erik lundegaard

Tuesday December 22, 2020

Movie Review: Baby Face (1933)


“Baby Face” is one of the most famous/infamous of the pre-code films, but one wonders if its scandals might be more problematic for our time than theirs.

Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a man who runs a speakeasy, takes the advice of a Nietzsche-loving cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and moves to New York, where she sleeps her way to the top, leaving broken hearts, ruined careers, and death in her wake.

So you see the problem: Nietzsche.

Kidding. It’s this: Is the movie playing into the stereotype/smear that women sleep their way to the top? Or is it upending it, and thus, somehow, patriarchy itself?

But sure, the Nietzsche, too.

Six floors of the Blue Angel
For a time, we see Lily’s rise literally. After each seduction, from outside the high-rise bank where she works, the camera pans up, floor by floor, and department by department. This is how it looks, top to bottom, with each seduced man referenced:

  • ACCOUNTING DEPT.: Ned Stevens (Donald Cook)
  • MORTGAGE DEPT.: Brody (Douglass Dumbrille)
  • FILING DEPT.: Jimmy McCoy, Jr. (John Wayne)
  • PERSONNEL: Mr. Pratt (Maynard Holmes)

Meaning the Filing Dept. is more prestigious than Foreign Exchanges? And the Accounting Dept. is the top of the food chain? Who knew? Certainly not accountants.

Above Accounting is the bank’s vice-president, J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), and above him is the Board of Directors and its new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), brought in to rehabilitate the bank’s rep in the wake of Lily’s scandals. He’s the romantic lead but doesn’t appear until we’re halfway through. So less lead than follower.

Even if all the seductions aren’t the same, there’s a sameness to the rise. Lily flirts with the beat cop to find out where the personnel dept. is, then heads behind closed doors with its pudgy secretary, Mr. Pratt of Tallapoosa, Ga., who seems as gay as the ’90s to me. We never see the best-looking (and ultimately best-known) of her seductions, a young Duke Wayne, even though he’s the one who gives her the titular nickname. Instead, his role is to encourage Brody to hire her. Brody then begins the true pattern of bosses/lovers:

  1. disinterest
  2. sexual interest
  3. can’t live without her

I get the first two. But can’t live without her? Where did that come from? I mean, I love Stanwyck, but she’s hardly Marlene Dietrich. Yet the movie is like “Six Floors of the Blue Angel”: Every dept. head becomes a Prof. Rath willing to crow for her.

The higher she climbs, the greater the fall for the men. Duke is just disappointed when she moves on, while Brody, caught in flagrante delicto, is canned. A week later, he bangs on her apartment door, overcoat wet, desperate, but she tells him to go back to his wife and three kids and leaves him stunned and bereft in the hallway. He’d be more stunned if he knew who was inside with her: Ned Stevens, the man who fired him, and whose secretaries think is a great guy (beware crappy exposition):

Secretary 1: Well, she certainly works fast.
Secretary 2: Won’t do her any good. He’s very much in love with the girl he’s engaged to.
Secretary 1: Say, I was surprised to read that in the paper. It’s a good match for him, too—marrying old Carter’s daughter.
Secretary 2: Mr. Stevens is an extraordinarily fine person. He has high ideals. He’s not like other men.

Turns out he’s worse. He not only has the affair, but, given a second chance with the boss’ daughter (Margaret Lindsay), he chooses Lily again. He even gives up his job so Lily can keep hers. And when he finds Lily and Carter together, he kills Carter in cold blood. Beware of men with high ideals, I guess.

Up to this point, she gets away with it by playing innocent. To Stevens about Brody: “What could I do—he’s my boss. Oh, I’m so ashamed!” To Carter about Stevens: “He told me I was the only one!” After the shooting she can’t play innocent, but with the Board she doesn’t need to. She’s been offered $10k by a local tabloid for her steamy story, and she uses it as leverage to extract $15k from the bank and a job with their Paris branch. The Paris gig is really just to get her out of town, and Trenholm assumes a woman like her won’t last long in the role. But that’s the new path to seduction: not innocence but gumption. Six months later, he shows up, she’s still working hard, he’s impressed, etc. 

The second half of the film is a bit dull. Removed from the rise, it’s just the romance, and not a particularly interesting one. Our main question is: Is Lily faking it like with the others? They get married anyway, but on their honeymoon Trenholm discovers he’s become scapegoat for bank mismanagement, so he asks Lily to hock her jewels to help fund his defense. She bolts. She books passage on a luxury liner, and when he finds she’s gone he shoots himself. Back on the boat, she sees a rich older man and smiles. The End.

Kidding. That’d be my dream ending. Instead, between Hollywood and Hays and local censor boards, we wind up with this: Yes, she does bolt, and yes he does shoot himself. But then she’s overcome with grief and guilt. She really does love him! So she returns. And in the ambulance to the hospital, while she cries in his arms, he wakes and smiles at her. The End.

Eww. If you’re going to go there, and make her suddenly care, he should die. That’d be true comeuppance: as soon as she loves, she loses her love. That might even be powerful. But Hollywood endings. 

Thus spake Zanuck
Here’s a bit of the backstory on the resurrection of “Baby Face.” In 2004, an uncensored version was recovered in a film vault in Dayton, Ohio, and a year later that version was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. That same year, Time magazine (or Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss) named it to their top 100 movies of the last 80 years—or since Time began in March 1923.

I wouldn’t go that far. One argument against the movie upending patriarchal stereotypes is that it’s mostly dudes behind the scenes. “Baby Face” was based on a story idea by Darryl Zanuck, written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (the lone woman), and directed by Alfred E. Green. Markey is mostly known for being a sparkling wit around Hollywood, and for his impressive string of marriages: Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Myrna Loy. Scola is mostly known for working with Markey. Green began in the silent era, directed the most racist of the early Cagneys (“Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson), and ended his career with a series of “Story” movies: “The Jolson Story,” “The Jackie Robinson Story,” “The Eddie Cantor Story.” According to IMDb’s rating system, the best each of them did is this.

Others have lauded the film for being ahead of its time in racial matters. Throughout, Lily’s best friend is Chico, a Black woman, played by Theresa Harris. I’ve written about Harris before. In the ’30s and ’40s, she was mostly stuck in maid roles, and most of those went uncredited. This was her first screen credit and it’s a meatier part. Even so, as Lily rises, what does Chico become? Her maid.

A lot of the Nietzsche, meanwhile, sounds like ur-Ayn Rand: 

Watching, I kept thinking of another Nietzsche acolyte on the rise in 1933. That cobbler must’ve gotten around.

Posted at 10:58 AM on Tuesday December 22, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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