(1933) dir. Alfred E. Green
Baby Face is considered one of the best of the Pre-Code Hollywood films, featuring an amazing performance by lead Barbara Stanwyck. The sexuality in the film is not just innuendo, but Lily’s (Stanwyck) story is one of sexual power, Nietzsche-inspired Will to Power, and the climb of the corporate ladder. Lily starts at rock bottom and learns to sleep her way, quite literally “to the top” of a bank in New York, riding a perverse version of the American success story, yet not harshly condemned for behavior that would be judged harshly in many times in the world.
Lily starts out in a cheap speakeasy, run by her father who put her into prostitution at the age of 14. Pawed at by the clientele, pimped out by her father, Lily is tutored by one gentleman who gives her books by Friedrich Nietzsche, encouraging her to exploit her feminine wiles and body, use them to use men, take control of her life and never look back. And with that, she’s off to New York to do just that.
She lands in front of a bank and sleeps her way into a position, each time moving up the building flight by flight, department by department, until she pretty much reaches the top. Her role is tough, vixen-like, yet sympathetic. There is only one shot that I recall where she seems to bask in the mayhem that she creates. Having tricked one beau into kissing her in the office only to have his fiancee show up, she settles on his desk, calmly takes out a cigarette and puffs smoke in a lingering pose.
But her ruthlessness is one for surivival, not pure spite nor meanness. The men she dupes would just as easily use her. She’s empowered by the use of her looks and body and intellect. It’s an interesting portrait and Stanwyck is awesome. Such a unique character is Lily, not quite like anything you can imagine.
The film was scandalous in its time, censored and banned. It’s racy, but beyond that it’s quite profound. I can easily imagine critical studies projects on the film regarding sexuality and feminism. An excellent film. Well worth seeing.