Saturday, May 12, 2007

Baby Face

The Lost and Found Weekend
Working retail hours like I do, it's a rarity to have a full weekend off, so when I actually get a two-day pass, I try to make the most of it. Having a Saturday off is especially rewarding, because it means I can catch whatever Revival Series is playing at Noon at The Charles Theatre. "Film and Free Expression," a collaboration between the Maryland ACLU and The Charles, is the name of the current series there, which takes a retrospective look at the subtle and not-so-subtle intrusions on free expression in the making of films in the US.

Baby, It's You
Today I was lucky to catch the first offering in the series, a wonderful work of Pre-Code Hollywood, 1933's Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck as "material girl" Lily Powers who sleeps her way - literally floor by floor - to the top of a large metropolitan bank. As a bonus, the ACLU sprang for bagels and coffee at the theatre, and got the always excellent Mike Guiliano to lead a pre- and post-film talk. Guiliano is a great guest speaker; physically, he's a gangly study who resembles a young Robert Crumb, but his lightweight physique is more than offset by the weight of his insights. The G Man gave a well-researched, informative talk.

So what's Baby Face about? Here's the capsule review from the Charles' web site:
BABY FACE (1933 Alfred E. Green) Barabra Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier, Theresa Harris, John Wayne. Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) is encouraged by her friend the Nietzschean cobbler to stop turning tricks for her dad and to “use men to get the things you want.” This is the Library of Congress print of the recently discovered unreleased version that includes footage rejected by the NY State Board of Censors. One of the “pre-code” films that lead to stricter enforcement of the Hays Code. Original story by Darryl Zanuck (as Mark Canfield). 76m. bw.

The studio tagline for Baby Face was "She climbed the ladder of success - wrong by wrong!" and it remains perhaps the best example of Pre-Code Hollywood moviemaking, as well as a reminder of the social effects of the Great Depression. Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, who included Baby Face on Time's All-Time 100 Best Films list, observes that "Even in a version pruned for the New York state censors, Baby Face was the definitive pre-Code statement of how the Depression created a new morality of no morality."

In addition to the pre-release footage rejected by the censors, this print includes three clips at the end that were substituted in the actual censored released version. The best of these is an expositional clip in which the board of directors at the bank where Stanwyck and her husband George Brent once ruled mention that the now bankrupt couple have started life over in Pittsburgh, where erstwhile millionaire playboy Brent is now a humble steelmill worker! By the way, when the Hays organization ordered these changes to Baby Face, it caused a row between studio moguls Darryl Zanuck and Harry Warner, with Zanuck quitting Warners to form Twentieth Century Pictures, Inc.

Chico: A Colorful Role
One of the first things that struck me about Baby Face, and one of the few points not made by Guiliano, was the prominent role given African-American actress Theresa Harris as Stanwyck's more-than-a-maid gal pal Chico. For a film made in 1933, it's unusual for African-American actress to have so many scenes and lines of dialogue. Though her character's profession is subserviant (like most African-American performers working in Hollywood productions in the 30s and 40s, she was limited to servant roles), she is anything but subserviant. In this film she's Lily's best friend, and Stanwyck treats her as more than an equal, standing up for her when Chico is threatened with being fired ("If she goes, I go" Lilly tells her father) and taking her with her wherever she goes. Not only that, but when Lily is flush with minks and jewels from her sugar daddies, she shares the perks with Chico, who is seen cleaning up Lily's love nest apartment decked in her own furs and baubles.

The censors apparently had issues with the too close for comfort relationship between Lily and Chico. observed:

Another trigger point for the morality police was Lily’s comradely relationship with her maid, Chico, played by with subdued intelligence by USC music student Theresa Harris. The Houston-born Harris was featured by director Josef von Sternberg in Thunderbolt, and in a smaller role in Morocco. In 1933 she also had a flashy part in Hold Your Man for MGM co-starring with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. But, by the next year, she would be relegated to dumb maid roles. She didn't mince words when talking to the press, "I never felt the chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against ambitions are to be an actress. Hollywoood had no parts for me" (Bogle). The Production Code would soon not only enforce standards against vice, or as they preferred, “impure love” but against showing people of color in the relatively non-stereotyped way shown in Baby Face.

