Baby Face (1933)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Barbara Stanwyck was already a star when she began work on Baby Face (1933), one of the most scandalous films of Hollywood’s pre-Code era. Known for her films made with Frank Capra as well as a series of typical pre-Code roles — nurse, struggling housewife, fallen woman with a heart of gold — Stanwyck in 1933 was one of Warner Bros. Studios’ newest, freshest stars. The studio’s reputation for gritty films was a perfect match for Stanwyck’s straightforward, honest, intense acting style, and Baby Face was developed as a vehicle for the up-and-coming actress.
Barbara Stanwyck was already a star when she began work on Baby Face (1933), one of the most scandalous films of Hollywood’s pre-Code era.
In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is the beautiful blonde Lily, a young woman stuck in her father’s grimy speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father pimps her out and abuses her, but when he tries to sell her favors to a local politician, she’s finally had enough. She tells him off and plans to leave, but before she’s even done packing, he’s killed in an accident. Initially planning to stay in Erie, Lily is convinced by Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), the only halfway decent man who ever came to her speakeasy, to instead go to the big city and use men to make her way in the world.
With her good friend Chico (Theresa Harris) in tow, Lily heads to New York, finds a nice, big, tall bank — “I’ll bet there’s plenty of dough in this little shack” -and begins her rise to the top in a now-celebrated slow pan up the exterior of the Gotham Trust skyscraper. In one of the few nods to good taste found in Baby Face, the filmmakers avoided the use of a skyscraper with a pyramidal top, instead going with a more tasteful, flat-topped gothic revival style. Still, the point, if you’ll pardon the pun, was made.
Though it features a plot that on the surface seems little more than the salacious tale of a woman with a very entertaining lack of morals, Baby Face has its share of sociopolitical content. The very first scene is a harsh moment of realism, for instance, showing working class guys barge their way down the sidewalk, disrupting a kid’s hopscotch game just to get to a speakeasy where they can get drunk and hopefully score with Lily. Their own young sons stare at them every step of the way, like students would stare at their teacher: curious, intent, willing to learn. They, like the little girl of maybe five sitting next to them, are confused; these kids don’t know what’s going on, but unconsciously, they’re learning enough for a lifetime.
Though it features a plot that on the surface seems little more than the salacious tale of a woman with a very entertaining lack of morals, Baby Face has its share of sociopolitical content.
At the same time, Baby Face can be terribly crude. When the politician sizes Lily up before negotiating with her father, the camera shows us what he sees, gliding up her legs, but then lingering on her crotch. Lily makes snide comments and entendres that are funny but cheap, and after she begins her career at the bank, she leads one of her liaisons right into the ladies’ room.
Also crude is the treatment of Theresa Harris’ Chico who, as an African-American woman, couldn’t in 1933 be portrayed simply as Lily’s friend, instead always seen in a subservient role. In its review of the film, Variety called Chico “a constant unsavory reminder of Erie,” as though the character’s mere presence was upsetting. Yet Chico is one of the most fascinating characters in the film because she seems to already know, well before Lily’s revelation, that the way to get what you want is by seducing men with money and power. As Lily begins her quest, offering herself to a railroad security man (James Murray) so he doesn’t turn her into the cops, Chico smiles and wanders off, singing “St. Louis Blues,” a lament for a man lured away by a woman wearing “powder and store-bought hair.” It presages Lily’s own transformation; she becomes her own version of that St. Louis woman, a lady whose gowns and permanent waves grow more stylish and elaborate with every man she uses and loses.
Almost lost amidst the scandalous script and outrageous plot of Baby Face is a fine performance by Stanwyck, whose intensity and sincerity carry the film even in its most improbable moments. She was a fine comedienne and her excellent timing helped sell the wry, bitter humor running throughout. When Lily finds herself embroiled in scandal after her former lover and current lover are involved in a murder-suicide, Stanwyck delivers one of the best scenes in her career: quiet, composed, contemplative, no longer shocked by tragedy. And in the final scenes, when Lily is telling us that her life “has been bitter and hard,” we are fully convinced she’s a good person, and that survival sometimes makes good people do awful things.
Though Cragg and his selected quotes from Nietzsche were meant to have been the reason Lily started on her goal to use men and throw them away, she had already made it clear she was no longer letting men use her. By the time Cragg gave her that big lecture, she’d shrugged off men in the speakeasy who enjoyed her company before, and was in the process of leaving her father-pimp as well. All Cragg did was reinforce her decision. That said, in pre-Code days, a little plausible deniability in the form of Cragg as a bad influence — and quoting Nietzsche in the manner of the European Fascists of the early 20th Century was certainly bad — was a little insurance against censors frightened of women with free will.
Interestingly, it seems Zanuck at first didn’t consider the original ending, the one where Lily refuses to give her bank president husband Cortland Trenholm (George Brent) the $500,000 she’s accumulated, causing him to off himself in despair, the kind of thing one would have to sneak past a review board. Only after the review boards read the original script did the studio realize the finale would require an edit. So Stanwyck was acquitted with her stylish blonde wig one last time and new scenes were shot, with Cortland surviving and Lily renouncing her hard-won half million dollars.
But that print didn’t make it to the theaters, either. The version that did added yet another scene to the finale, one where random bank board members explain that Lily and Cortland were now living in poverty in Pennsylvania and happy at last. It was part of a series of major edits made to the film, but even this watered-down version wasn’t tame enough for most. “This is reputed to be a remake on the first print, which was considered too hot,” Variety reported. “Anything hotter than this for public showing would call for an asbestos audience blanket.”
Like Lily, Stanwyck had a complicated early life, and comparisons between the two are often made. For example, when Lily tells her father that, “Ever since I was 14, what’s it been? Nothing but men! Dirty, rotten men, and you lower than any of ‘em!” it’s an uncomfortable parallel to Stanwyck’s own experience at 14, when she was raped by her teenaged brother-in-law. That attack, followed by the shrugs from an unsympathetic elder sister, made the young Stanwyck determined to strike out on her own. Afterward, at least according to her former friend Mae Clarke, Stanwyck was no stranger to using the same techniques as Lily for getting what she wanted from men.
Just prior to the release of Baby Face, Stanwyck told the San Francisco Chronicle that she was nervous about how Lily would be received by the public. “All my other roles have had sympathy,” she explained, implying, at least to herself, that her own similar climb to the top made her unsympathetic. If the public had known about her early years, though, it’s likely many would have disagreed with this self-assessment. Truth be told, there is nothing in Baby Face that doesn’t ring true, beyond some of the fashions and most of Stanwyck’s wigs. In the midst of the Depression where survival often overruled morals, Baby Face was essentially a stylized documentary. Cecelia Ager in her review for Variety noted that the film appreciated how difficult the times were for women and was “very nearly a true story.”
Ager probably didn’t know how accurate her statement was. Though friends like Mae Clarke reported Stanwyck had left them behind long before she made Baby Face, it’s clear Stanwyck’s memories weren’t so easily discarded. She worked closely with Darryl F. Zanuck on the script, and it’s impossible to read the parallels between her life and Lily’s as merely coincidental. Perhaps she included so much of herself in Lily as an attempt to purge the past, to come to terms with it, or as an oblique request to the public for absolution of sins they didn’t know she had committed. Regardless, what she achieved was something really special, a monument to the pre-Code era and the story of a remarkable woman in a remarkable time.
Baby Face is a monument to the pre-Code era and the story of a remarkable woman in a remarkable time.