Quick thoughts on Baby Face (1933)

I’m always surprised to see the level of technical sophistication of some films from the early 1930s era. For every meandering, uninteresting dud there seems to be a gem out there of astonishing complexity and Baby Face is one of them. I wonder what audiences who saw it for the first time thought of Lily Powers and her ascent to the top, were they repulsed? Wary? Inspired? I’ll have to do some reading on this, because I don’t think a film like this could be made today. I think to a certain extent, the times dictate the plausibility and need for this kind of action to make a place for yourself in the world, as well as the depression era desperation for work and money that really is unknown to most of us here.

I loved the very conceptional and visually driven “rise to the top” of the first half, using the building as a measure of Lily’s success. It was short and to the point, while always maintaining visual and narrative interest. The second half is almost disappointing in that respect, but I feel it really complicates her intentions as well as suggesting her growing sophistication. In the most plain terms, this evolution can be seen in the two instances she suggests a drink to her lover. The first time, she insists she never touches the stuff, but downs it without so much as a flinch. Later in the film, she still maintains an adversity towards alcohol, and supports it by coughing when she so much as sips at a drink. This is very obvious, especially compared to her wooing of Courtland, which is so cryptic for a while one isn’t even aware of her seduction.

I’ve seen several films of this type from the era, from Harlow’s The Red Headed Woman to the comedy-driven Gold Diggers of 1933. This one somehow feels far more immediate and dangerous. I’m finally undecided what to think of Powers, and can’t help putting myself in her place. It’s more difficult than I could imagine, especially considering her upbringing. How reckless is her behaviour? Should she have just been satisfied to live her life in abject poverty and abuse? Very early the film the point is made that honesty and kindness are not going to get people anywhere (especially not women it seems), so how wrong is she to abuse the loop holes of a system that only works to oppress and destroy people like her (people without money, and women in general)? I can’t help coming back to the fact that her own father prostituted her to men as young as fourteen…

I don’t think it’s a matter of condemning her, but rather understanding the circumstances of her actions. Putting myself in her shoes, it becomes a question of life and death. She stays behind, she is killing herself, and that isn’t an option for her.

The hays code, that was instated not that long after the release of this film… strikes me not only as an attack of violence, sex, or any other supposedly morally reprehensible action, but one on strong women. Powers is only dangerous and frightening because she’s a woman, and she’s using all that society has allowed her to get to the top. She’s condemned by her circumstance, not only by some audiences and characters within the film, but eventually by the censors. Characters like Powers were subversive, and dangerous, and looking back this is perhaps what intrigues me most of all.

Also have to say, I adored Stanwyck. I now have the Bitter Tea of General Yen queud, should be great. Great presence, and unconventionally beautiful.

6 responses to “Quick thoughts on Baby Face (1933)

  1. Although it is not coming from the USA in the early 30s, for my money Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” (1931…I think) is a true, underseen masterwork. Vigo usually gets a mention or two, but because of his short career there just isn’t enough to look at to place him up there in the canon with the other “greats.”

    That aside, I haven’t seen this film and this makes me want to big time. Keep up the good work!

  2. “L’Atalante” is a very good film, and blends simplicity with very formalist and thrilling imagery seemlessly. I think my favourite scene is when the wife is in the cabin of the other sailor and he is showing her all of his treasures. It tells you everything you need to know about him, while also being tender and beautiful.

  3. Pingback: Baby Face (1933): Pre-Code Female | The Sheila Variations

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