by Matt Levine
Whenever I try to explain my undying love for Barbara Stanwyck, two images immediately come to mind: her effortless seduction of “Pottsy” (Henry Fonda) in The Lady Eve (1941), achieved by nothing more than the removal of her gloves (both the simplest and sexiest striptease in the history of movies); and her clobbering of a lecherous creep with a beer bottle (shortly after she takes a swig from it) in the inimitable Baby Face. Stanwyck’s allure—part steely, part sultry—meshes perfectly with Baby Face, which disguises its bitter cynicism beneath the glittering veneer of a comedic star vehicle. Made during the lowest depths of the Great Depression, the film finds something admirable in one woman’s spirited exploitation of a corrupt, chauvinistic American economy, which rewards her for her zealous manipulation.
Director: Alfred E. Green
Producer: William LeBaron
Writers: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, story by Darryl F. Zanuck (as Mark Canfield)
Cinematographer: James Van Trees
Editor: Howard Bretherton
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay, Arthur Hohl, John Wayne, Robert Barrat, Douglas Dumbrille, Theresa Harris
US Theatrical Release: July 13, 1933
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Released in 1933, Baby Face is one of the most sublime examples of Hollywood's Pre-Code era. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America—led by the dogmatic moral watchdog Will Hays, who was tasked with cleaning up Hollywood’s torrid public reputation—began enforcing its stringent set of rules as to what American movies could show onscreen. For at least two decades after its strict enforcement, the Production Code ensured that sex, violence, and illicit activity would be kept to a minimum, and that characters who defied a conservative moral order would reap a sort of Old Testament punishment to teach them the error of their ways. Though censorship is always noxious, it’s hard to condemn a code of filmmaking that resulted in the winking innuendos of such masterpieces as Double Indemnity (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945).
Baby Face, though, was released before this era, in the fertile period of American filmmaking that stretched from the dawn of the talkies in 1927 to the mid-1930s. Scarface (1932) and Trouble in Paradise (1932) are standouts of the Pre-Code era, notable not only for their sexual frankness and unrepentant violence, but for the ingenuity they pioneered in sound design and mobile camerawork. Baby Face may be less magisterial than those films—concocted by Warner Brothers head Darryl Zanuck (under a pseudonym), the movie primarily functions as a star vehicle for the up-and-coming actress who had appeared in Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Night Nurse (1931)—yet it’s also subversively powerful for its inverted gender politics and dismal view of American business.
Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a barmaid in a small town who has worked for her lascivious father since the age of 14 (and has provided sexual favors, the movie strongly suggests, since that age). The death of her father seems to liberate her from her sordid purgatory, though she has no idea where to go next—how can she escape her dreary life with only four dollars to her name? The answer comes in the form of a kindly German philosopher who frequents their bar: he introduces Lily to the nihilistic tenets of Friedrich Nietzsche (whose Will to Power is displayed to the audience via close-up), instructing her that she should use her sexuality to intimidate and exploit the weak-minded men who surround (and eventually employ) her. It is through this willful self-preservation, he suggests, that she can upend the master-slave relationship between men and women, turning sex-obsessed males into putty in her hands.
Lily first embraces this salacious worldview on a freight train traveling to New York City, where she and her friend Chico (an African-American woman who has served as the Powers family’s maid for years) are discovered hopping a free ride by a railroad worker. He threatens to throw the two of them in jail. “Can’t we talk this over?,” Lily asks in dulcet tones while batting her eyelashes irresistibly; a well-timed fade out leaves no doubt as to Lily’s persuasive techniques, the first of many instances in which she wields her sexuality in order to manipulate the men who ludicrously hold her fate in their hands.
She and Chico make it to New York, of course, eventually landing in front of the towering Gotham Trust building. A domineering exterior shot of the skyscraper—clearly achieved by photographing model sets, which makes the disorienting magnitude of this economic powerhouse even more colossal—posits this financial titan as a dominant oasis amidst the pervasive poverty of Depression-era America. (How little has changed over the last eighty years.) On the bank’s front steps, Lily vows to rise to the very zenith of the country’s wealthy elite by sleeping to the top, mastering a corrupt society in the only way she’s been taught. And she succeeds with miraculous ease, swiftly rising through the ranks of the Gotham Trust and its susceptible moneymen—an achievement conveyed by a steadily escalating crane shot outside of a model of the Gotham Trust building, cannily suggesting how absurdly easy it is for Lily to make these illustrious CEOs succumb to her feminine wiles. It’s hard not to see Lily as one of the prototypes for Mad Men’s Peggy—an ambitious worker who turns the misogyny of corporate America against itself.
