It doesn’t get much more ‘Pre-Code’ than Barbara Stanwyck and her role in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933). Decades later many have since crowned her the reigning queen of Pre-code after this film stirred up the censors in its direct look at the female power of sex.
Barbara Stanwyck is Lily Powers who has been raised by her slimy, abusive father (Robert Barrat as Nick Powers) in his illegal speakeasy in a hell-hole of a steel mill town of Pennsylvania, covered in black soot. Instead of going home to their families after factory shifts, the working men spend their hard-earned pay on beer and sometimes Lily is on the menu too, as her father has been prostituting her out from the age of fourteen. She’s young and beautiful but jaded and emotionally hardened by her bleak life.
Her only friend is Chico (Theresa Harris), who works at the speakeasy. When Powers attempts to fire Chico after she accidentally breaks some glasses, Lily threatens to leave. He barks: “I’m you’re father!” Lily quickly responds back, “That’s MY tough luck.” The only man in her life that hasn’t tried to exploit her, Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) introduces her books, specifically Nietzsche.
When the crowd has cleared out after a long night, a weasley big shot walks in. Chico: “He’s a big politician, ain’t he?” Lily: “He’s a big something and it ain’t no politician.” Soon he finds his opportunity to make a move with Lily. Even after pouring coffee on his hand and walking to another room and closing the door, the slimy politician pursues her. When she rebuffs a second time he insults, “Exclusive you are. The sweetheart of the night…everybody knows about you.” She walks into the other room and pours herself a beer where he pursues and she rejects a third time- this time he grabs her from behind and she breaks a beer bottle over his head.
We see the father outside looking at his watch then he smiles. Earlier the politician hands him money. We know Powers not only prearranged for Lily to be prostituted out for the politician after a long night of slinging beer but it’s clear there is no ethical conflict for the father, just dollar signs. When the politician angrily walks outside nursing his head wound, he promises Powers he’ll no longer provide protection from the law for his illegal establishment and they’ll shut him down.
Powers is furious; he confronts Lily inside, insults her, threatens to throw her out and even to kill her. She remains emotionless, keeps her back to him. “What’s stopping you?” she states fearlessly. In the same conversation where he professes his ‘sacrifice’ of how he raised her without her mother (she’s in a ‘better place’), he adds the cherry to the chat by calling her a tramp. Lily: “Yeah, I’m a tramp and who’s to blame? My father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what’s it been? Nothing but men. Dirty, rotten men. And you’re lower than any of them. I’ll hate you as long as I live.”
Just then Chico runs in to say the still is smoking. Powers runs down to inspect and it explodes in his face, killing him instantly. After the funeral, Lily meets with Cragg. He asks what her future plans are and she suggests a bleak future of working as a stripper is her only fate. He’s frustrated with her and reasserts his Nietzsche philosophy. With only four bucks to her name she’s defeated, “what chances does a woman got?” Cragg empowers her, “More than a man. A woman, young, beautiful like you. You have power over the men. But you must USE men. You must be the master, not a slave.” He quotes from his book, ” all life no matter how we idealize it is nothing more than exploitation.” He adds, “That’s what I’m telling you to exploit yourself. Use men! Be defiant! Exploit yourself to get the things you want!”
Chico and Lily go train hopping, bound for New York. When a railman discovers them in a car, he threatens to kick them off the train and 30 days in jail to boot. This is the moment Lily begins to apply her sexual prowess as a tool to exploit men and get what she needs. She smiles, “now why don’t we sit down and talk this thing over.” Chico starts singing softly and walks to the opposite corner of the car, as we see the railman’s gloves come off and his latern dim.
Once in New York, Lily spies the tallest bank building she can find and the climb up the career and social ladder begins. She flirts with a cop on the beat to find the right floor to begin her ascent. On 47th floor in the Personnel department, she gets into an interview by seducing a Mr. Pratt (no, that’s not how I met my husband). When he asks if she has any experience, she rolls her eyes with a deadpan, “PLENTY.” She literally sleeps her way up the building, leaping two floors at a time.
She wastes no time going from the Filing department with a young John Wayne (he’s the one who labels her “Baby Face”) to a Mr. Brody (Douglass Dumbrille) to make her way up to the Mortgage Dept. In her exploitation quest, she is caught with Mr. Brody in the ladies room after hours, by his boss, Mr. Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). Brody is immediately fired but she skillfully talks her way out by claiming to be the innocent victim. Stevens proves to be a bigger challenge because he’s reputed to be unlike other men with his high ideals and he’s engaged to his boss’s (Henry Kolker as Mr. Carter) daughter. Any other woman would find this a challenge, that is- not Lily. We soon discover Stevens is not so much of the high ideals as assumed.
