While the Depression may have set everyone spinning back to believing that their personal fates lay outside of their control, Stanwyck’s character, Lily Powers, is a girl indeed of flowering powers, revealed to her by the local cobbler—who a bit like Joseph Stalin, whose father was a cobbler, and carried with him the tools of shoe-making for the rest of life—who has matters more political and philosophical on his mind. A devotee of Nietzsche—at least of Nietzsche’s sayings collected by his sister after the philosopher had gone mad—Adolph Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) consuls his young admirer, Lily, to take advantage of the power of her sexuality, arguing that she should use her sexual appeal, like the men use physical bulk, to achieve the goals she desires.
And with that Lily and Chico are off to New York! A scene in the empty freight car, as the two women attempt to tramp along as hobos, demonstrates that Lily has suddenly caught on to what the old cobbler has tried to teach her. Discovered by a train official, the two are ordered off and threatened with imprisonment. Looking carefully into her assailant’s face, Lily suggests they “talk it over,” the idea of which, after a quick smirk, the railway man takes up, joining the two women as Chico moves away in a joyously sexually-laced song. In the dark railway car we catch only the glimpse of the line-man’s gloves tossed beside Lily, she carefully moving them aside—obviously to make room for him next to her in the straw.
What is interesting and of great importance in her dizzying successes is that the script goes out of its way to demonstrate that Lily is not only a competent worker, but is exceptional, that she deserves the promotions that she has sexually obtained. Indeed, without her behind-the-scenes manipulation of the men around her, she would likely never have been awarded what she truly deserves.
But we also sense that Lily is now holding out for something far more desirable, that through her meteoric rise and fall she has discerned that she has still selling herself short. A clue might be in Cortland’s strange last name, Trenholm, which derives from a Nordic words meaning “crane island.” The tall stately birds, clearly representative of social heights and grace of Cortland’s ancestry, suggest a world apart from the others she has previously encountered, a cultural enclave to which she now suddenly wants entry. The film portrays her unexpected patience as she waits, without an umbrella, in the rain, for Trenholm to appear from the building wherein she has just reencountered him, to enter his awaiting car. Naturally, he must offer her a ride and the temporary cover of his umbrella.