Reading up about Harris, I realized I had seen this stunning beauty before - she was in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), playing (once again) a maid. Actually, she was somewhat of a Tourneur regular, also turning up as sassy waitress Minnie in Tourneur's Cat People (1942) and also Out Of The Past (1947). She apparently was also a favorite of Tourneur's frequent collaborator, producer Val Lewton, as well, appearing in a number of RKO productions in the '40s. But she was best known as Josephine, the object of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's affections in the Jack Benny film Buck Benny Rides Again (1940). The Harris and Anderson pairing clicked so well that they were reteamed in the same roles in another Benny comedy, Love Thy Neighbor(1940).

Centemental Journey
The timing of the Baby Face screening was fortuitous, coming at the same time as a major centenary retrospective in New York of Stanwyck's 83-film career (which included four Oscar nominations). Stanwyck was born July 16, 1907, so the approaching 100th anniversary of her birth seemed ample cause for the Brooklyn Academy of Music to pay homage with a short film series starting that started April 25th. BAM's schedule includes Ball of Fire (1941), Sam Fuller's Forty Guns (1957), and three of the four films she made with Fred MacMurray - Remember the Night (1940), Double Indemnity (1944), and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).

Ruby in the Rough
Coinciding with BAM's centenary celebration of the actress born Ruby Katherine Stevens, Anthony Lane has an excellent profile of Barbara Stanwyck in the April 30, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Summing up her unique appeal to audiences and leading men alike, Lane observes:
To suggest that Stanwyck never belonged in the first rank of screen beauties would be ungallant but true. To argue, however, that she lacked a ready supply of male victims would be demonstrable nonsense. She had cheekbones of a wicked cut and curve, archable eyebrows, and a nose whose beaky hauteur came in handy when she rose to playing the loftier classes, or, as in “The Lady Eve” (1941), slicing them to shreds. It was a face that launched a thousand inquisitions: the mouth too tight to be rosy, and a voice pitched for slang, all bite and huskiness. When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck.

Richard Corliss concurs. In an excellent 2001 profile for Time Magazine ("That Old Feeling: Ruby in the Rough"), he writes " actor was as tough as Barbara Stanwyck, and no actress used womanly wiles with an intelligence so cool and cutting." Corliss adds,
The Stanwyck woman — and though nine of her films have the word "lady" or "ladies" in the title, she was rarely a lady, always a woman — was a tough cookie, and a smart one. She often treated her men with beguiling degrees of indulgence, pity and contempt. In "Ten Cents a Dance" she snorts, "You're not a man. You're not even a good sample." In any skirmish with the opposite sex, she has the advantage of ruthlessness. Her opponents, corseted by propriety, think they're in for a set of badminton; she's ready for a street brawl.

Sex appeal was a weapon for the Stanwyck character; flirtation was a gambit; conquest was power. It's true that this small, skinny woman with the prominent beak was not conventionally pretty; there are times in her very best films when she looks not just haggard but haggish. But it doesn't matter, because she had the musk of a creature on the prowl and the skill to convince audiences of her beauty. The tension and the comedy of her films derived from the ways men reacted to her: either they thought they could beat her at her game, or they took the fastest way out of the competition and surrendered to the lure of her danger. She was the volcano that men had to parachute into, just to be there when she erupted.

That's Stanwyck in a hard nutshell. Her power over men is even more intriguing when one considers that she was rumored to be a Hollywood closet lesbian - at least that's what Boze Hadleigh alleges in his interview book Hollywood Lesbians. She gives a feisty interview in Hadleigh's book; he certainly wasn't going to get an easy answer from Stanwyck.


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