Pre-Code Corner: Baby Face (1933)
Ten Steps to Perfectly Pre-Code
In the era of Pre-Codes, there are a few films that stand out. When I think of Pre-Code films, sometimes it’s the violent nature, or perhaps a few nods to bathtub gin with women barely clad in lingerie, casually checking their stocking hems. (They seem to be forever in a state of getting dressed.) The good ones sparkle with sexual innuendos and are shockingly thumbing their noses at Breen. Of these truly oh-so-naughty-they’re-good Pre-Codes, Alfred E Green’s Baby Face (1933) is my favorite.
Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers is unforgettable in this role. Lily was educated into the school of hard knocks from a young age which molded her into a hardened survivor. With no loving network, her only supporters are her friend Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), who advises her to flip the script by exploiting herself and to use her sexual prowess as power over men, and Chico (Theresa Harris) as her constant companion/maid.
Here are my 10 examples of why Baby Face (1933) is perfectly Pre-Code. Like Lily’s floor-by-floor transformation, consider each of these steps parallel to her ambitious climb. Be forewarned that spoiler alerts lurk ahead. But be rest assured that if you have not watched this film prior, this list shouldn’t spoil your future screening. It’s simply too good not to share.
“Nothing but men, dirty rotten men”
Pre-Codes are engineered to be shocking in their embrace of the gritty side of life. But the grittiest view of Lily’s life is our introduction to her coal-choked birthplace. Her dingy existence in her childhood home is more than just metaphorically filthy as we watch Lily water plants in a window box. She brushes off a thick layer of coal dust from the blackened plants as dark smoke is belched out from the smokestacks in her view. Lily’s mother is gone – it’s suggested that she’s been dead for many years. And Lily’s father (Robert Barrat as Nick Powers) has been acting more like her pimp from the time Lily was fourteen years old than a parent (or even a decent human being). Unlike the harsh transparencies of a modern film, we are spared from anything directly graphic and visual. But the suggestive dialogue and interactions provide our imaginations with plenty.
Lily’s father has turned their home into a speakeasy for all the factory workers to grab a Prohibition-era beer after their shifts. To grease the palms of dirty cops and politicians while openly operating an illegal bar, Lily is barkeep while additionally offered up as protection payment.
Chico: “Hey, he’s a big politician, ain’t he?”
Lily: “He’s a big something and it ain’t a politician.”
“Why don’t we sit down and talk this thing over?”
En route to a Nietzsche-empowered life by sexually exploiting men, Chico and Lily train-hop to the big city. The rail worker attempts to throw them in jail for a month when Lily takes her first conquest. There’s a shot of Stanwyck’s Cheshire cat smile, as Harris hums “St. Louis Blues” and saunters to the corner. We see a closeup of his gloves dropped next to the lantern and he dims the lantern until darkness.
Apparently, this lantern dimming scene was one of the scenes that gave censors fright and was trimmed – along with other deemed provocative scenes – before its wide release in 1933 and not seen again publicly until 2004. It can be tough to watch such scenes because you know this cycle of prostitution, even as she believes she is finally making choices to better her future, is essentially the same continuation as her dark life before. But as she and Chico arrive in the big city hungry, and as women draped in furs walk by, Lily is determined.
“Have you had any experience?’
When Lily sets her aim for a tall bank building to seek a job, her seductive strategy begins immediately with a portly Mr. Pratt (Maynard Holmes). When he asks her if she has any experience, her dry delivery of “plenty” is perfection. We hear Stanwyck snap back in this exact deadpan tone, with this same double-entendre meaning in other scenes. It’s the perfect touch of Pre-Code sass mixed with Depression-era toughness.
Climbing the career ladder.
The direct path of Lily Powers’ ambitious and swift ascent to success and fortune, is visually displayed for the audience right up to the Gotham Bank Co. building. Every time she looks flirtatiously at a supervisor in that particular department, we next see the camera pan up the side of the building to another floor of greater corporate status. Personnel- Filing- Mortgage Dept.- Accounting….
I am tickled to see Jimmy McCoy Jr. portrayed by a young Marion Robert Morrison (aka John Wayne). McCoy is the one we first hear nickname her “Baby Face.” When co-workers witness Lily making a chump out of McCoy, as she has already moved on to his boss as her next conquest, a female staff wryly heeds warning:
“You don’t know you’re out until they stop counting. Wake up, kid. Baby Face is moving out of your class.”
