Saturday, August 13, 2011

Baby Face (1933)

The casual movie watcher might think films from the 1930s as being too squeaky clean. Back then movies had too much morality. Men and women slept in separate bed. Kisses were done with tightly clenched lips. The talk about sex was forbidden, as if babies just happened, or the delightful stork actually brought the bundle of joy into the world. Well let me tell you my relaxed fan of movies, films from the 1930s, especially the early pre-Code 1930s, were far more suggestive than those you may watch today.  Case in point is Warner Bros. picture Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most sexually charged films produced to that point. It would not bring anything to light that the public didn’t already know then or today, but its use of power given to the seductive woman in America would trouble the highly conservative censors who took it upon themselves to tell movie studios what was right and wrong about their films. From the contemporary world we live in, it is a delight to see a film that is so vastly different from the usual films of Hollywood’s distant yesteryear.

Baby Face is a sexually suggestive story about a woman from a poorer upbringing moving her way up to the top of the social and economic ladders through sleeping with various men. Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman from an underprivileged background where she slept with patrons of her father’s speakeasy, takes advice to move to the big city and use men to make her way through life. With her African American friend/servant, Chico (Theresa Harris), by her side, Lily begins her sexual rise, first by sleeping with a man to get a hitch a ride on a New York bound train. Of course, no sexual acts are actually portrayed on screen Neither are word sex or other mentions of acts said, but it is very much understood when Lily mentions “let’s talk about it,” and the light slowly dims as she moves in on her prey.

Once in New York Lily sets her full plan in motion, fornicating her way through positions at a major bank. First seducing a man to start as a clerk, then continually her way up, leading to promotions in each level usually becoming that man’s assistant. She sleeps herself all the way to becoming the wife of the president of the bank. Along the way men fight for her, in one case even ending in murder and suicide. When the bank fails and her husband, and president, Courtland (George Brent) asks for Lily to return her wealthy gifts, but she instead runs away until she realizes she too actually fell in love. Upon her return to Courtland she discovers he shot himself over his great ill-fortune. But Lily is there by his side as he starts his recovery.

It feels like we have seen this storyline before, and there is good reason for that as Baby Face is Warner Bros. answer to MGM’s Red-Headed Woman starring Jean Harlow, where Harlow sleeps her way to the top. Though similar in nature, this spin of the story idea seems to be more believable and therefore more enticing to watch. We are provided a little back-story to Lily, growing up sleeping with many men, and are given her intent for using herself in that manner, as taught to her by one of her only friends in her hometown, a cobbler whom she highly respected. MGM’s film lacked that intent, the main character instead just went from a normal girl to a seductive mistress on a whim. You believe Lily is capable of her actions and knows what she was doing, leaving you watching as she stalks her men. The film is smart and leaves you feeling for the men whose lives are destroyed for their lust after Lily. It makes for a film that can be delightfully enjoyed by modern audiences.

Alfred E. Green’s direction complements well the story of this girl “working” her way up the ladder. Green’s background being a strong past in silent films is manifested well by telling much of the story through visuals and not being bogged down by words. Most good films work so well because the story is shown so well with the pictures on screen to the point you can turn down the volume and still understand clearly the plot of the film. This is the case with Green. We are shown Lily’s rise through the bank as the camera rises from one level of the bank to another, displaying the new department she now works for. Green suggests with his camera the acts of men being seduced and going to bed with Lily without saying or showing anything. Green does a masterful job with telling the story, envisioning the images so clearly that it allows the viewer to understand what is happening through each stage of Lily’s conquest of men.

The young twenty five year-old Barbara Stanwyck had been in Hollywood for a few years by the time Baby Face was released, working primarily in Frank Capra and William Wellman pictures. This film allowed Stanwyck to flourish with a character that was a predator. It would be yet a beginning for her branching out, leading to a long and very successful life in movies as well as television.

The supporting cast is full of men that come and go. Some are worth noting. At one point we meet a young, dark haired man with a distinct voice. That man was very young John Wayne, who is hard to recognize without a cowboy hat on. A strong segment of the movie resolves around a confrontation between Donald Cook and Henry Kolker who play respectively an executive and his future father-in-law, who is the bank’s president as well, which ends in a murder/suicide as both fight for Lily’s affection. Mixed in there is a very young Margaret Lindsey, at the start of her Hollywood career as a bit actress, playing the daughter/fiancĂ©e. George Brent would be the actor that would stand the tallest, because his character, Courtland, is the one that lands Lily’s affection in the end, as Brent at this time was a reliable Warner Bros. contracted actor known for his leading man roles in love stories.

There is not much morality in this film to speak of, but a very interesting note is the treatment of the African American character, Chico, in the picture. Played by often uncredited actress Theresa Harris, Chico is stood up for by Lily on many occasions. Chico does serve Lily, but Lily looks out for Chico, providing for her as a dear friend. This point is made clear when one of Lily’s suitors request Lily to rid herself of her black servant, Lily has none of it and says if Chico goes so does she. It is as if this film in some way wants to champion some sort of civil rights blanketed by a seductive story.

Baby Face would hit a censors’ block head on. It was obvious what the subject matter was about, but the New York State censor declined the presenting of the picture. Small, but major cuts were made. The speech by the cobbler to Lilly encouraging her to use men was changed drastically, making what the cobbler says to be more along the lines of one making a name for themselves for good or bad, encouraging her to be good. It was very different for the speeches original intent and left him to be a voice of reason rather than the spark for her to be a seductress. Many seductive shots were cut and a new ending was added, which feels obviously tacked on. This new ending has Lily eventually giving back her wealth to the bank. This manifested a change from Lily’s evil ways which is what censors wanted and allowed the film to pass the board. The picture was released and became successful, but the original cut was presumed lost for decades, until unearthed in 2004 in the Library of Congress’ archives, restoring the original picture.

Not all films from Hollywood’s bygone era were nice a clean. Some subject matter, as in this case, was meant to stir up a little controversy, as well as lust in a man. Stanwyck does a wonderful job playing the young woman bent on using what her mother gave her as a mean of gaining a sugar daddy. Not all such films are classics, though this one very much is, so they don’t get noticed in the long run of cinema history. It was pleasant to find yet another added gem from a large abundance of pictures to come from this era, going in not expecting anything and being pleasantly surprised. I think this is one that a modern audience would enjoy as it is about subject matter that is ever existent in the world, the mix of men, women, lust, and greed.

1 comment:

  1. This one is truly a treasure, one of the best choices from the pre-Code melodramas. The German connection is interesting, I get the feeling it came out about five minutes before pre-War propaganda would make sympathetic portrayal of a German character. And the film borrows as much from the Pabst/Louise Brooks German films like Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, as much as the obvious connection with Red Headed Woman.

    Weird how with all the sexual innuendo, it was the Nietsche politics that got censored. A good reminder that so-called pre-Code films were still subject to the threat of local censorship.

    The music was excellent as well. You don't see much of Green's stuff, but this one deserves a lot more play.


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