Thursday, February 23, 2023

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face, released in 1933, is one of the most notorious of all pre-code movies. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a girl who sleeps her way to the top. A girl who becomes known as Baby Face.

Lily Powers (Stanwyck) grows up in a small hick town. Her father runs a bar and he distils bootleg liquor. He also pimps out his daughter. He does this once too often and she decides to leave. When the still blows up he doesn’t have much choice.

There’s an old guy in the town who had befriended her. He’s into German philosophy and he sees potential in this girl. She could be a success if only she could learn to be a bit more focused, and learn to crush every trace of sentiment in her makeup.

Becoming focused and stamping out sentiment is something that Lily learns very quickly.

She arrives in New York with four dollars in her purse. What she needs is a job. The biggest building she can see is the Gotham Bank building. There should be lots of opportunities there for a smart girl.

Landing a job is easy. When there’s a man in charge of handing out jobs Lily will never lack for work. She’s asked if she has any experience. She replies that she has plenty.

The first job isn’t much but Lily knows how to move on to better positions. If you want a better job, find a more powerful man who can get it for you. Lily goes through lots of jobs at the bank, and lots of men. Eventually the bank president, Mr Carter, gets her the kind of job she likes, one where she doesn’t actually have to show up at the office. She can just laze around in her luxury apartment, admiring her furs and jewellery, while waiting for Mr Carter to find some time when he can get away from his wife.

Lily has reached one of her goals but there are complications. Some men just don’t understand when they’re not needed any more and keep turning up on the doorstep like lost puppies. Men like Mr Stevens. Men like that tend to do silly tiresome things that make life difficult for a girl.

Lily’s life gets very complicated. Now she has to deal with Courtland Trenholm George Brent). He runs the bank. Lily has never had any trouble managing men but Mr Trenholm is quite a challenge. He’s as smart as she is. In other ways he seems to be just like all the other men she’s known. That pleases her, since she knows how to handle such men. But it also vaguely disappoints her.

And her life is about to get complicated again.

The version of this movie that I saw was the prerelease print which is the movie as it was originally made. The 1933 theatrical release was censored. After 1934 the movie was of course banned. The prerelease version makes it crystal clear that Lily offers sex in exchange for advancement and presents. She’s not leading the men to believe that maybe she’ll sleep with them. It’s very obvious that she does sleep with them.

Society’s self-appointed moral guardians were outraged by this movie. They saw Lily as being essentially a high-class whore. Which is pretty much what she is. Of course if she’d stayed in her home town she would still have been a whore, but she’d have been a cheap whore. Moving to New York allows her to become a very expensive whore. Those are the only two options that life has to offer her.

Even more outrage was caused by Lily’s lack of shame or remorse. She’s a realist. And the men know the score. She’s offering them sex in exchange for advancement and money and they’re offering her advancement and money in exchange for sex. As far as Lily is aware that’s just how the world works. She’s unsentimental and ruthless but she doesn’t treat men any worse than they’ve always treated her. The moral watchdogs were not happy about seeing such a brutally realistic view of life being portrayed and they certainly weren’t happy about the suggestion that rich, powerful respectable men participate in such transactions.

A further level of outrage was added by the fact that several of the men with whom Lily gets involved are married men.

Barbara Stanwyck is extraordinarily good. And very sexy. While we might not entirely approve of Lily we can’t help liking her. George Brent is also very good.

This movie is one of three pre-code gems included in the TCM Archives Forbidden Hollywood two-disc DVD set which I bought recently. Both discs were faulty and Baby Face is the only one of the three movies I managed to get to play, and even then only with difficulty. Of course I may have been unlucky to get a faulty set. Baby Face gets a very nice transfer and the fact that it’s the uncut version is a major bonus.

Baby Face is a must-see for pre-code fans and for Barbara Stanwyck fans. In fact it’s a must-see movie for any classic movie fan. This is pre-code Hollywood at it’s most brutally honest. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most fascinating things about this film is Theresa Harris, a talented Black actress who plays Chico, Lily's best friend. This was the best role Harris had in her career. The two women were portrayed as equals in the first part of the story, a rare thing in Hollywood.