Baby Face (1933). 75 minutes. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lily Powers), George Brent (as Courtland Trenholm), Donald Cook (as Ned Stevens), Alphonse Ethier (as Adolf Cragg), Henry Kolker (as J. P. Carter), Margaret Lindsay (as Ann Carter), Arthur Hohl (as Ed Sipple), John Wayne (as Jimmy McCoy, Jr.), Robert Barrat (as Nick Powers), and Theresa Harris (as Chico).
Baby Face tells the story of a young woman who is sexually exploited for all of her young adulthood and who in a life-changing reversal determines that she will exploit men instead for her own personal gain. The film, which charts her quest to use sex to move up the corporate ladder, is frequently cited as a catalyst for the 1934 enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, the set of industry censorship policies that regulated motion picture content. I have to admit that even as a fan of pre-Code movies, I was surprised by how brazen the sexual content of Baby Face is, and I have written about Safe in Hell (1931), Smarty (1934), Night Nurse (1931), and The Divorcee (1930) among others—pre-Code movies that in their own right are exceedingly provocative. Although Baby Face is not as unsavory as as Smarty, for example, it nevertheless has the power to shock even a modern audience. If only its ending were not so soft, it might qualify as the ultimate pre-Code movie.
The film begins in a mill town, where Lily Powers’s father Nick runs an illegal speakeasy. To appease the corrupt government that keeps an eye on his business, he pimps out his daughter to the local authorities. One night, fed up with her father, she argues with him but is interrupted when their still begins to smoke. As he tends to it, it explodes, killing him. Lily, unsure of what to do with her life, consults her friend Cragg, who shares Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power with her. Referring to Nietzsche’s theories, Cragg encourages Lily to use her beauty and sexual powers to control men, gain material possessions, and move up in the world. Lily then leaves town with her female companion Chico. When a train inspector discovers them hiding out in a boxcar, Lily puts Cragg’s ideas to work and entices the male inspector with sex in exchange for passage on the train. She is successful.
When Lily and Chico arrive in New York, Lily sets her eyes on the enormous skyscraper housing the Gotham Bank and begins to work her way up the corporate ladder by sleeping with a personnel officer, various low-grade businessmen, managers, and the young executive Ned Stevens. Lily then initiates a relationship with J. P. Carter, the father of Ned’s fiancée, who keeps her in a lavish apartment. One night, a frustrated Ned comes to Lily’s apartment and finds J. P. there; he kills the older man and then himself. Lily attempts to take advantage of the scandal by extracting money from the bank in exchange for disappearing, but the bank sends her to work in its Paris branch instead. There she spends time with bank president Courtland Trenholm, who falls in love with and marries her. But soon scandal overtakes Courtland’s life, and when Lily abandons him in his time of financial need, he shoots himself. The film ends with Lily riding in the ambulance to the hospital with Courtland, realizing that she loves him, and holding his hand while her suitcase of jewels lies discarded on the ambulance floor.
One of the things that makes Baby Face feel so outlandish and that decidedly helps the movie to earn its pre-Code stripes is its strident commitment to implying at nearly every moment that illicit sex is taking place, will soon take place, is on characters’ minds, or is otherwise the reason for what we are seeing. (This is sex, we should note, that is not undertaken with love or affection on Lily’s part, or even for the sake of her physical pleasure, but rather with the objective of career advancement and the furthering of Lily’s campaign to dominate men.) Baby Face conveys the idea that sex is occurring not by showing us anything explicit, but rather by showing Lily taking men into private rooms (or in one case, a bathroom) and closing the door while the song “St. Louis Blues” plays—the official pre-Code soundtrack of any woman who uses sex as something other than an expression of love (see the aforementioned Safe in Hell, or Rain —both films use the song and both are about prostitution). There is a constant stream of such trysts, so much so that the movie would feel like pornography because of its relentless focus if it did not cut away every time seduction ensues and if it did not attach Lily’s sexual project to a larger, more meditative story about power and greed.
Lily seeks to dominate her male partners, but she is herself dominated by the principles of one man—Friedrich Nietzsche. Although the movie does not make repeated references to Nietzsche throughout Lily’s campaign of sexual advancement, he is clearly its catalyst. Lily’s friend Cragg the cobbler reads to her from the philosopher’s Will to Power and distills its descriptive points into a cruel maxim: be the master, exploit others, advance yourself to the top. Invoking Nietzsche at all was a daring move, given that his reputation was well on its way to reaching its worldwide nadir. Less than a decade earlier, he was only one scandalous element involved in the trial of college-aged Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb for the murder of Chicago boy Bobby Franks. At their sentencing, where Loeb was represented by attorney Clarence Darrow, Darrow argued that the two men had been influenced by Nietzsche’s teachings to kill, famously asking in his summation:
Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?… It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.
