not in our stars, but in ourselves
28/52: A movie that was made before you were born
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!
How the world has changed since Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) took this advice from a kindhearted cobbler in 1933’s Baby Face. As Mick LaSalle argues in Complicated Women, the movies – and the real world, reflecting the reel world as it often does – have slid backward from the heady, proto-feminist themes of the Pre-Code era, back into the Victorian (or even Puritan) notions of femininity, purity, sin and sacrifice. Had I been born in 1900 or so, I could have seen cinema begin with female directors like Alice Guy and Mabel Normand, continue with alluring vamps like Pola Negri and Greta Garbo, and explode into the anything-goes films of the first few years of talkies. Alas, I was born in the mid-1980s, and most of the regressive nonsense embedded in the Production Code had been driven into media and society for decades by the time I was old enough to think about it. That’s what I find so invigorating and frustrating, in equal measure, about Pre-Code cinema: we had it, once upon a time. We had movies that took women’s desires and intellects seriously – or at least as seriously as they took those of the men. The Production Code, rooted as it is in the misogyny of monotheistic thinking, tore all that to shreds, and I think we’re only just beginning to recover.
But anyway, back to the film. Baby Face is about as Pre-Code as they made them – so much so that its release may have precipitated the enforcement of the Code. Oops. Like its heroine, it was just too good at what it was doing. We meet Lily in a scummy speakeasy in a depressed/depressing little industrial town in Pennsylvania. Her father (Robert Barrat) has been pimping out his beautiful daughter since she was 14. She is, understandably, sick of it. The only man who’s ever shown her any kindness is Mr. Clark (Alphonse Ethier). He wants her to use her own power – her sexual allure – to get out of her awful, abusive life. When her father is killed after his stills explode, she decides she’ll do just as Mr. Clark advises. With her friend and co-worker, Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily hops a train to New York City. She sees an enormous skyscraper, and charms her way inside to the Personnel Department. In an iconic sequence, she literally sleeps her way up the corporate ladder: we see an exterior shot of the Personnel Department, then the camera pans up a couple of floors to the Filing Department. So on and so forth. Once she’s gotten what she wants – advancement – she blows off her former beaux. They’re devastated, but she knows she means one thing to them – even if they don’t understand that clearly themselves. Things get complicated for her when she saunters into the life of a young executive, Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). He’s engaged to the daughter of the bank’s vice president – but it doesn’t take long before he falls right into Lily’s honey pot. Lily tries to engineer a breakup, but the vice president, Mr. Carter (Henry Kolker), suggests that Ned go away to take some time to think things through. Lily sets her cap at Mr. Carter, and he readily accepts her proposition to be his kept woman. She’s dripping in furs, jewels, luxurious velvets and satins – but Ned can’t get her out of his mind, and he makes a terribly rash series of decisions, leading to a massive scandal. The new president of the bank, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), sends her away to the Paris branch – where, to his surprise, she works hard and advances without any help from besotted men. Trenholm decides he has to have her, and when she informs him that she’s not giving him even a whiff unless she’s got a (wedding) ring on her finger, he goes ahead and commits matrimony with her. Whatever Lily wants, Lily gets.
Baby Face is, in some ways, an utterly amoral movie. Lily is as hardened a cynic as any Humphrey Bogart character, and she’s entirely unsentimental. It’s the men who are saps and fools – never Lily. She takes what she understands of Nietzsche’s philosophy – use others, never let them use you – and applies it ruthlessly. She knows – from her time in the speakeasy – that men operate this way all the time. Why shouldn’t she? And yet, despite this amorality, the story does have a nice little moral hidden within: for one thing, never be afraid to stomp all over men who don’t value you. The men in the speakeasy, her father, her series of conquests at the bank – they all value her as a sexual object, and only as a sexual object. If that’s all they see in her, if that’s all they need her for, she feels no compunction discarding them like a used condom. For another thing, however, Lily also learns that it’s all right to give in to true love. If a man understands her, and gives her what she needs in order to respect herself before taking from her what he wants, and insists that he loves her and will do his best to make sure she loves him too – well, you could do worse than to keep him around.
Lily has a change of heart at the end, when she realizes that she needs to stay with Trenholm rather than leave him to the wolves, but it has nothing to do with a wave of emotion. It’s a moral epiphany, more than anything else. This is an utterly unsentimental movie: Lily realizes she loves her husband, but she doesn’t go to him at the end because of that. She returns to him because she realizes it isn’t right for her to take everything from him after he’s given so much, no more than it was right for the disgusting men in the speakeasy to take her every night and leave her broken and miserable. It’s not sentiment. It’s ethics.
It might be sex, too. Lily would certainly know what she likes by now.
I suppose this might be a strange movie to pick as a lesson in morality, but I suggest trying it. Ultimately, it rejects the egoist philosophy of Nietzsche (after using it to its own ends – which Nietzsche himself ought to approve) in favor of realizing when you’ve met your match, and when emotional wealth is more important than material. Be master of yourself, a slave to no one – but allow yourself a co-ruler, if he’s worth your time.