waitress in Erie, Pennsylvania, Lily divides her time between fighting off the advances of the customers and turning tricks at the behest of her widowed father/pimp, a bootlegger. She seems to look forward only to visits from Mr. Cragg, a Nietzsche-quoting cobbler who exhorts her to "use men, not let them use you!"
After her father dies in a still explosion, Lily finally heeds Cragg's advice. She and Chico, her black friend/maid, run off to New York City, where Lily proceeds to sleep her way up to the top of a bank, eventually becoming a kept woman. Hearts are broken, etc., etc.
The film was adapted from an original story by future 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck (writing as "Mark Canfield"). A young John Wayne, years before he became a star, appears here as one of Lily's pathetic rejects.
Tropes in this film:
- Abusive Parents: Well, Lily's father isn't shown beating her, but apparently he's been pimping her out since she was a teenager, so he probably qualifies.
- Bowdlerize: The original version of the film downplayed the Nihilistic philosophy and sexual content. It also changes the ending to Lily becoming more modest and giving up her old ways.
- Bungled Suicide: Courtland tries to kill himself after Lily refuses to help him.
- Black Best Friend: "If Chico goes, I go!"
- Calling the Old Man Out: See Freudian Excuse below
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Lily's mother is dead before the movie starts, while her father is killed by an exploding still.
- Everybody Smokes: Well, it was the 1930s, what do you expect?
- Freudian Excuse: "Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame! My father! Ever since I was 14, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty, rotten men! And you're lower than any of them!"
- Gaussian Girl: Lily
- Gold Digger: Lily
- Grievous Bottley Harm: Lily smashes a bottle over a guy's head. It doesn't even knock him out. He just walks away, holding his head with one hand.
- The Ingenue / The Vamp: A main part of Lily's method of seduction is alternating and blurring the lines between the two.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: When Courtland is accused by the board of directors for mismanagement of funds, he needs his gifts and money he gave Lily back to pay for bail and legal defense. At first she refuses because she only cares about having money and leaves for France. But she changes her mind and comes back.
- Male Gaze: Early in the film the camera takes the POV of a would-be john and slowly pans up Lily's body, from her ankles to her face.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: One of her former lovers finds out that she's now being kept by the bank president. So he bursts into her penthouse and kills the bank president and himself.
- Office Lady: Lily, when she's not digging for gold
- Playing the Victim Card: Lily usually initiates the relationships with her bosses and when caught, will blame them of Sexual Extortion and claim to be a victim of circumstance.
- Real Song Theme Tune: The well-known eponymous standard, which predates the film by several years.
- Salt and Pepper: Lily and Chico
- Sex Equals Love: Subverted. The men Lily seduces are always surprised to find that she doesn't buy into this worldview and therefore has no problem chucking them once they've outlived their usefulness.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: When Lily seduces a man at the company, the camera cuts to the outside of the building and moves up to the next story's window, showing that she's literally working her way up the company by sleeping with them.
- Sleazy Politician: One pays Lily's father to sleep with her. When she refuses, he threatens to shut down their speakeasy.
- Sleeping Their Way to the Top: Lily does this literally (see Sexy Discretion Shot).
- The Stoic: Lily
- Straw Nihilist: Professor Cragg in the uncensored version, and Lily for majority of the movie.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Professor Cragg told Lily there was "a right way and a wrong way" after describing the type of power she has, but that was all he said and left Lily to draw her own conclusions. In the uncensored version, Cragg encourages Lily to exploit her powers over men to get what she wants.
- Video Credits: At the beginning, introducing the main players. This was a standard feature of Warner Brothers' opening credits from about 1932-34.