Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Alfred E. Green | Baby Face

a woman of powerful means

Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (screenplay, based on a story by Daryl Zanuck), Alfred E. Green (director) Baby Face / 1933

If there was ever an example of a healthy shift away from the Naturalism of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser at the turn of the century, it was the almost Grade B movie of 1933, Baby Face— fortunately made with Grade A actors such as Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent.      

    While the Depression may have set everyone spinning back to believing that their personal fates lay outside of their control, Stanwyck’s character, Lily Powers, is a girl indeed of flowering powers, revealed to her by the local cobbler—who a bit like Joseph Stalin, whose father was a cobbler, and carried with him the tools of shoe-making for the rest of life—who has matters more political and philosophical on his mind. A devotee of Nietzsche—at least of Nietzsche’s sayings collected by his sister after the philosopher had gone mad—Adolph Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) consuls his young admirer, Lily, to take advantage of the power of her sexuality, arguing that she should use her sexual appeal, like the men use physical bulk, to achieve the goals she desires.
     The only problem is that Lily has yet to discover what she truly desires. At one point, as she works in her father’s apartment-based speakeasy, we glimpse that her wishes may be simple; opening the windows and breathing upon her few window-boxed plants, the lights of the oil refineries glistening below, it appears that all she truly wants to is a bit a fresh air, the pleasure of her lungs not filled with the fumes of oil and her attendant life with the crude workers from the refineries.
     She seems doomed, however, by the world in which she has been raised, where her father has used his daughter as a prostitute in order to gain friends and obtain the permissions to continue running his illegal still. When a local politician attempts to make good on her father’s promises, however, Lily rebels, clobbering the local politician over the head with a beer bottle, and, in so doing, threatening her father’s livelihood. The interchange between father and daughter reveals what the young girl has had to endure throughout most of her childhood, and sets the tone, in fact, for her actions throughout the rest of the movie:

                   Lily Powers: Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My Father.
                   A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what's it been?
                   Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any
                   of them. I'll hate you as long as I live!

     If the fact that her man-hating manifesto along with even the mention of Nietzsche in this Daryl Zanuck concocted comedy-drama, all seems a bit strange, this film, I warn you, is an unabashedly odd duckling, among the top films that are often cited for assuring the existence of Will Hays’ Production Code, the moral mantle tossed over Hollywood Productions to douse the embers of any pre-code enlightenment.
     Within moments after Lily’s attack on the male species, her father dies in an explosion of his still, and she, along with her apparently life-long Black friend, Chico (the wonderful Theresa Harris) is freed to discover herself.
     Once again, Lily does not really know what to make of that freedom, debating, on another visit to her cobbler friend, whether it might not be best to take the strip club offer she’s just received, where she might be paid for showing off her body. But in the original uncensored version I saw yesterday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showing, part of their series in “Masters of Hollywood Costumes,” the cobbler proclaims that she must use men like they have previously used her, that she should show no compromises in obtaining what she wants.

    And with that Lily and Chico are off to New York! A scene in the empty freight car, as the two women attempt to tramp along as hobos, demonstrates that Lily has suddenly caught on to what the old cobbler has tried to teach her. Discovered by a train official, the two are ordered off and threatened with imprisonment. Looking carefully into her assailant’s face, Lily suggests they “talk it over,” the idea of which, after a quick smirk, the railway man takes up, joining the two women as Chico moves away in a joyously sexually-laced song. In the dark railway car we catch only the glimpse of the line-man’s gloves tossed beside Lily, she carefully moving them aside—obviously to make room for him next to her in the straw.
     Without the further ado, the two women, having arrived in Eden, walk down the avenue, staring into the windows of wealthy eateries before she spots the Gotham Trust tower, which the camera follows from its base to the top of its towers—a motif that will be repeated throughout the film as Lily makes her way, quite literally, up from the employment office to the very top. Flirting with the security guard, she discovers the whereabouts of the employment office, quickly conquering a chubby assistant to the head of personnel before we, breathtakingly, discover her—much like J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying—in the filing department.
     Using the men she encounters like so-many sitting ducks, just as they behave, Lily sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. An affair with a youthful John Wayne (as Jimmy McCoy) quickly leads her to his boss, Brody (Douglass Dumbrille). And before we even blink, accompanied by the glorious tones of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, she applies herself to the Mortgage Department, where she is caught in the ladies room with by a rising young executive Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). Brody loses his job, but Lily successfully convinces that she was forced into the situation, her job  temporarily “saved.”

