Originally Published: July 21, 2015
Our second Barbara Stanwyck film of the week personified to audiences the strong, adept female that Stanwyck was. Compared to other actresses embodying personalities like wilting flowers or little girls lost, Stanwyck never strayed from being a woman, both confident and capable. These traits are best embodied in the pre-Code classic, Baby Face. A stark tale of a dame intent on making it to the top by laying on her back, the film presents a coherent argument about women’s desire to better themselves and men’s inability to be held accountable for their own bad behavior. Despite a tacked on Hollywood ending, Stanwyck seduces the audience as much as the men in her life, placing her among the likes of pre-Code beautys Mae West and Jean Harlow.
Lily Powers (Stanwyck) decides to use her feminine wiles as a means of securing material wealth and power for herself. Ensnaring countless men in a bank, she ends up marrying a wealthy playboy (George Brent).
Baby Face’s theme is right in our heroine’s name. Lily is looking for power, not just over men but over herself. As she tells her no-good, gin-swilling dad in the uncensored version, he’s placed her at the mercy of men since she was 14. By taking her friend Cragg’s (Alphonse Ethier) advice, she realizes “you have power over men…you must be a master, not a slave.” Her disturbing upbringing immediately puts you on her side, and after her father’s demise she heads into the big city to make her fortune.
The frank sexual nature would have certainly shocked audiences of 1933, but still retains a certain level of gasp-inducing in 2015 for how overt Lily’s sexuality and the situations are. When her and her maid Chico (Theresa Harris) hop a ride on a train, they’re set upon by a train representative ready to haul them to the clink. Instead, Stanwyck, in gauzy close-up, tells the man to sit down and let them “talk this over.” We see the man’s gloves cast aside as he turns out the light, leading to only one thing. From there, “Why don’t we go in and talk this over” becomes Lily’s mantra, alerting the audience of what she’s going to do to get her way. Characters walk in on Lily and men in various locations, with no need to explain what’s happening or come up with an excuse. Lily never admits that she’s soiled her reputation, but instead comes up with reasons that always sound logical.
It is this logic that leaves the audience rooting for Lily. It’s a stark contrast between her and Jean Harlow’s equally opportunistic female in Red-Headed Woman (1932). Her Lil is almost a copy of our Lily, with just a “y” being the clearest distinction. However, I found Harlow’s Lil to be an insufferable schemer, using baby-talk at every opportunity. Her actions are not that of a clear-headed woman but an immature child. Stanwyck always has a clear idea of what she wants, money, power, and things, understanding that male benefactors are the only way to obtain those and the respect that comes with it. She talks like a child once, but it’s in jest. You’re never unsure that she’s in control of her destiny, which is what makes the ending such a disservice to her character but required for the time.
The unique presentation of the genders extends towards Lily’s treatment of others around her. We’re introduced to her as she fights her father to keep African-American maid, Chico, an issue that crops up once Lily’s star rises. She may be destroying an engagement, but Lily stands up for other women, particularly ones even more oppressed than she is. She gives Chico a steady job and acts like a respectful employer, putting her alongside West in their regard for black women during a heavily prejudiced time.
Also, the script makes sure to give the men their just desserts when they need it. Lily’s young boss has a fiancee and Lily makes sure she catches them in the act, more as a way of showing the woman the man she’s about to marry’s true colors. Later on, when said fiancee’s father wants Lily fired, he says it’s because the man’s life shouldn’t be ruined because of an indiscretion. Never mind that a young woman will end up destitute. The script emphasizes that, in these situations, a man is as much at fault as a female, it takes two, after all. And while Lily is the one meant to change and seek redemption, the chastising of the men still stands. This is Stanwyck’s movie, so much so that none of the male characters stand out other than George Brent (marking the first of two films he’ll be in this week with Stanwyck).
Baby Face marks the entry of Stanwyck as a formidable actress in the field. Her longevity as a star shines from her first close-up. Outside of the obligatory ending, the script presents a balanced, albeit salacious, portrayal of female options, or lack of them, creating a woman in control of her sexuality and identity.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.