The opening film of GOMA’s Forbidden Hollywood program might as well have been Nietzschean Superwoman, following as it does the “adventures” of Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) as she sleeps her way up the big city corporate ladder, following the advice of her Nietzsche-obsessed cobbler (Alphonse Ethier). As you’d expect from a film over eight decades old, there’s the odd bit of regressive sexual politics in the mix, but for the most part Stanwyck’s character has a refreshing sense of empowerment to go with her captivating allure.
Baby Face is, first and foremost, a whole lot of fun. Lily’s journey from small-town prostitute (strong-armed into the role by her charmer of a father) to glamourous half-millionaire is predictable, but thanks to zippy pacing and Stanwyck’s not-inconsiderable charisma it doesn’t matter one whit. Honestly I’m not sure if the role works without Stanwyck, given the plot is entirely predicated on her being entirely irresistible and, thankfully, she is that. The dialogue isn’t quite as sharp as its screwball predecessors, but Stanyck’s coquettish gaze – or her idle, subtly sinister fidgeting with a letter-opener – more than compensates.
There’s more to the film than a sexually-charged romp through office “romances” intermittently punctuated by gunfire, though. Baby Face was made in the midst of the Great Depression, and it shows through-and-through, both in the initial mindset of Lily, trapped as a waitress-cum-sex-worker in a speakeasy nestled in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, reflects the desperation of the period and in its cynical and cyclical portrayal of capitalism. After all, what is Lily’s travel from the bottom to the top – leaving a string of heartbroken, destitute and occasional deceased men in her wake – than a pure expression of self-interested capitalism?
That sort of allegory is pretty well dismantled by the film’s pandering denouement, though, in which Lily has a last minute change of heart and rushes to the home of the man she “truly loves” – the one she loved most recently. Baby Face might pre-date the Hays Code, but its insistence on tying up its loose ends with a moralistic conclusion will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the intricacy of said Code. That ending also jettisons the film’s most intriguing – and likely unintentional – subtexts by pairing off Stanwyck with playboy Trenholm (George Brent); specifically, I’d interpreted the bond between Lily and her companion (and eventual maid) Chico (Theresa Harris) as a coded sexual relationship. However risqué pre-Code films were, it’s admittedly hard to imagine them slipping in an inter-racial lesbian couple, even surreptitiously, so I might be simply reinterpreting the film from a modern perspective. Still, it’s an entirely plausible interpretation until the film’s final minutes.
The Australian Cinémathèque screening of the film used a print provided by the Library of Congress that concluded with some edifying excerpts that had been put together to salve the consciences of audiences of the time. In addition to providing some valued historical context, it was hilarious to watch Lily’s cobbler repurposed as a scolding voice of wisdom, with highlighted Nietzsche excerpts replaced by stern letters. The final coda – in which Lily and Trenholm donate their remaining fortune to save the bank that Lily left ruined and insolvent – earned the biggest guffaws from the Cinémathèque audience. Honestly, I found it entirely consistent with the actual ending we were granted, which strongly implies the couple will be forced into the working class, but it is incredibly telling that the “happy ending” of a 1930s film involves a civilian couple bankrupting themselves to bail out a bank. ‘Twas a different time…