In William A. Wellman’s 1931 film Safe in Hell, Gilda Karlson, the feisty, spirited heroine played by Dorothy Mackaill, fought back against any man who treated her badly. She never had a chance. There were so many horrible men in Gilda’s world – and they were so relentlessly horrible – that her only escape was to go to the gallows. Baby Face, the iconic pre-code film directed by Alfred E. Green, is just as pessimistic about the male sex, but Lily Powers, the heroine played by the young Barbara Stanwyck, also realizes that while men are often brutal an abusive, they’re basically dumb animals, stupid and easily manipulated by any woman who knows how to use her sex appeal. For the first fifty five minutes, Baby Face, which until 2006 was shown only in a heavily censored version, deserves all of its acclaim. It’s a magnificently cynical work of art that vividly dramatizes how, at least under capitalism, men and women are irreconcilable enemies. In the last twenty minutes, however, it falls apart. It loses the courage of its convictions, and its cynicism, and becomes, not cynical with an artistic purpose, but just cynical.
Baby Face opens in the grim, industrial town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Green’s camera pans across row after row of dark, smoggy factories until we come to the illegal speakeasy of Nick Powers, Lily’s father, and a villain in every sense of the word. When we first meet him, he’s viciously abusing Chico, an African American dishwasher and waitress played by Theresa Harris. He threatens to fire her, something we suspect he does pretty much every night, until his daughter Lily enters the room and gives him in ultimatum. If he fires Chico, she goes too. We never find out exactly how old Lily Powers is in Baby Face — Stanwyck was twenty five when it was filmed — but her only friend other than Chico, an elderly German immigrant and intellectual played by Alphonse Ethier, tells her it’s long past time she left Erie, and her father, and struck out on her own. He’s right. Not only is Lily sexually harassed so relentlessly by her father’s brutish, working-class clientele that she has trouble walking across the room without being groped and fondled by one swarthy pair of hands after another, it’s even worse. In order to keep his illegal speakeasy open, to continue to serve liquor during Prohibition, Nick Powers pimps his daughter out to various local union officials and politicians.
Yes. You heard that right. Nick Powers pimps out his own daughter. He also gets just what he deserves. Shortly after Lily finally gets sick of servicing her father’s patrons — spilling scalding hot coffee over one particularly repellent “customer’s” hand before clocking him over the head with a wine bottle, Nick goes downstairs to repair his malfunctioning still. Lily, who was surely headed for a savage beating — since Nick was about to lose his political protection and his ability to serve illegal drinks — catches a break. The still blows sky high, engulfing the shed in flames and burning her devil of a father to a crisp. As she watches the fiery inferno, Lily can barely cancel a smirk. Neither can we. The only regret anybody can possibly have is that Nick Powers died quickly in a catastrophic explosion instead of over the course of several days by slow torture. After Lily, who had intended to get a job at the local strip club, pays a final visit to her Nietzsche loving, German intellectual mentor, he convinces her that she can do a lot better. Go to a big city, he tells her. You’re young, beautiful. You have the whole world ahead of you. Don’t let men walk all over you. Harden yourself against sentimentality and use your sexuality to get what you want from them. Cultivate your “will to power.”
As is usual, I’m not a feminist, so I can’t really judge whether or not Baby Face is a “feminist” movie. I haven’t yet availed myself of the extensive literature on pre-code movies, and am not familiar with the current critical consensus, but I will stay this. Baby Face is a great working-class, Marxist film. Lily Powers has spent the first twenty or twenty-five years of her life — well the last five or ten of those years anyway — getting fucked for someone else’s profit. She’s not even a proletarian. Nick lords it over her like a tyrant and doesn’t share the profits. She’s an outright slave. After the death of her father, she decides that she’s going to continue in the same line of work, but she’s going to keep all the money for herself. She’s also going to service a much better, and much better paying class of men. She started out on the “bottom.” She and Chico — probably her lesbian lover but even pre-code films couldn’t be that realistic — hop a freight train. When a railroad security man threatens to throw them both in jail for a month, she fucks him in exchange for her passage to New York. The scene, which was lost until an archivist found it in 2005, is utterly raw and unsentimental. Lily is engaging in the basest form of prostitution, giving a railroad bull a blow job in a dank freight car so he won’t lock her up in a cage. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “after such carnal knowledge what forgiveness.”
Once she reaches New York City, however, Lily doesn’t waste any time with railroad company detectives or quick fucks in dirty freight trains. Rather, she heads right to a skyscraper on Wall Street, flirts her way into a job at a major investment bank and quickly, and quite literally, begins to sleep her way to the top. When I say “quite literally” I mean “quite literally.” Every time Lilly fucks her way a step up the social latter, Alfred E. Green pans up the side of the skyscraper to show that she’s moved up another floor. She goes through a chubby Southern HR Director, then a lowly office clerk played by a very young, twenty six-year-old, John Wayne, then various department heads and Vice Presidents, all of whom she uses coldly and cynically, enslaving one man after another and tossing him in the garbage when something better comes along. Finally, after two of the bank’s Vice Presidents die after Lily rejects them — one shoots another then kills himself — she reaches the top, the top floor of the building, and the top of the social hierarchy, and she snags Courtland Trenholm — how’s that for a WASP name? — the bank’s new President played by George Brent and the son of its founder. Trenholm, who’s just as much of a fool as any other man, not only agrees to alienate his ruling class family and marry her, he showers her with a half-million dollars worth of gold, diamonds, stocks and bonds. Lily Powers, the abused daughter of an Erie, Pennsylvania bootlegger has fucked her way into the one percent.
Sadly, after Lilly Powers marries Courtland Trenholm, Baby Face falls apart. The original theatrical release had a moralistic ending where Lilly is punished after the bank fails. It was the Great Depression after all, so this much is believable. Trenholm kills himself, and Lilly realizes she loved him after all. I suppose the ending was supposed to have demonstrated that you can’t harden yourself to love forever, but bleh. Trenholm’s not particularly repellent but he’s not particularly likeable either. Green doesn’t take enough time to make him appealing, and George Brent isn’t a charismatic enough actor to make up for his underwritten character. In the restored, director’s cut, the banks still fails, Trenholm still tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, but this time Lilly finds him before he dies, gets him into an ambulance and rushes him to the hospital, promising, along the way, that she will use the half million dollars he gave her to rebuild his, and their fortune. Once again, bleh. Up until the end, Baby Face had been an allegorical, and largely abstract story about class war. Men are the bourgeoisie. Women are the proletariat and sleeping your way to the top is revolution. When Lilly Powers genuinely falls in love with Courtland Trenholm for apparently no other reason than the fact that she’s finally reached the top of the social pyramid, she ceases to be a revolutionary and becomes a mere social climber.
There was, in fact, only one way to end Baby Face. Lilly needed to use Courtland Trenholm as coldly as she used every other man, take his money, destroy his bank, leave him in a puddle of his own blood, and run off with Chico, and that half million dollars, to live happily ever as a lesbian couple. But I suppose that even pre-code Hollywood never had that much nerve. What’s more, after the Catholic Church bullied Hollywood into passing its miserable Production Code, Theresa Harris never again got a part as good as Chico. Read about it here.
Ms. Nottage seems less interested in rescuing the African-American actresses who were her inspirations than in arguing for the complexity of their images. She sees films like “Baby Face” and movies made before the code was enforced as presenting a more realistic vision of race in America than many later films simply because they show blacks and whites existing alongside one another. “If that code hadn’t set in,” Ms. Nottage speculates, “the whole trajectory of Hollywood would have been different, and some would argue that race in America would be different because the representations of people of color and particularly of women would have been much more expansive.”