Baby Face – Day Six – #40movies40days
I learned the film is notorious for its unrelenting and unsavory look at women’s lack of power in society and commerce (except for sexual power). Baby Face was the film that finally compelled the movie studios to enforce the Hays Office production code that would, for decades, censor American movie morality. It was drastically recut for it’s original release to satisfy the censors.
The version I saw was the prerelease uncensored cut. This original negative was discovered by Mike Mashon, curator of the Motion Picture Division at the Library of Congress. He struck a print of the unsanitized version and it was a sensation at the London Film Festival in 2004.
The uncensored cut had its American premier at New York’s Film Forum in 2005. That same year it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. Time.com named it one of the 100 best films in the last 80 years.
In Baby Face, Lilly Powers is a sardonic smart-mouthed bar maid in her father’s speakeasy. It’s established from the outset that she’s been “rented out” to the men her father needs to impress, mollify or obtain favors from including a sleazy politician (who protects the place from a police raid). Lilly is called the “Sweetheart of the Night Shift.”
“Yeah, I’m a tramp and who’s to blame? My father! A swell start you gave me! Ever since I was 14! Nothing but men! Dirty, rotten men– and you’re lower than all of them!”
Only one person recognizes how whip smart she is, a German immigrant cobbler and book binder. He urges her to leave before she is beaten into submission as a victim. He advises her to use the only thing she has as her ticket out of the grimy dead-end factory town.
“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. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here— Nietzsche says, ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.’ That’s what I’m telling 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!”
When her father’s illegal liquor still explodes, killing him, Lilly doesn’t shed a tear. Instead, she heads out of town in a box car. She has an unusually equal and frank relationship with the black girl who is the scullery maid in the speakeasy. The two girls leave together.
When the girls hit the big city, Lilly heads to the biggest building in town– A financial institution the size of a skyscraper. She uses her wiles to land her first job as a file clerk. She is smart and a hard worker. A very young John Wayne describes her as the sharpest girl in the office. But ability alone won’t get her far– lots of other girls never get the job they need and, if they do, never get out of the file room.
Lilly seduces and uses each of her bosses along the way, until she is promoted all the way to the top floor. She becomes the assistant/secretary to the Bank Vice President. He’s engaged and Lilly allows his finance to catch him in his office romance with her. The fiance tearfully runs to her father, the Bank Chairman. He tells the Vice President to break it off or he will. When the Chairman “fires” Lilly he falls for her as well. She leaves the office and is “kept” in high style by the wealthy older man.
The distraught Vice President catches the two together and kills his now father-in-law and himself. The murder-suicide is a major scandal. Newspapers everywhere cover the story. Lilly is offered $10,000 for her story and diaries of her time at the financial institution. (That was worth a little over half a million dollars in today’s terms).
The bank’s Board of Directors call her in to offer her the same amount NOT to publish her exploits. She puts on her innocent act (she just want to do honest work and her notoriety now ensures no one will ever hire her). The new Chairman calls her bluff. He sends her to the Paris office and sets her up in a job there. No big payoff for Lilly.
Several years later, the Chairman arrives in Paris and is surprised to find Lilly is the head of the travel department. She has excelled and has boosted profits over 30%. The Chairman falls for her and this time she holds out for marriage. He showers her with diamonds, cash and bonds.
When the Chairman is indicted for bank mismanagement (and probably embezzlement) he wants her to give back all her treasures to mount his defense. She refuses and then changes her mind. She rushes to him but he has shot himself. The final scene is in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. He has a good chance at recovery and she is willing to give up everything to help save him.
I guess what I took from this film personally is how much and how little things have changed for women in Hollywood between 1933 and now. During the 30’s and 40’s strong women filled the screen. Now not so much. There are more women in executive suites but has that improved or expanded the stories about women on the screen?
A recent example of the lack of women in big Hollywood pictures is The Adjustment Bureau. The only female part of note is Matt Damon’s love interest, she functions only vis-a-vis his story. Emily Blunt is wonderful in her role, smart and sassy. But Damon makes all the decisions for her– first by abandoning her so she can have the great career the bureau promises and then to pull her through the door to be with him without telling her what that choice means for her (teaching dance to six year olds and never achieving artistic fame and fortune). Shouldn’t she be allowed to choose for herself, knowing the options?
Where are the other women in the film? There is a largely mute bartender at the bar that Damon frequents. There is Emily Blunt’s female friend, who is used mainly a sounding board to discuss the situation with Matt Damon. That’s about it.
Sister Rose Pacatte in an interview with the writer/director, George Nolfi, asked about the lack of women in the story and the total absence of any kind of female persepective:
When I brought up these issues to Nolfi he said that in the scene where David and Elise run through a huge library, all the images along the side are base reliefs of female figures..“However,” I replied, “They are nameless and inarticulate.”.It is no surprise that most Hollywood films are about men — as (most of) the films released in 2010 demonstrated. (Too) many stories are told from a white male perspective and are about the male as the symbol of universal human experience. But does it have to stay this way?.As I noted in my review of Peter Rodger’s 2009 documentary “Oh My God”, as long as 50 percent of the human race is not included in the stories that ubiquitous Hollywood films tell — whether documentaries or other genres — reality as presented in cinema will continue to reinforce the idea that men do indeed rule the world, and that women, along with children, and other minorities, are not part of the solution to any conflict, real or imagined..An argument could be made that this is the subversive point “The Adjustment Bureau” is trying to make. But I don’t think so.