In Old Hollywood, things were getting a bit rowdy in the late 20s and early 30s, until one film in particular became notorious, caused a scandal, and no doubt hastened the arrival of the Hayes Code – a moral censorship board that prohibited similar films from being marketed to American audiences, out of concern for its immoral decline.
Baby Face is the story of an ambitious, hard-as-nails girl who works at her father’s speakeasy and has an apathetic attitude toward her own potential. One of their regular customers urges the girl, Lily, to embrace the power she has over men and use it to her own advantage, to live according to Nietzsche’s principles of unabashed, unapologetic, guiltless pursuit of what you want. It is music to young Lily’s ears, since she has hooked for her father from the age of fourteen, and when he calls her a “tramp” for refusing to sleep with one of his regular customers, she fires back that if she is, what of it? He started her on this path! From that moment on, Lily takes her life and her sexuality into her own hands. After obtaining a ride to New York alongside her friend and maid Chico, she uses her charms and feminine whiles and body to climb the social ladder, one floor at a time. She starts at the bottom and before she’s done, has reached the penthouse. At each stop along the way, she sets up a man for a fall that allows her to leap to the next “score” – and even bigger wealth. But the day of reckoning comes, when Lily must choose between all she has worked so hard to obtain and… the man in love with her.
Though tame by modern standards, at the time of this film’s release the subject matter (a woman using her sexuality to get ahead, implications of seduction, and her unapologetic ownership of her sexuality) was scandalous. So much so that even though the current censorship board of the time allowed it to release, the film had to make some notable changes before it could hit theaters – including removing an early scene in which Lily seduces the man who tries to throw her off the train car, adding a moralistic spin on the advice her friend gives her (that one must have principles, and not simply pursue whatever one wants), and a different ending in which she has a change of heart. For many decades, this film was the only one available to watch, until they discovered the original, uncensored version and chose to restore it as an important film in Hollywood history. I watched the uncensored film, which is more unapologetic and shocking in its implications and the harrowing life that lead Lily to this point (her father forcing her into underage prostitution).
SPOILERS. The original scripted ending had the story conclude after she has had a change of heart, but found her husband dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The restored ending does include her change of heart, and an ambiguous promise of his potential survival (at which point, she and he must fight the criminal allegations against him together). In the ambulance, clutching his hand, she looks down at her fallen case of jewels, watches, and half a million dollars, and says it no longer matters. She has chosen love over monetary gain. END SPOILERS.
Numerous things stood out to me about this film, not the least of which is Chico – though a maid to Lily, the “colored girl” as another character puts it is first and foremost her friend. She is not dismissed even when Lily’s lover wishes she would go; she aids, abets, and helps her friend Lily along her ruthless climb to power, and admires that “you get whatever you set your mind to”; and she appears dressed in furs, about to go out on Christmas day to a party—an implication that Lily treats her to the same luxuries she provides herself. For a movie made in the 1930s, this is surprisingly progressive in its treatment of Chico as an equal in her friend’s estimations, and even as more important than the men that parade in and out of her life (among them, a very young John Wayne!).
Though the subject matter is eyebrow-raising and bold, it’s discreet by modern standards. Lily’s conquests are shown simply through the camera zooming up to a different window and finding her at a new desk, in a new office, wearing new and better clothes or sporting a better hairstyle. (And sometimes, the odd shocked expression!) She smiles, she infers, she leads men through doors, and the audience knows what has happened. Frankly, it’s a relief to see an old movie hide nothing, but still remain classy about it.
The setting is gorgeous, as are the costumes. We see Lily go from rags to riches, one department at a time, and she adds a little bit more glamour and riches on each floor. A piece of jewelry here, a diamond bracelet there, until finally she is wearing fur coats and jeweled cuffs. Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal in the role—all coldness and ambition in some close-ups, and occasional tender vulnerability in others, but forever seductive and beautiful. One can see why men trip over themselves to fall for her schemes, while the story seems to take a poke at them (“Oh, men are all the same,” bemoan the annoyed secretaries watching her wrap them around her little finger).
It surprised me how much I rooted for Lily, despite all the broken hearts and ruined lives she leaves along the way. Lily intentionally destroys the men in her life, breaks their hearts, and then callously abandons them—sometimes causing violence in the meantime (they do not always appreciate being replaced and sometime shoot each other). Yet, I wanted to see her change, hoped that she would truly fall in love, and desperately felt the need to see her give up her self-serving callous lifestyle and find her heart. And I think I owe all of that to Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the role so convincingly and deeply that I felt Lily was “real.” A real girl who had been hurt, who had been abused, who decided to turn things around and get whatever she wanted, by whatever means available… but who doesn’t have to live that way. It spoke to the idealist in me. And I like the story even more for having given me hope of a happy ending—not that her husband will live, though I hope he does, but knowing she has, at last, found out that what matters in life is not riches, but the people who love you.
I wrote this as part of the Queen of Sass Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Please visit the below link to see more entries.