Lily masterfully uses Stevens to aquire an even more prosperous exploitation gains in the Accounting dept. From here, she utilizes Steven’s engagement against him to seduce her way to even higher prospects. Without giving away any more details, things get even more remarkable in Lily’s undaunted ambitions.
It’s only in the last 26 minutes of the film are we introduced to the only man who sees through her schemes, George Brent as Courtland Trenholm grandson of the founder and new President of the bank. Well, at first. Even when she’s booted to Paris to take a job instead of a scandal bribe/payoff, she manages her wiles to make the ultimate con- charming and then marrying Trenholm. He honestly loves her and in the end, she discovers he’s the only man she loves too.
What stands out in BABY FACE is first and foremost, Barbara Stanwyck. Her performance is astonishingly believable even when the circumstances are not. She is ruthless in her pursuits and who else could you believe would seduce that many men, all in the same building (does NO ONE gossip at the water cooler??) and have them yearning desperately for more, even when she leaves them in her rear view mirror without as much as a goodbye. Here’s how you know she’s an incredible actress- in addition to her jaded, often emotionless characterizations she evolves by the film’s end into a very human, emotional, and compelling woman. In a way only Barbara can show us.
For me, this film begs many questions and prompts deeper discussions that could apply even to today’s standards.:
Who is the “bad guy” here? Who or what should we blame for Lily’s path? Here’s a list of suspects:
–Alcohol: This film was released the same year Prohibition was appealed. It’s hard to say how much this was an influence politically. But certainly everyone had a strong opinion on the matter at that time. There’s no doubt alcohol plays a role, not only as the ‘speakeasy lifestyle’ as a main ingredient in Lily’s dysfunctional childhood, but also later when she uses it as a tool when wooing her prey and they do so to her.
– Bad Parenting/ aka Mr. Powers: Let’s face it, Lily’s father was the worst. It doesn’t help that her mother was not present in her life. Lily finds no fault in her mother’s absence but lays the blame firmly on abusive dad. Lily says her mother is better off dead than a life with him. And a life where you’ve been literally ‘whored out’ by your own father since the age of fourteen, it’s not a tough argument for bad parenting.
-Bankers: With exception of the railman on their journey to New York, every man she ‘used’ to reach her goals was not just a man but a banker. Keep in mind this film took place in the heart of the Great Depression. Trust of the banking industry was at an all-time low. Not a stretch to imagine this was a nod of the political pulse. Audiences likely found these particular men more palatable to be ‘used and disposed of’ than if from another industry.
-Nietzsche: Not exactly an uplifting message, the Nietzsche philosopy does serve a purpose to thrust Lily forward to believing she has a future in the world. Bit extreme and misguided? Perhaps. But the argument remains- is she better off exploiting herself for her own gains or allowing others to prostitute her without her permission. Or- bottom line, is she still a prostitute?
-Lily/ aka loose or any nonconformist women: It would be easy to blame Lily herself as she is often portrayed as predator, not the innocent victim. But is she? Not innocent, but she’s still a victim of what society has handed her. Many conservative voices at the time likely challenged her choices as a slap in the face to the traditional woman, as a symbolic core to the family. A challenge to the institution of marraige, as well. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give Lily options to use independence and ambition with happy results.
All of this begs other questions. Is this a feminist or anti-feminist film? On one hand, BABY FACE (1933) not so subtly promotes a negative vision of what happens when a woman seeks a darker path of ambition and promiscuity. Then again, it also shows what her life would be like if she hadn’t sought an empowered attitude. She would be left broke and stripping for a living in the same dingy town with all those same dirty, rotten men. Both paths would be immoral and demeaning to any woman. Is there a middle ground she could’ve chosen to find success? It’s hard to imagine because the early 30’s was not exactly an easy or profitable time for a career women. (Is it now?) While she did find love in the end, it took a lot of moral compromises to get there.
Also… Is this film realistic? Would this approach work today? Would she actually find more obstacles in a modern, more feminist world? As far as realism goes, I found her dire situation very plausible. Back then and unfortunately even now. It doesn’t have to be an illegal drinking establishment to find abusive, dysfunctional families that take advantage of young women. Her solution to sleep her way to prosperity is not unique. I would imagine this has been attempted by many over the decades since BABY FACE. But to the level of speed and progress as Lily, I think you’d have to only be Barbara Stanwyck to lure that many men that efficiently. All within one company and one building? Maybe not even Stanwyck could pull that off today. I’ll also debate that today’s modern world might have too many sexual harassment policies to allow Lily’s strategy.
More than eight decades have passed since BABY FACE (1933) but have women in situations similar to Lily found better solutions? Are women better off today than they were in 1933? In some ways, most certainly. In other ways, Lily serves as a reminder we still have much work to do. And thanks to this film, Barbara Stanwyck remains an unforgettable icon of the Pre-Code era, along with the full scope of her legendary career.
*This was my contribution to the REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.