Ironically, between Jimmy and Lily, he’s the true ‘baby face’ of the two.
Rendezvous in the Ladies Room.
I am especially fond of the camera angles and framing in a scene when Lily is caught re-applying her lipstick after a tryst in the ladies room with a boss named Mr. Brody (Douglass Dumbrille). They are caught by Mr. Stevens (Donald Cook), who immediately terminates Brody and walks right into Lily’s spider web. By now, Lily is hunting for big game with her higher-end dresses and platinum permanent wave.
“Are you letting me go?”
When Lily is caught in an embrace with Stevens by his fiancée, Henry Kolker as Mr. Carter (his boss/the fiancee’s father) attempts to be firm in terminating Lily. But, as you can imagine by her track record, both Stevens and Carter are taken in by Lily’s siren call. Carter is a 1st VP at the bank. Instead of dismissing her, Carter spends the night at her luxury apartment. That’s right – the same woman who is having an affair with his daughter’s fiancé. As an audience, we see this overnight visit visually play-out as Carter is greeted by Chico (who now wears an upper-class maid’s uniform). The entrance to Lily’s apartment is lit for the evening. We then see Carter hurriedly exit, with that tell-tale ‘walk of shame’ expression and gate, through that same entryway now with daylight lighting. As he approaches the elevator, he passes a cleaning woman who greets, “good morning.” The censors must have raised eyebrows on that clip.
Remaining loyal to Chico.
When Carter overhears Chico singing “St. Louis Blues” in the background, he asks Lily, “I wish you would get rid of that fantastic colored woman.” Lily stands firm, “NO. she stays.” He asks if she wants a baby grand piano. She declines again. He asks if somebody at her home played the piano. “Yeah, anybody who had a nickel,” she snaps sourly in her dry tone revealing pains of her secret past life. When he is taken aback, she immediately flips back into her smiling, baby-talk.
It’s not easy to fully understand through our modern-day lens in examining the relationship between Lily and Chico. Although she works as her maid, we see signs of loyalty and respect to Chico from Lily that audiences simply didn’t come across on-screen in the early 1930s. Lily started trusting no one but Chico and Cragg. She remained deeply loyal to these two throughout. I won’t pretend Lily and Chico are equal peers in a balanced friendship. But considering the context of 1933, this was nearly as close as that would come for audiences to see in a film. Generally speaking, even the most popular of African American actors and performers in early talkies were not shown anything close to this. Perhaps the 1934 version of Imitation of Life might be on par. Can you think of other examples? For me, their implied loyal bond is one of my favorite angles to this film.
On Christmas day, after reading a highlighted paragraph from one of Cragg’s Nietzsche books, Lily pauses at “Face life as you find it- defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment.” When a past lover is unable to let go of his obsession for Lily, he stalks her to her new luxurious apartment, but she rejects him. It’s New Year’s when he returns to find his father-in-law is her new Romeo. A murder-suicide between family members is harsh enough. But crushing that much sentiment during the holidays must have been a tough pill for the censors to swallow.
Meeting Her Match.
Sparks fly in the last half-hour of the film when Lily traps a man, Mr. Trenholm (George Brent), of equal abilities in her spider’s web. He’s the new bank President and the chaos ensues when word of their nuptials rocks the confidence of the entire board. By now, Lily has climbed all the way to the top, living her wealthy penthouse lifestyle. When confronted with giving up all her assets to help her new husband, the only man she’s ever loved, she at first reverts to her old ways for self-preservation.
Lily: “I can’t do it. I have to think of myself. I’ve gone through a lot to get those things. My life has been bitter and hard. I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed. All I’ve got are those things. Without them, I’d be nothing.”
Don’t worry, Lily figures it out in the end.
Glorification vs Exploitation
After watching this film, as with many Pre-Codes, I often ponder what message audiences actually took home in 1933. Did they think, “Oh thank goodness she finally found a meaningful connection and opened her heart to trust someone,’ or did young women suddenly start reading Nietzsche for tips on how to get ahead in the workplace?” Was this considered a blueprint of what not to do, or were times so tough for some in 1933 that it seemed almost relatable?
I can’t say for certain how the censored package of Baby Face influenced audiences in their everyday lives, upon its initial release. However, I’m glad modern-day audiences are able to enjoy Baby Face as the director intended. This film asks some interesting, thought-provoking questions on the topic of feminism- then and now.
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66