    What is interesting and of great importance in her dizzying successes is that the script goes out of its way to demonstrate that Lily is not only a competent worker, but is exceptional, that she deserves the promotions that she has sexually obtained. Indeed, without her behind-the-scenes manipulation of the men around her, she would likely never have been awarded what she truly deserves.
     Similarly, despite several times when the men in her life would have her dismiss her maid/friend Chico, Lily remains absolutely adamant that the Black woman not only remain in her close relationship with her, but that she equally benefit in the financial gains Lily has used to improve her own appearance through a near-staggering number of hair-styles and Orry-Kelly gowns. Although I wouldn’t argue too stridently for this, I suggest that, given Lily’s detestation of the men of whom she takes advantage, that her relationship with Chico might represent something closer than mere friendship, hinted at, perhaps by the increasing number of dolls which appear upon her bed—which, a few years later Djuna Barnes would speak of in her novel of lesbian love, Nightwood, as surrogate children.
     What matters more in this film, however, is Lily’s continued rise in the company echelons. Despite the fact that Stevens is rumored to be morally inculpable and that he is engaged to First Vice President J. R. Carter’s daughter, Lily quickly forces him into an untenable corner, by allowing his finance to discover them sharing a kiss. When Stevens cannot bring himself to fire Lily, he is temporarily sent away by Carter, who himself takes on Lily as his lover, setting her up in a lavish, new apartment attached to her own special bank account! The old codger is delighted with Baby Face’s foolish baby talk, but it is also clear just from the number of conquests she has made, and the fact that those she has destroyed all attempt to return to her, that Lily is just as good at her sexual duties as she was in her official ones.
      When Stevens, however, attempts to return to her arms, despite her cold dismissal of him, he stumbles into her current situation only to kill his would-be father-in-law before turning the gun upon himself. If she has previously been quite able to talk herself out of situations, Lily cannot even hope to wrangle out of this new situation. Immediately reporting the murder to the police (with the understatement of the movie, “There’s been an accident”), she discovers herself on the front pages of the city papers, the subject of a major scandal. Once more, she cleverly attempts to make the most of the situation, negotiating with the Gotham Trust board for a payment to not publish her private journals. But this time, she entraps herself by her pretenses, arguing that what she would really like is to simply have the opportunity to support herself. The new bank president, the former playboy Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) cleverly takes her up on her it, offering her a job in their Paris office. The fact that she linguistically slips back, for a few moments, to her previous tough-girl dialogue, reveals her disorientation with the sudden shift of situation, and hints, perhaps, at her later fascination of the man who has just out-witted her.
     Surprising even herself, Lily takes on her new job as a travel agent within the company, with great aplomb, demonstrating herself, once more, as one of the most capable of employees. Again, this may seem like a minor issue, but it proves that Lily Powers, had she been only given an ordinary opportunity, would have succeeded equally, without her sexual offerings. In the depression, however, she most definitely would not have been given that opportunity, would most likely not ever hired and would practically reached no position higher than a secretary, just as Chico, no matter what her relationship to Lily, must continue to counterfeit herself as a maid.*

    But we also sense that Lily is now holding out for something far more desirable, that through her meteoric rise and fall she has discerned that she has still selling herself short. A clue might be in Cortland’s strange last name, Trenholm, which derives from a Nordic words meaning “crane island.” The tall stately birds, clearly representative of social heights and grace of Cortland’s ancestry, suggest a world apart from the others she has previously encountered, a cultural enclave to which she now suddenly wants entry. The film portrays her unexpected patience as she waits, without an umbrella, in the rain, for Trenholm to appear from the building wherein she has just reencountered him, to enter his awaiting car. Naturally, he must offer her a ride and the temporary cover of his umbrella.
     It is also clear that in the time she has spent away from New York, she has plotted a new strategy. Instead of making herself available, she sheaths herself in silence, as if she were judging him, evaluating his behavior, the fact of which he quickly discerns. Using honesty instead of placation, she even tells him that he has somewhat disappointed her in his very ordinariness, in the fact that he, too, has been taken in so easily by her charms. And this time round, Lily is not willing to enter in a sexual liaison without the promise of marriage.
     Amazingly, she quickly attains her entry to “crane island,” as he marries her, awarding her jewels and bonds which she dazzlingly displays to Chico as if they were trophies, arguing that they only represent half of what she will one day control.
     We are, however, still in a world where other powers can still hold sway over our lives. This film, after all, remains a work of the Great Depression. If Trenholm, called back to New York for having created yet a new scandal through is marriage, the bank which he heads is as subject as all others to failure, even if Baby Face unconvincingly attempts to suggest the cause was its customer’s lack of confidence because of his alliance. Indicted, Trenholm must suddenly raise a million dollars for his defense, half of which he has entrusted to his newly wed.
     Deluded, like all the others, Trenholm is suddenly faced with his stupidity when the now heartless Lily outrightly refuses to help him:

                      Lily Powers: 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.

Here, we suddenly discover that her machinations have turned her into a kind of monster, as she perceives even her former achievements as elements in a life of suffering. And, once again, there is a hint in her final disclaimer that she, different from other women, is unable to love men.
    Grabbing her jewels and money, she orders Chico to pack her bags and meet her back at the ship, with the intention, obviously, of leaving her husband in the lurch. It is unpleasant scene, but it fits the pattern of her behavior throughout the film, forcing us to realize that she has never truly come to understand what precisely she has been seeking, to discover the goal of all her so capable acts.
    Just as she as realized that she must use a different tactic to win over Trenholm, however, she must accordingly comprehend that he is not just another man. Trenholm is a taller more gracious being who stands apart from all the others, and in that recognition,  she rushes back to him at the very moment he attempts suicide.**
    At film’s end, as the couple speed away in an ambulance, we perceive than Trenholm will survive. When one of her attaché cases falls open, revealing its contents, an attendant suggests she might want to protect it, but Lily, focusing upon her husband’s face, proclaims that they no longer need it. Finally, we perceive, this woman-on-the-prowl has discovered what she has been looking for: a human being who might love her, not a container of baubles and promised payments. Yet, as one critic wittily noted, we can only imagine that, a few minutes later, she will take care of the open case; for they will surely need the money to pay for the doctor’s bill and the lawyers to save Trenholm from imprisonment. She has finally found something worthy of purchasing with her new-found wealth.

*Sadly, except for this and a few other films, the obviously talented Harris had to play a maid or chorus singer in most of the dozens of films in which she had small parts. She worked throughout her life to change Hollywood’s attitudes toward Black actors, unsuccessfully during her lifetime, alas. Lynn Nottage’s 2011 play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is based, in part, on Harris’ life.
**Strangely, the later censored version insisted that he was just another lug, returning the couple to Erie, New York where he would work in the refineries like all the other men she had previously rejected.
Los Angeles, November 5, 2014
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2014).

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