Director: Alfred E. Green
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Theresa Harris
I don’t know about you, but I go through phases with movies, especially when it comes to discovering the past. ’70s regional American horrors. Silent movies. ’50s westerns and melodramas. Japanese kaiju, Italian giallo or Iranian New Wave pictures. I’ll dip in and out of different territories and genres on the great filmic map of the past, and right now I’m taking a detour into the pre-code days of American cinema, and particularly the work of Barbara Stanwyck.
Stanwyck is among my favourite stars of all time. She brings an aura of grit, wit and intelligence to pretty much every role. If she’s not the star of a movie then she’ll simply outshine the lead. I first saw her – as most do – as the smouldering femme fatale of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and then later in a smattering of feminist westerns, such as Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns or Anthony Mann’s roiling The Furies.
A recent watch of River of No Return – in which she shares screen time with Marilyn Monroe – reignited my desire to see more of her work (Stanwyck starred or featured in more than 100 films). Filtering her work by order of release on Letterboxd, I discovered the wealth of 1930s features that I hadn’t touched at all. Quite arbitrarily, Baby Face became my first port of all, simply because I found it first.
Stanwyck plays hardnosed harlot Lily Powers (what a name!), who has no qualms about using her feminine wiles to get what she wants out of any given situation… though her flighty lifestyle means that there’s precious little hope for permanence.
Made in the midst of The Great Depression, perhaps the national sense of grift went some way to allowing Lily to have the power of her wits and her body, for the movie doesn’t particularly waste time denouncing her behaviour. We’re to understand it’s ‘wrong’ in the broadest, moralistic terms, but there’s a smile as wicked as Stanwyck’s about Baby Face. An unspoken acknowledgement that she is fierce and we’re all to be more than a little impressed.
We meet her as a barmaid at some slum tavern, wrestling off the meaty claws of her ‘big ape’ customers. Sticking her head out a window for air, she’s greeted with the roar and smog of industry. Train tracks and smoke stacks. A German regular, Mr Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), encourages Lily to read Nietzsche, but she has no time for it. Here we see an overture for intellectual and philosophical advancement (and perhaps a nod to the film’s true ideology as nudged by screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola), but Lily’s only real interest is up, up, up the American dream, with the help of the males that organise it.
Through shorthand we’re to understand that Lily is regarded as ‘loose’ and a confrontation with her papa clears up his part in that history; less a father and more a pimp. No sooner have the two sparked then he is immolated in an accident, though Lily isn’t prompted to shed a tear. Quite the contrary, it’s like an immediate and powerful act of wish fulfilment has taken place. With great economy her shrewd worldview is set in stone for us, and we have little reason to blame her for it. Cragg – pushing Nietzsche once more – further urges her to exploit just as she has been exploited. This she takes to heart.
Accompanied by her cook-friend Chico (Theresa Harris) – to whom she’s fiercely loyal (but there’s a class divide all of it’s own within that particular relationship) – Lily rides the rails to the city. On arriving, Chico eyes diners in a restaurant eating porkchops, but Lily chides, “You ate yesterday, didn’t you?”, teeing us to the Depression-era mentality of scarcity and avarice. Pining for an office job at a sky-scraping bank, Lily does as Cragg advised; trading sex for advancement; exploiting herself but also the dopey, one-track minds of her male counterparts. A closing door transitions to a sign for the filing department where she will now be working.
Lily’s longing looks get plenty of the menfolk hot under the collar and further transitions visually track her ascent up the floors of the building through her transactional behaviour, sassy brass on the soundtrack acting as an arched eyebrow as we journey through these swift exchanges. Lily’s streetwise nous raises a few arched eyebrows along the way (particularly how she drinks), but her own brass impresses more keenly, making moves on Vice President Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) with absolute foreknowledge that his fiance is coming up the stairs. As Stevens chases the teary young woman out to the stairwell, Lily smokes an almost post-coital cigarette, satisfied with a job well done. Stevens is just another rung on the ladder.
Director Alfred E. Green makes sure that we’re enjoying the altercation though, and this feels key to the mischievous, almost radical tone of the whole. Stevens’ predicament is presented as comedic – something he’s brought on himself – even though Lily is the one who orchestrated it all. We’re on Lily’s side, taking down all the fools on the ladder to the top. Stevens is no match for her. A few scenes later, when he tries to fire her, we know exactly how the scene’s going to play out. Stanwyck toys with a sharp letter-opener, gleefully suggesting that she might outright murder the man before she instead kills him with a kiss.
In the film’s second half (it’s a lean 75 minutes), Lily eyes her prize; the wealthy Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). Stanwyck’s hair is slicked down through many of these later scenes, keying us toward an almost masculine sense of strength and ruthlessness. Yet her gowns and gait exude femininity. She positively slinks in one silky, backless outfit, slithering through the midst of a violent shootout she’s instigated, leading to the deaths of two wannabe suitors. Their violence creates the power vacuum that eschews in Trenholm.
She effectively blackmails her employers, having them over a barrel with a supposed diary of her exploits climbing the ranks. Negotiating her settlement and future with Trenholm, Lily can’t help but be impressed by him; a marked change in her attitude toward a man in the movie. The scene also slyly indicts the mentality around this board of directors, eager to pay-off their embarrassment to maintain their hypocrisy. Lily gets a change of name and a one-way ticket to Paris for her troubles.
There’s something aspirational about seeing a working class girl run circles around such an institution against the backdrop of the Great Depression. A ‘that’ll teach ’em’ attitude that carries the film and, inadvertently, allows a prescient and sex-positive feminist seed to take root. Sex may be her weapon, but Lily always has dominion over it. Trenholm visits Paris and the two spar as equals. The love affair and romance that follow remain to Lily’s benefit – and she enters into it with a predatory smirk – but there’s a change in temperament. In spite of her nihilistic training, Lily lets emotions hold sway in her life once more.
The film ends on a romantic note, suggesting that Lily has transformed, and her material tendencies have been cast aside in favour of this heartfelt connection. But was it ever about money? Finery is comforting and those jewels and fur coats suit her well, but power and equality seem more potent motives when it comes to Lily Powers. When she yells, “Don’t leave me!” to the wounded Trenholm, it feels as though she is referring to the equal in her life as opposed to any source of material riches.
And – as the end title card arrives with frankly surprising swiftness – we note that her method of ascent is left without reprimand at all. Baby Face prefigures many of the noir femme fatales to come – including Stanwyck’s own iconic addition – but allows it’s fallen woman to remain on top, even come the end, making this seem like a refreshing, against-type tale, one that Stanwyck literally and figurative takes to the bank.