Baby Face eventually supplies Lily with a love interest in the form of the bank’s newly anointed president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), who stymies Lily’s extortion scheme (she offers to publish her diary in a New York newspaper for $15,000) by sending her to the bank’s Paris office. Lily finally finds true love in Trenholm, the first man who is able to resist her carnal transparency. The film unfortunately disappoints in its acquiescence to their bland, clichéd romantic union—a prologue to the heteronormative couplings that would provide Hollywood movies with happy endings for decades to come. Indeed, Baby Face originally ended with Courtland committing suicide, a victim (along with Lily) of a callous, exploitative economic system; ultimately, industry censors suggested the more uplifting ending, in which Lily learns the error of her cold-hearted ways and smiles sweetly at her recuperating paramour.
Until these final scenes, though, Baby Face is a remarkably cynical attack on American sexism. How many other movies can convey such caustic themes while appearing, on the surface, so alluring and lively? The early 1930s constituted a unique confluence of forces for American filmmaking—the destitution of the Great Depression mixed with audiences’ ever-increasing infatuation with Hollywood escapism—which resulted in such idiosyncratic powderkegs as this one. A rough plot synopsis may indicate that Baby Face is about a sexy opportunist who sleeps her way to the top; this is doubtlessly true, but the movie is more importantly about a strong-willed iconoclast who uncovers the flaws in an inherently corrupt system and exploits it for her own betterment. Isn’t this what The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle are also about, in (perhaps) more simplistic ways?
It would be nice to claim that Baby Face’s attitude towards Lily and Chico’s relationship is similarly progressive, though this isn’t entirely true. As Chico, Theresa Harris is forced to utter the simplistic dialogue so common to black characters in the early 1930s. The exploitation of women by men in American society might be loosely analogous to the oppression of blacks by whites, but for the most part Chico remains a sidelined character—a convenient demonstration of Lily’s open-minded humanity, though hardly a believable character in her own right. It’s still sad, of course, how few American movies from this period strive for racial inclusion—Oscar Micheaux’s independent productions in the 1920s notwithstanding—and Baby Face cannot claim to be revolutionary in this regard.
Yet in a period when sexual titillation was still many movies’ selling point, Baby Face is remarkable for refracting the “male gaze” about forty years before the theory was even coined. Stanwyck’s beauty (and Lily’s unabashed utilization of it) are undeniably sexy, but the movie is mostly about how men’s lustful carnality makes them vulnerable and pliable in ways they often adamantly resist. Baby Face’s reiteration of Nietzschean power dynamics may be simple, but it also rings true: as Lily entices the distinguished financiers who usher her to prominence, there’s no doubt who is the master and who is the slave.
The film’s rags-to-riches story may seem generic at times, but it also has some surprising correlations to Stanwyck’s own backstory. Born Ruby Stevens in 1907, her mother died when she was only four years old when she was jostled from a moving streetcar by a drunken stranger; weeks later, Ruby’s father left for Panama, his future unknown to his estranged daughter. Ruby shuffled from one foster home to another until the age of 16, when she became a chorus girl at a theatre in Times Square; it was only a matter of time until she elevated to Broadway shows and, in the late 1920s, Hollywood roles. In 1937, according to her biographer Axel Madsen, Stanwyck reflected: “I knew that after fourteen I'd have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that... I've always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they're very sorry for me.” Notoriously wary of sycophants and supplicants throughout her career, it’s hard not to associate Stanwyck with her character in Baby Face, who similarly exudes her sexuality with more than a trace of flinty self-awareness.
Baby Face’s acerbic commentary on how sex and commerce intermingle is unforgettably conveyed in one flawless match cut: the signing of a paycheck, as a hand extends towards an almighty checkbook, dissolves fluidly into a finger ringing Lily’s doorbell. What exactly are Lily’s employers paying her for? And is it any different than the work her debased father coerced her into? If Lily venomously told her father that she would despise him as long as he lived, how does she feel about the often-despicable corporate environment that makes her obscenely rich? It’s a testament to the movie’s biting ambiguity that this question is difficult to answer, aside from a tidy denouement that’s better left forgotten. The path to power in Baby Face is forged through corruption and sexual exploitation. More than eighty years later, one wonders if that path has changed its dubious trajectory in any way.