Although Lily was not taught about Nietzsche at the university, she is a kind of student of Cragg’s, and she is young (the “baby” of the title), which suggests an uneasy parallel with the infamous defendants of the recent past. You might think of Lily as a sort of softer, more detached, and erotically charged version of Leopold and Loeb—ensnaring men in her capacity as sexual superman, inspiring violence, and escaping unscathed as people kill and are killed over her.
Of course, as scholars of the early twentieth century well know, the grotesque distortion of Nietzsche’s philosophy did not end with Leopold and Loeb. In the early 1930s, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche reshaped his works according to her nationalist and Aryan ideologies, and the Nazi party in Germany became exceedingly fond of him. As a result of the political context that attached itself to Nietzsche during this period, the questionable morality of Baby Face’s philosophical bent becomes a particularly unsettling part of its pre-Code texture. Other pre-Code movies might be content to show wild living and let that suffice, but what is particularly delicious about Baby Face is the way that it mingles crude sexual tactics with tainted intellectualism and seeks to shock us with its display of both equally.
The scene in which Cragg uses Nietzsche to offer Lily a mission in life was particularly difficult to get past state censors:
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you… Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong—defiant! Use men to get the things you want!
Even in the pre-Code era, this proved too much for the New York censors, who were presumably concerned about the speech’s direct commands to manipulate men for gain. Rewritten by Joseph Breen of the Studio Relations Committee, the scene became:
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Remember, the price of the wrong way is too great… Be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.
In the censored version, Cragg was thus transformed into a moral guide, a voice of wisdom, rather than a provocateur who leads Lily astray. The scene in which he relates this info was recut so that we see Cragg’s back and shoulder as the new audio is dubbed in. This revision worked for New York; the censors there gave the movie a pass, but not without other cuts to salacious shots, and a tacked-on ending revealing that Courtland and Lily are living and working in a steel mill town in the end, humbled and reformed. (Although this became the standard print for decades afterwards, fortunately, an uncensored print was recovered in a Library of Congress film vault in 2004, which has since become available.)
Lily’s worldview, while sleazy and bankrupt, is, we might say, not all bad. Her mission to make it big in the city is also a campaign to liberate herself from the truly horrible forces in her life, evident in the men who have exploited her back home and chief among them her father, Nick. He has pimped Lily out to customers and business associates at his illegal speakeasy since she was fourteen. When the movie opens in the bar, he is trying to set her up with someone from the government as a way of protecting his business. When she refuses, he confronts her, and she screams at him that he made her this way. It is not clear if she means he made her this way by selling her to other men or whether she means he raped her himself. This issue is not more explicitly resolved, but later when his still explodes in flames with him in it, we see her looking on, not trying to help. It is difficult to determine with certainty, but it looks as if she is smirking as she observes the fire. The original cut of Baby Face was thus damned by more than a callous interpretation of an unpopular philosopher or copious allusions to off-camera intercourse. Ultimately, the spirit behind that smirk and the delight in comeuppance it implies, which so infuses Lily’s interactions with men throughout the film, also rendered the movie unpalatable.
And yet given the content of most of the film, and in spite of what the censors thought, the restored (i.e., original) ending is considerably sweeter than we might expect. The final scene shows Lily in the ambulance after Courtland has shot himself. She holds Courtland’s hand as he recovers from his bullet wound. When her case of jewels falls from her hand and opens, spilling its contents on the ambulance floor, the medic asks her if she is going to pick it up. But her hands are in Courtland’s, and she says no.
Having seen the comparable Red-Headed Woman (1932) recently, I could not help but reflect on the way it retains its hard edge and feels more consistent while depicting one woman’s sexually manipulative escapades. In that movie, which is less relentless in its depiction of sexual encounters, Jean Harlow’s profligate vamp character works her way through society by victimizing men but is allowed to flourish in her bad ways even as the movie concludes. It is the people around Harlow’s character who have the realization about how they have fallen under her spell and who change, not the agent of malevolence herself. Red-Headed Woman is content to leave its antagonist as she is rather than transform her, creating an implicit argument that we should expect change and learning to come from ourselves, not from those who do us wrong.
Baby Face is a better movie than Red-Headed Woman—Lily’s erotic project is more entertaining, she inhabits deeper emotional territory, and the movie takes more risks overall—but a part of me wishes that the original Baby Face had a similar ending. Baby Face’s final scene does make a kind of sense given the logic of the film: Lily’s body, which has previously been used by her to take and manipulate for personal gain, now forgoes the fruits of that avaricious effort to comfort her husband instead. I am open to the possibility that Lily can be compassionate and giving, but the ending unfolds so quickly in the final sequence and its reversal is so unforegrounded that the movie’s authenticity is weakened as a result. It is a shame: her transformation could have been credible while maintaining the film’s spirit of riskiness, and that might have made Baby Face the ultimate pre-Code movie.