I need to talk about Baby Face

Maybe this blog will become shallow-ish dives into movies, books, whatever I want?

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to write about Baby Face for a while now. As in, ever since I bought it on iTunes a few years ago (something folks don’t do anymore, do they?).

Baby Face was released in 1933, in the early years of the Great Depression and the same year that Prohibition was repealed by the signing of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution. This is perhaps, as Karina Longworth refers to it, one of the “pre-codiest” of the Pre-Code movies that were made roughly between 1929 and the mid-1930s. These movies were bawdy, lusty, and unafraid of sex, booze, extra-marital affairs, and other vices.

Baby Face might be the least subtle of these movies in it’s premise: Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who works in her father’s speak-easy and also blatantly engages in sex work with the customers at her father’s aggressive (coercive) urging. She’s motherless, and her only girlfriend/ally in the entire movie is a Black woman named Chico, played by Theresa Harris. (One amazing scene has Lily’s father trying to throw Chico out of the house and Lily yelling “If Chico goes I go!”. This is not the only time Lily refuses to leave Chico behind.) Lily’s only other friend is a German man who (while also not being a creep, a rarity for men in this movie) tells her about Nietzsche and how she needs to “exploit herself” and “use men” to get what she wants and get out of her terrible town. When her father dies in a still explosion, her opportunity to flee Pennsylvania with Chico arises.

Lily arrives in New York City with Chico and flirts/sleeps her way into her first job. One of the best parts of the entire movie is that Lily sleeps with ever-more powerful men in this company a lot, and when she does the skyscraper she’s employed at is filmed from the outside, showing her literally rise to new heights.

This movie sounds crass and simplistic but the dialogue is shrewd, lewd, and hilarious. Lily isn’t ashamed of her ability to overpower men. She also shows up to work on time, works hard, and learns fast at her job. The viewer also gets the hint that even though Chico is employed as Lily’s maid that Chico is also doing well: a scene where Stanwyck is resplendent in fur shows Harris also draped in matching fur, going away for Christmas. To see a beautiful, confident, glamorous Black woman draped in tailored, luxurious clothes in 1933 feels as radical as seeing Stanwyck’s character earn them by seducing men. I wish that Harris had more chances to shine, and they give her some bad dialogue in the beginning, but I loved seeing her character be proud and beautiful when given the chance. She is Stanwyck’s only female ally and accomplice in the whole thing, and Harris shines doing so.

Theresa Harris unfortunately didn’t get big roles in her career. Val Lewton, one of the fathers of horror movies, cast her in multiple roles over the years. She was obviously talented, working alongside Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and other Hollywood stars, but she wasn’t ever given the space to thrive the way that she clearly knew she could. In Baby Face, Harris is gorgeous, and even when they try to make her look tired, frumpy, and ugly in Baby Face she isn’t.

When people think of old movies they might not think of movies where women get to transgress and revel in it. Stanwyck looks positively gleeful tricking men into keeping her in enormous apartments and manipulating them to no end. Stanwyck’s own life was incredibly difficult. An orphan raised in foster homes, when she worked as a Ziegfeld girl she’d bounce between nightclubs, stopping in at diners with only enough money to get coffee and “tomato soup” which meant ketchup mixed with hot water in a cup. She surely had to deal with disgusting old creeps in order to get by at her job. As a woman almost 90 years later, I still have to deal with creepy old men to get by living life, and I love seeing Stanwyck as Lily use men and take their systems of power and sneak into the cracks.

The clothes Stanwyck wears in this movie are absolutely incredible. My personal favorites are at two ends of Lily’s transformation spectrum: The first, a casual long-collared shirt with a slim skirt that vintage lovers would pay good money to emulate today. The second, a backless, silk batwing gown that shows off Stanwyck’s long torso. Orry-Kelly, who also did the costumes for movies such as Casablanca, dressed Stanwyck so well in this movie. Any 1930s vintage lover will find so much to enjoy in this movie, from the use of lace to the cuts of necklines.

I have so much to say about this movie, mostly because Stanwyck is so satisfying in it. Even though she wasn’t conventionally gorgeous the way other Hollywood starlets were, she shines. In Baby Face, her eyes are bright and clever, her mouth can snarl or smirk on a dime, and she can sell you on the idea that she’s innocent even when you know she just can’t be, it’s too good to be true. She commits to being slinky, sultry, and smarter than the men who up until recently kept her down. She makes it look so much fun to be bad, even when you know that the expiration date on her revelry can’t be far ahead.

The screenplay was written by Kathryn Scola and Gene Markey. Scola wrote screeplays for other Pre-Code movies of the same caliber, which makes me want to watch them- a lot of the lines in Baby Face are perceptive of women’s experiences and frustrations in ways that feel human and I wonder if that’s present in other movies Scola worked on.

Markey happened to be clever and desirable enough to marry not only Hedy Lamarr but also Myrna Loy, even though both women eventually divorced him. The dialogue is razor sharp, full of innuendo and insinuations, and none of the characters skip a beat understanding one another. This movie has layers! It’s complicated! It’s full of life, mistakes, traumatized people trying to make themselves new lives when everything is falling apart, and forgiveness. I’ve watched this movie a dozen times or more and find something new to love every time.

It’s 2021. I’ve been sexually harassed at work by men eerily similar to the 2-D monsters that inhabit this 1930s Hollywood movie world. Things for women have gotten better in many ways with access to birth control, abortion, equal pay laws, etc. but at the end of the day we still live our lives being visually, economically, and emotionally devoured by systems that empower men to do a lot of bad and grey area stuff. I think part of my love for this movie comes from watching Lily Powers commit to exploiting men as much as she can for as long as she can while still being very human. She lives in a world where men are generally shallow, horny, and immoral, so why can’t she also be those things? She gets to be complicated, clever, scheming, but loyal, caring in her own way, and ultimately a person trying to succeed in the limited ways she is able to. This is a weirdly humane movie in some ways, but wrapped in a clever, disarming package.