Pre-Code April: Baby Face

Year: 1933
Runtime: 71 Minutes (restored version 77 minutes)
Director: Alfred E. Green
Writer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Stars:  Barbara Stanwyck, Alphonse Ethier, Douglass Dumbrille, John Wayne, Donald Cook, Margaret Lindsay

By Bianca Garner

“You must use men. Not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave…Use Men! Be Strong! Use men to get the things you want.”

These are the words that inspire young Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) to move to New York City and seduce rich and powerful men in order to get the life she wants. With it’s strong message of female empowerment and the power of seduction and exploitation, it’s hard to imagine that a film like “Baby Face” was actually released in 1933. This was long before Cardi B exploded on to the scene with her 2020 post me-too feminist anthem “WAP” , the song includes lyrics that state the following: “I don’t cook, I don’t clean. But let me tell you how I got this ring” and “Pay my tuition just to kiss me”. One can only imagine Lily Powers grinning to herself hearing this. It’s interesting to deconstruct and analyse “Baby Face” in this day and age, when feminine sexuality is so mainstream. You only have to look at the rise in popularity of cam girls and OnlyFans to see how women have gone from being slaves to becoming masters.

From the get-go, “Baby Face” is all about using sex to get what you want. The film’s tagline states this in plain English: “She had it and made it pay”. It’s not hard to realize that the “it” in question is obviously sex. Even though there’s no graphic sex scenes in the film, there’s many scandalous moments that led to stricter rules on censorship in Hollywood.

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933) Photo from IMDb

“Stanwyck also had influence on the film’s script. In fact, it was her suggestion that Lily had been forced by her father to sleep with the customers of his speakeasy.”

What makes Lily Powers such a revolutionary character is the fact that she doesn’t stand for any sh*t. When a creep tries to make a move on her, sliding his hand up her skirt, she very casually pour her coffee on his hand. Not taking no for an answer, the creep follows Lily into her room and tries to force himself on her, calling her the “sweetheart of the night shift” following this up with “everyone knows about you.” She manages to wrestle herself free from him, and walks out of the room to get a beer, and when he tries again, she breaks the bottle over his head. It’s very clear that Lily is used to defending herself and this isn’t the first time she’s had to fight off creeps. Life has been cruel for Lily, who has been forced to sleep with men by her father Nick (Robert Barrat) since she was fourteen and works in his sleazy speakeasy.

Barbara Stanwyck and Arthur Hohl in Baby Face (1933) Photo from IMDb

The only man she trusts is Cragg (Alphonse Ethier ), a cobbler who admires Friedrich Nietzsche and advises her to aspire to greater things. When her father is killed when his still explodes, Lily is left without an income and a roof over her head. It’s Cragg who inspires her to pursue a better life, and gives her a rather odd prep talk. Lily and her African-American co-worker and best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop a freight train to New York City. However, the two young women are discovered by a railroad worker who threatens to have them thrown in jail. Lily knows there’s a way out of this particular predicament and begins to unbutton her blouse saying “Wait … can’t we talk this over?” It is strongly implied that she has sex with him to change his mind.

Throughout the film we never see anything explicit ever depicted onscreen. In fact, the most we actually do see happens to be a bit of fully dressed canoodling. However, the film makes it clear that Lily will have sex and actually does have sex with any man that she believes will help her move up the ladder of success. In New York, Lily goes inside the Gotham Trust building. She seduces the personnel worker to land a job. Her subsequent rise through the building symbolizes her progress in sleeping her way to the top. She begins an affair with Jimmy McCoy Jr. (a very young John Wayne), who recommends her for promotion to his boss, Brody (Douglass Dumbrille).

The film is also revolutionary in the way it depicts men. They seem weak and driven by only one thing (that thing being sex). They seem incapable of fighting off Lily’s advances.

Like clockwork, she seduces Brody and is transferred to the mortgage department. Brody and Lily are caught by a rising young executive, Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). Brody is immediately fired, but Lily claims Brody forced himself on her. Ned believes her and gives her a position in his accounting department. Although Ned is engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), the daughter of First Vice President J. P. Carter (Henry Kolker), Lily quickly seduces him which leads to more scandal, murder and betrayal.

Still Image Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes. Copyright: Warner Brothers

What makes the film so brilliant is the dialogue, which is full of lines that have double meanings. A great example is when Lili is trying to find work, she is asked by someone whether she has any experience. She casually replies back with “Plenty!” And, when someone else asks, “Were you working hard?” she replies, “Yeah, but not at the bank.” The film is also revolutionary in the way it depicts men. They seem weak and driven by only one thing (that thing being sex). They seem incapable of fighting off Lily’s advances. Lily may not be a good person, but it’s hard to hate her because she seems so real especially when we consider that this was a woman trying to survive in the Great Depression and in a time where women were still deprived of so many rights.

The history of the film’s production is fascinating. “Baby Face” was Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s “Red-Headed Woman” (1932) starring Jean Harlow, another pre-Code Hollywood film with a similar theme. Production head Darryl F. Zanuck wrote the treatment for the film and sold it to Warner Bros. for a dollar. Stanwyck also had influence on the film’s script. In fact, it was her suggestion that Lily had been forced by her father to sleep with the customers of his speakeasy.

After its initial limited release, the Hays Office recommended that the film be pulled from distribution entirely because of multiple violations of the Production Code. Extensive talks took place between Zanuck and Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. and the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) about ways to make the film more acceptable to the censors. This led to the film’s ending which depicted Lily losing everything and returning to her roots in her home town, where she is content to live a modest lifestyle, thus showing the audience that her sexual vices were not ultimately rewarded.

Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent in Baby Face (1933) Photo from IMDb

The New York State Censorship Board rejected the film’s original version in April 1933, and Warner Bros. made the changes described above, as well as cutting some sexually suggestive shots. In June 1933 the Board passed the revised version, which then had a successful release. Reviews were mixed, with Liberty Magazine saying “Three Cheers for Sin!” but Variety Magazine being more critical, “Baby Face is blue and nothing else.” The uncensored version remained lost until 2004, when it resurfaced at a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio. The restored version premiered at the London Film Festival in November 2004. In 2005 it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. Watching “Baby Face” in 2021, I can’t help but be amazed by how fresh and revolutionary still, and I highly recommend people seek it out.

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