Baby Face, 1933
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Let’s take time to soak some sin and bathtub gin. Served up shameless– please. Like Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face.
After a transparently draped Jean Harlow boinked her way to the top in MGM’s Red Headed Woman, Hollywood’s studios were determined not to miss the scheming skank gravy train. In 1933 a parade of unrepentant adulterers, brazen boob-flapping strippers, thieving hookers, and unabashed homosexuals lit up the silver screen in an outpouring that tanked the censor ship*.
Who was buying all the tickets to these sleazy, but totally delicious sagas? Women. Lots of women. Women ate up stories of girls down on their luck using wits and wiggles to get ahead. In the depths of the depression divorce and desertion were at an all-time high. Women, left to fend for themselves, were tired, fed up and sick of being taken advantage of by men. A brand new heroine was born –on the page and on screen — a girl willing to toss Miss Manners out on her ass and put herself first for a change.
Today we call films made prior to 1934’s censorship crackdown “Pre-code sex” pictures. But in 1933 the studios simply referred to them as “womens’ pictures.” These trashy chick flicks were not made to appeal to men. If you look around the web today, flicks like Baby Face still suck lassies like moi in like a Barneys Basement sale.
The top stars of the 1930’s were increasingly American-born. And rightly so. Could you really picture Garbo as a gum-chewing steno pool slut bagging Mr. Whimple in the stockroom? “Hold vy gum sveetie vile I cheeque yur stock leest”. Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard topped most girl’s favey list. Plus, these leading ladies could crack a joke. For example, Mae West and her wicked tongue saved Paramount from bankruptcy with She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel in 1933.
Wunder kid and casting couch king Darryl Zanick was in charge of the chick flick production at Warner Brothers. Baby Face was Zanick’s answer to Red-Headed Woman, and Barbara Stanwyck was the triumphant office trollop. Stanwyck’s Lily never has to really “pay for her sins”, and that alone makes it funny. But, there’s more to it. You actually root for Stanwyck. Cleverly, Zanuck created an early home life for Lily that so despicable that you forgive her as she humps her way up the ladder to bejeweled wrists and satchels of gold. You even identify with her unwillingness to bail out her husband using the last of her hard earned cash and jewels.
Stanwyck, orphaned at 4, a runaway foster child, and a Zeigfield chorus girl by the age of 14, was no stranger to the school of hard knocks. Rumors abound that it was she who suggested the more lurid elements of the tale, such Lily being pimped out by her bootlegger/saloon owner father. It’s also possible that the strong inter-racial friendship between Lily and Chico (Theresa Harris) has an element of Stanwyck as well. For many years Stanwyck traveled with a black maid. When her maid was refused hospitality in a hotel where Stanwyck was booked, Stanwyck would decamp and check in elsewhere. The friendship is significant in the film because after 1933 the portrayal of a “mixed race” friendship was strictly forbidden by the Hays Code.
One last humorous note: Once Lily is scandalized she is packed off to the Paris office. Eerily the same fate as Harlow in Red=Headed Woman. Horrors! The indignity of living out your life in Paris.
The Hays code was of course, not the end of strong manipulative women who used sex to get their own ways. The next great female heroine to emerge in the 1930’s would last for decades as one of the top heroines of all time: Scarlett O’Hara.