Monday, January 31, 2011

Baby Face

Baby Face
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
1.29.11

I wanted to like Baby Face so much. Barbara Stanwyck, maybe my all-time favorite actress, in a pre-code film from early in her career? It sounded like an absolute winner, and indeed, she's terrific in it, as she always is, but the movie was a pretty big disappointment overall.

The premise is simple: poor small-town girl Stanwyck moves to the big city and seduces men in order to become rich. As this is a pre-Hays Code film (pre-code Hollywood was the theme for this month at the Loews Jersey City), there's quite a strong emphasis on sex and violence, from the way the camera lingers on Stanwyck's bare legs to the ways she has to physically fight off would-be suitors. There's a definite Mae West influence in the way she talks and looks at me that would inform many of Stanwyck's later roles, and it's awesome to see it at work here.

It's such a shame, however, that it's in service to a plot full of holes and inconsistencies. Let's start with Cragg, the old man who convinces Stanwyck's Lily to use what she's got to get what she wants. It was a bit disappointing that Lily gets the idea from a man, yet also very surprising. Cragg talks more or less like a radical feminist, decades before the movement for women's rights got into full swing. This movie takes place only 13 years after women earned the right to vote, so the very concept of women's rights is still a relatively recent one. My point is that Cragg's attitude is an unusual one given the fact that he's not only an old man in 1933 America, but in all likelihood a first-generation immigrant, and this unusual aspect is not remarked upon within the story. (Given that Lily starts out working in a speakeasy, it's possible that Baby Face begins sometime in the 20s.)

And then there's the source of Cragg's philosophy: Nietzsche. Nietzsche? Really? The same guy who said "Everything about woman is a riddle" (Thus Spake Zarathustra) and "Woman was God's second mistake" (The Antichrist)? I don't think Cragg should've been a misogynist just because he reads Nietzsche, but the irony of Nietzsche's philosophies being used for the benefit of a woman is never acknowledged, assuming the screenwriters were even aware of it (which I seriously doubt). The entire character of Cragg was ill-thought out; he's clearly only there as a plot device.

Next there's the character Chico, a young black girl (shouldn't that be "Chica" then?). What exactly is the nature of her relationship with Lily? When we first see them in the speakeasy, they appear to be co-workers, both equally shat upon by Lily's father. Lily goes out of her way to save Chico's job when she didn't have to, and after Lily's father dies, she takes Chico with her to New York, so it appears as if she regards her as a friend.

Yet once Lily starts to work at the bank, Chico isn't so much forgotten as she is disconnected from the plot. Given Lily's morally questionable character, I would've expected her to ditch Chico when she realizes that it's difficult for a white woman to have a black friend in 1933 America. When they first go to the bank, in fact, Lily makes her wait outside while she goes in, realizing perhaps that the only job Chico could possibly get at this place is as a cleaning lady, if that (though maybe I'm giving Lily too much credit). Instead, Chico somehow becomes Lily's - maid? That's how she's dressed the next time we see her, and that's how she acts. What was Chico doing all that time in between, while Lily was sleeping her way up the ranks of the business, one floor at a time? And how did she feel about her situation?

Lily and Chico eventually move into a ritzier apartment, and in one scene we see Chico dressed fairly extravagantly (though not as much as Lily) for a night out - and the audience at the Loews actually laughed at her appearance, even though it wasn't meant to be funny, no doubt because they too, saw the incongruity at work here. Where was Chico planning on going? Harlem, perhaps? Has she made friends of her own in New York while Lily was doing her thing? And if so, what does she tell her new friends about where she got such fancy clothes?

These questions are never answered, because the way Chico is written, she just comes and goes in and out of the story at will without any clear idea of how her relationship with Lily has changed. Either she's a friend who Lily treats as a subordinate, or a subordinate who Lily treats as a friend. It's absolutely unclear and frustrating to watch because of its dishonesty.

I started to lose interest in Baby Face when the character of Courtland was introduced, after Lily is shipped off to Paris after her affairs with the bank executives become public. I didn't care about him, and I didn't really see why Lily did, either. I suppose it was inevitable that Lily would eventually fall in love for real, but I didn't want to see that. And then at the end, it looks like he tried to kill himself with a gun, but he somehow pulls through, which makes me wonder: if he was trying to commit suicide, wouldn't sticking the gun in his mouth be the easiest way? When Lily finds him, he's sprawled out on the floor, gun still in his hand, and no blood anywhere, yet he's apparently so close to death that she calls for an ambulance. It's not clear how Courtland tried to shoot himself, or even if he did! Yet we're supposed to believe something serious happened.

I acknowledge Baby Face's place in film history as the movie that hastened the formation of the Hays Code, but as a film it simply doesn't work for me at all due to the sloppy writing and poor characterization.

The version of Baby Face screened at the Loews was the uncut, uncensored one. After the film, we were treated to a few extra scenes made for the censored version, the version that was initially released in theaters, in which the morality of the film is much more black and white. (You can read more about it here.) It got quite a few laughs.

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