01 January 2006

100 films: Baby Face

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starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, and Theresa Harris
written by: Gene Markey & Kathryn Scola, from the story by Darryl F. Zanuck
directed by: Alfred E. Green
NR, 76 min, 1933, USA

Hardened by growing up in a speakeasy, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) leaves her blue-collar town for New York determined to get ahead by any means necessary. Thanks to some sage advice from a local cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) she has taken to heart the teachings of Nietzsche and has decided to literally sleep her way to the top, floor by floor. In the end, she's gone through seven men, ruined lives, and lost what little bit of compassion and humanity she may have had left. But, she's married to the president of a bank and has a suitcase with over a half a million dollars in it. Money may not buy happiness, but it can't hurt to try.

When presented to the censors in 1933, the original version of Baby Face was deemed "too racy" for audiences and subsequently banned from theatres. An edited version was then approved and played to some success. In 2004 the Library of Congress found an original dupe-negative of the unedited version, restored it, and it premiered in New York in January of 2005. Currently it is circulating the country, playing in the type of theatres that show old movies[1]. After the film, the print goes on to show some of the changes made to appease the censors, so that we may compare for ourselves. The major changes involve not the deletion of content[2] but the changing of the film's perceived "message" of endorsing promiscuous activity as a means of getting ahead. Our protagonist is inspired by the cobbler's charge to use men to get the things she wants, that is to use her sexuality as a weapon by which to level the playing field. This is a dynamic she's used to, as her father has essentially been pimping her out to politicians for years, but the cobbler's use of Nietzsche shows her that she can translate a situation where she was a victim to one where she is in control. Having spent as much time as she has around men, she knows how to manipulate their sexual desires, but she's never used that to her advantage. The censors, though, weren't thrilled with that message[3] so the cobbler's message was changed to state that while she could sleep her way to the top, there is a right way and a wrong way to get what you want, and that she must choose for herself. Later, when he sends her a book in New York, the message inside is changed from one of disregarding sentiment and emotion to a scolding about how she's going down the wrong path.

In the end, the changes actually do more damage to the impact of the film's message than the film's approach to morality would do to the audience. Even in the original version she sees the error of her ways and falls in love, despite what Nietzsche may tell her to do. It is a somewhat emotional decision she comes to and a meaningful one since she must abandon her entire code of ethics in order to do it. That sort of thing requires a certain type of bravery. However, if the basis of her belief structure is ambiguous, then the final decision is not an act of bravery, but rather the simple act of finally making a decision. She has not said "I reject all I have been taught", but rather "I've tried a little of this path and I think I shall go with the other one in the end." There's nothing profound and life-changing about it at all. The simple fact is that the censorship severely undermines the film's impact[4].

As for the film itself, it is essentially a story of early feminism taken to the extreme. In an age before sexual harassment charges, Stanwyck's approach to the job market is an aggressive, if not hostile, one. Her approach isn't to simply catch the eye of the next person up the corporate ladder, but to ruin the men she leaves in her wake by arranging to be caught in their arms at the most inopportune times. Naturally, this sort of thing leads to desperate and jealous men prone to do desperate things like killing a rival and then turning the gun on themselves. This happens right in front of Stanwyck, who views it as something she's been expecting. She doesn't even flinch as the shots are fired, then calmly calls the police. Nothing fazes this woman, and Stanwyck plays her as a woman who's seen the whole world and is always at least one step ahead of everyone around her. She oozes the seductive allure of a good girl with a wild side. It's no surprise she gets every man she wants, no matter how principled. Men in her world are just things to be manipulated, no different from the steelworkers in her father's speakeasy. They may have all the money, but she has all the power, and with power the rest comes naturally.

[1] I saw it at the Regent's Square Theater in Pittsburgh as part of a series titled, "Naughty Gems: Films of the Pre-Code Era". This is the first film in the series, which also includes The Scarlet Empress (1934), Murder at the Vanities (1933), Torch Singer (1933), and Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

[2] Although they may have done that as well.

[3] Probably because they didn't want women getting any ideas.

[4] The ensuing studio bickering was part of the reason Darryl Zanuck quit Warners Brothers and formed Twentieth Century Pictures.


johanna said...

i can't tell from this review whether you're getting braver or you've just learned to trust your audience a bit more, but that's okay

i can't believe i'm saying this, but it's good to be back in the 'burgh. think i'll go get sentimental over a table