Thursday, August 11, 2011

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

There is something indefinite about Barbara Stanwyck's overpowering effect, a subconscious response triggered by an almost imperceptible shift in body language. A lightly cocked eyebrow, a slight repositioning of a leg, all tiny, calculated moves designed for a delayed response to a beauty that, mere moments ago, didn't seem remarkable but is suddenly intoxicating. She made the perfect seductress, someone who doesn't announce herself from afar but waits to ensnare men as they pass by, forcing a double-take that draws them in more wholly and madly than the bombshells. Those ladies wielded their bombshell-selves like the artillery for which they were named, but Stanwyck got up close and personal. If love is a battlefield, she was a black-ops guerrilla. There's a line in Joseph McBride's Capra biography that calls her beauty "proletarian," which is indicative not only of the unexpected power of her uncommonly common looks but of the forceful impact of that beauty when it was unleashed.

Yet despite this singular power, Stanwyck possesses the capacity to portray this Venus flytrap man-baiting as something other than sinister sexual warfare. Sure, everyone remembers her turn in Double Indemnity, one of the bar-setters for the femme fatale icon, but compare her man-devouring turn there to her more enamored brush with hapless innocence in Ball of Fire, where she in no way softens her appeal but manages to fall for a man so resolutely innocent that she must overcome pangs of shame for being with him. Even when she was naughty, which was always, Stanwyck could find ways not only to unearth some nugget of guilelessness in her tramps but to suggest that her forthright seduction was a valid expression of sexual identity. I would say this was incredible given the time period in which she worked, but never mind all that: when's the last time a film made today gave its females such nonjudgmental sexual freedom?

Baby Face, a Pre-Code film to rival The Public Enemy in its sheer onslaught of "How did they get away with that?" sights and sounds, does not contain Stanwyck's greatest performance (not that such a thing is easy to suss out), but it may be the most indicative and representative of her talents. The story of a speakeasy dame raised a tramp by her father, who began prostituting her to his patrons when she was just 14, Baby Face is a depiction of Nietzschean self-realization through sexual aggression. A regular sets off the young woman's evolution when he hands her a copy of Will to Power and urges Lily (Stanwyck) to "use men to get the things you want." When her degenerate father dies in a distillery explosion, Lily has the freedom to pursue her dreams, and she promptly heads to the big city to quite literally sleep her way to the top.

Stanwyck is electric from the first moment. We don't see the little girl being exploited by her father, only the hardened, streetwise moll who's grown up not to take any crap from men even if she still lies down with one every night. She won't let her father fire her friend, the black maid Chico, and when the man tries to shame her Stanwyck wracks herself in fury when she explodes back at the man who would try to make her feel guilty for the woman he made of her. Alfred E. Green's camera is quick to note her legs, scanning up them in a POV shot of a sleazy politician, but even if he didn't try to emphasize them, Stanwyck certainly would have made sure we couldn't ignore 'em. At all times, Lily knows just how to position her legs for maximum tease, including and especially when she plays the part of the wilting flower. After that initial POV pan, Green does not overplay the legs again, but even in the flash of time he gives Stanwyck to arrange herself, she can snap to a man-killing position. After a time, men get wise to her game, but when she shows of those gams, the reaction shots of suddenly thick-tongued gentlemen show her dismantling even those who think they know her.

Stanwyck's body control is so precise one gets the sense she can individually control every synapse. When she arrives in New York, she heads to a bank looking to get a job, ignoring the women marching out in a huff at having been stymied by the boss' assistant. But when Lily walks in there and begins cooing in the portly man's ear, carefully leaning in to pull her blouse tight, the man's head whips around so fast I hope he has health insurance. When a rising executive and the forthcoming son-in-law of the bank's V.P. catches her with a married worker, he moves to fire her, but Lily pushes against him and looks up sweetly, her pupils dilating into wide-eyed innocence with the ease of flaring nostrils. Stanwyck puts no conviction into her voice when she butters up these men, but only because she doesn't need to. She doesn't want to either: having internalized Nietzsche, she won't play the weakling any more than she needs to in order to stay on the path to domination. After a time, Lily even stages getting caught so that she can meet and consume the man on the next ladder rung.

Green's camera gives ample evidence that the director was smart enough to stand back and just let Stanwyck do her thing, but he injects some magnificently cheeky shots here and there. Besides the aforementioned journey up Stanwyck's body, Green marks the progression of Lily through the men at the bank with a recurring shot of a the camera moving upwards as Lily moves up a floor with each conquest. He makes this motif even funnier by scoring it to "St. Louis Blues," though sadly it would be another two decades before Louis Armstrong would record a version with his All-Stars bawdy enough to fit the visual suggestion. Though he obviously does not show anything explicit, Green almost seems to be in a contest with himself to see just how much he can show before cutting away or fading out. It's no wonder this film was cut up when it was re-shown in the wake of the Hays Code, and still surprising in its audacity after being restored in 2004.

Yet despite the overwhelming sexual power Green and Stanwyck assign to the character, neither rushes to cast her as a villain for her steady progression through men. Like Nietzsche, Lily is beyond good and evil. She's not a monster, merely someone who has internalized the need to establish herself. She must assert her position, and to do so necessitates moving over a host of men, even if she has to step on a few relationships and promising careers in the process.

Green highlights a passage in one of Lily's Nietzsche books advising the reader to "crush out all sentiment," and for a time the film does just that. It depicts a murder-suicide, rampant scandal and even Lily's refusal to help her final conquest, the bank's playboy inheritor Courtland Trenholm (George Brent, who may well have taken the part just to list a character name like that on his resumé), when the bank fails and gossiping directors choose him as a scapegoat. This is a movie where John Wayne himself is but one of many men Stanwyck chews up and discards, leaving him distraught with confusion and desire. (In fairness, it must have been incredibly confusing to John Wayne, even before the stardom that wouldn't arrive for six more years, to be the jilted one.)

In the end, however, the film softens Lily through an eleventh hour change of heart that sends her back to the last lover she ruined. This is a recurring event in Stanwyck pictures, where suddenly she finds herself in the position of at last discovering the most malleable, lovesick man who can improve her station and discovers, sometimes too late, that she finally returns a man's affections. But Green manages to complicate even this seeming capitulation, adding a haunting sense of gravity to the final exchange of looks and faint smiles as a failed suicide attempt leads to a hint of reconciliation. It's still at odds with the rest of this flagrantly transgressive movie, but even its sentiment has a gonzo edge to it. Baby Face may not necessarily be a great film, in the way that nearly all Pre-Codes seem to grimy to ever take on the mantle "great," but it's a damn sight more entertaining than movies seem to allow themselves to be anymore. Keep your explosions and your titillation; the sight of Stanwyck marching over the stiff (*ahem*) bodies of felled men is as dynamic and in-your-face as cinema gets.

2 comments:

  1. Just saw this a few weeks ago during the 50 film Pre-Code Festival at Manhattan's Film Forum and of course adored it. It's a real spicy piece, enhanced by the great Stanwyck, and by some outrageous narrative twists, only acceptable until the Hays Code moved in. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE a few years later was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

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  2. I've been tracking down Pre-Codes on YouTube and Netflix and this may well be my favorite so far, even over THE PUBLIC ENEMY, though admittedly not by much. Stanwyck is just overpowering, though as I say, it's not in-your-face so much as it is minutely calculated for maximum impact. I'm trying to really catch up on my gaps in her work and she's going to end up in my upper echelon of actresses before this is through.

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