On Race Relations and Barbara Stanwyck’s Nietzschean Sex Appeal in the Uncensored Baby Face

07/14/2011 4:13 PM |

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Tomorrow, Film Forum starts their “Essential Pre-Code” series, a monthlong compilation of many of the early-30s gems they’ve returned to circulation in recent years. (The L’s Vadim Rizov considers the series here.) Things kick off tomorrow and Saturday with a double feature of Two Seconds and Baby Face.

One of the last tough tales of a poor girl on the make to slide into theaters mostly intact before the Hays Code kicked in the following year, Baby Face (1933) shocked the New York censors enough that it had to lose or tone down several scenes. But the shock to me, when I recently revisited the film for the first time in years, was the sappy-happy ending. What had stuck was not where brazen, bad-ass Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) winds up but how she gets there: sleeping her way to the top of the heap after a grim start as a sullen victim tricked out by her own father.

But that happy ending, which has a suddenly softhearted Lily giving up all her hard-won loot for her hubby, is no post-Code coda intended to put an uppity woman in her place. That kind of ending did get tacked onto the version that made it into theaters: Lily and her husband wound up doing hard labor back in the steel—country Pennsylvania of her youth. But the original conclusion is just the logical extension of a screenplay that never sells out its heroine, making it clear that—no matter how heartless she may seem—she’s a good kid making the best of a bad situation.

Lily’s innate decency is revealed mainly through her bond with Chico (Theresa Harris), the black woman who works at her father’s sleazy speakeasy and then lights out with Lily, becoming her personal assistant/maid. In the opening scene, Lily’s father yells at Chico, firing her as Lily enters the room. “Hey, easy on the whip,” she tells her father contemptuously. “If Chico goes, I go!” The relationship between the two, which inspired Lynn Nottage to write By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, is as much of a revelation as anything else in Baby Face, owing nothing to the template, typical to movies of the that era, of an imperial white mistress and a sycophantic and childlike (and often morbidly obese) black maid. Until Lily finally lets herself fall for her husband, Chico is her true life companion. She expresses her love for her comrade in the unsentimental, mostly unspoken way in which she deals with all her softer feelings, but the two clearly cherish and understand one another, and Lily remains staunchly loyal to her friend even as she motors through men like a speedboat roaring through a herd of manatees. When one of her conquests suggests that she “get rid of that fantastic colored girl,” she drops the baby talk and gives him a look that would have cut like a laser, if only he’d had the sense to notice it.

Film Forum is showing the original version of the movie, which was discovered in a Library of Congress vault in 2004. It may not seem scandalous by today’s standards, but there’s nothing coy about it either. Perhaps the biggest loss to 1933 audiences was the speech Lily got in the original from her fairy godfather, a crusty old customer at the speakeasy who sees her “potentialities” before she does. Schooling her on Nietzsche (why is it always Nietzsche?), he urges her to “get out before it’s too late” and use the power she has over men for her own good. “Look here!” he says, “Nietzsche says ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation….’ Use men! Be strong, defiant! Use men to get the things you want!”

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Taking his advice to “go to some big city where you will find opportunities,” Lily gets a free ride to New York by seducing the railyard goon who comes to throw her and Chico off the empty freight car they’d hopped. Shots of Lily retreating into the shadows at the back of the car, the railyard man’s gloves hitting the straw, and his hand turning out the lantern leave no doubt as to what came next—not that the long, slow slide of his eyes up and down her body and her exchange of looks with Chico left much to the imagination. (The theatrical version cuts from the two on the train to the city, leaving the man out altogether.)

Once in New York, Lily heads straight to a bank, of course—like Willie Sutton said, it’s where the money is—and seduces the chubby mark in personnel. “Have you had any experience?” he asks. “Plenty,” she says, before disappearing behind a door with a coy backward glance. She starts as a file clerk and promptly works her way up, literally moving higher as the camera pans up the skyscraper that houses the bank, showing us the ever-classier departments on ever-higher floors that she sleeps her way into.

Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck (under a pen name), the screenplay is as efficient as its heroine, moving forward as smoothly and inexorably as a shark. It’s not exactly subtle (Lily’s last name is Powers, after all), but it’s knowing, smart, and often slyly funny. “Would you like to motor through the chateau country?” one suitor asks. “And see all those lovely 14th-century ceilings?” she replies.

John Wayne makes a surprising cameo as the sap who nicknames Lily Baby Face: a wage slave she uses and then shoulders aside at the start of her climb. But the real draw here is Stanwyck, whose coolly dignified, always calculating Lily wins our love because she never asks for or expects it. Like Stanwyck’s Jean in The Lady Eve and Nora in Night Nurse (also at Essential Pre-Code), Lily is one of the great broads of the American cinema, a heroine whose measuring gaze, dry wit, determined stride, and unself-pitying pragmatism feel as fresh and refreshing now as they must have back then.