Monday, August 12, 2013

FI: Baby Face

Baby Face (Pre-release Version)
US, 1933
Directed by Alfred E. Green

When I saw that Netflix's DVD of Baby Face originated from a box set called Forbidden Hollywood, I should have known what to expect, but I had no idea just how risqu√© and taboo-breaking this film would be. Baby Face tells the story of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman more or less forced into prostitution by her speakeasy-owning father. She takes advice from an older, Nietzsche-quoting friend (Alphonse Ethier), who suggests she use her sexuality to take what she wants from men. Eventually she leaves town with her friend Chico (Theresa Harris)—in an example of an almost-unheard-of, at the time, cross-racial screen friendship—and begins to sleep her way to the top of a Manhattan bank.

This sort of scabrous plotline was only possible in the Pre-Code era. While nothing explicit is shown, what's going on is made fairly clear. Once Joseph Breen began enforcing the Production Code, any implication of premarital (or extra-marital) sex in films had to be eliminated, punished, or moralized away. While there is some moralization here—and the version of Baby Face that was actually released in 1933 was edited to be even more judgmental—Lily is still portrayed sympathetically, if a bit coldly, despite her siren-like ways and insatiable appetite for sex and status. Though we aren't meant to approve of her methods, the film never puts us into a position where we feel too badly for her victims—including a young John Wayne!—even when we see the deep toll her actions can take on their lives. Lily is an antiheroine out of the same mold as today's TV antiheroes like Don Draper and Tony Soprano. She's a uniquely strong female character whom the film never objectifies, whether as a youthful victim or an adult victimizer, and Stanwyck is perfectly cast in the role.

The script, pseudonymously written by future 20th Century Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck, crackles with wit and takes a certain grim pleasure in Lily's various seductions. Director Alfred E. Green builds in visual and aural motifs to signify her rise and the means by which she achieves it, but keeps the tone light to match the script's dark wit. Baby Face may not be a "great" film, for a variety of reasons, but it is an important one, a frankly sexual, bizarrely empowering look at the scant options available to a lower-class woman in the '30s. Plus, it's the source of one of my favorite animated GIFs on Tumblr, so how can you really go wrong?


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