Movies We Like
The studio moguls would never allow outside organizations to dictate the final cut of their films if they could help it so the alternative was to agree to one official organization that worked with the studios to streamline acts of censorship based on one stupid list of rules that could be referenced for any issue that might strike a nerve with people who had too much time on their hands. Crime could never pay, women could never discuss sex or even pregnancy and never, ever could there be even a hint of homosexuality on screen. This might not be surprising if your exposure to Hollywood films before 1968 is limited to the big celebrated fare—your Wizard of Oz’s and Gone with the Wind’s and such—but there was a brief period before the Code’s enforcement in Hollywood where the age old marketing maxim that “sex sells” was regularly put to the test and was proven to pay in spades.
Not all films from the Pre-Code era were any good. In fact, based on the available evidence I’d say that the majority of them hold little more than historical value for the perennially curious. The transition from the Silent film to the Sound era was clunky and awkward. Directors needed time to learn what to do with all that dead air and actors hadn’t quite mastered the proper way to deliver dialogue onscreen. It all felt a bit amateurish compared with some of the masterpieces of the Silent era such as Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York made right before the switch. However, some of the films made during this period are unforgettable and Baby Face is surely at the top of that list.
Baby Face is a rags-to-riches tale of a girl with a hard luck past who learns to steel herself off to love so that she can sleep her way to the top of the great big pyramid scheme that is a capitalist society. Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers—nickname, Baby Face—and her onscreen presence was completely defined even at this early stage of her career. She’s streetwise and tough with a seductive charm and a layer of vulnerability underneath her hard exterior.
Lily has her reasons for wanting to get ahead in life. The story opens when Lily is a young woman getting pimped out by her own father to the factory workers of the dead end mill town where they live. They run a bar but it’s not just beer that’s on the menu—Baby Face is, too. Her only relief is her friendship with a kindly old German professor who stops in occasionally for a beer and teaches her about Nietzsche. Empowered by the knowledge that there’s something out there beyond her own bleak day-to-day existence Lily tells off her father and takes off for the big city, taking the young black woman, Chico (Theresa Harris) who works for them with her.
Thus begins one of the great depictions of sexual politics as rendered schematically in montage form. We watch as Lily takes on the big city and the corporate office hierarchy one hot-under-the-collar suitor at a time. This is surely the most literal representation of sleeping one’s way to the top ever filmed. Before long she has seduced and discarded any number of men, climbing a new rung on the corporate ladder for every chump she dispenses with. Before long her calculated plan blows up in her face and she’s sent to Paris as a way to keep her from doing any more damage to the company. Lily ultimately has her ideas about sex and relationships upended and by the end falls in love with a man devoted to her. Still, this is one cynical film about the kinds of choices faced by young women trying to crawl their way out of poverty and live independent lives in a time of extreme institutionalized sexism and widespread poverty.
If you’ve never seen Baby Face before you might be surprised how shocking it is to see adult relationships played fairly straight in a film that old. It is unimpeachable proof that people had sex even as far back as the 1930s. Women could use sex as a weapon and men were sometimes used by women who only wanted to lead independent lives. Some fathers were awful to their daughters and not every relationship ended happily. It is ironic that the films of the early 1930s are so much more sophisticated than what was on offer decades later but that is the legacy of the Production Code. It took a healthy dose of the pizzazz out of the American film scene. We are lucky to have films like Baby Face as proof that we weren’t always such a country full of hopeless squares.
Baby Face is available on DVD in the TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection - Volume One