Baby Face has a reputation, not unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily who carries the film. It’s salacious, sexy and totally inappropriate for good, Christian audiences. Films rarely live up to such a reputation. In this case, Baby Face is as scandalous as advertised. Lily’s refusal to wear any garment that covers her back is enough to send any sensitive soul into cold sweats. That’s to say nothing of her cold-hearted detachment from any recognizable human emotions aside from self-preservation, which some would argue is the most basic instinct there is.
We first meet her as a young barmaid in a mining town, the daughter of the local bar owner. All the locals think her perfect figure is theirs to grab, and at one time it probably was. But Lily’s fatigue is palpable. And when her father pimps her out to a local politician, sure she’ll be as easy and willing as she usually is, she’s had enough. Her angry soliloquy is one for the ages. Her father, enraged at such non-compliance from a whore, storms out only to walk right into his beer still and explode. But there’s no sentiment here. If Lily feels anything aside from self-centered despair at her own dead-end life, she keeps it hidden. This detachment from sentiment starts here but persists throughout.
Perhaps her callousness is what draws her to the teachings of Nietzsche quoted to her by her only friend, an elderly German cobbler who sees something in her and thusly encourages her to be ruthless, to “Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!” (unless you are watching the censored version from which that line was cut…). Lily takes her cobbler’s words to heart and ditches town for The Big City. From this moment on, Lily is transformed. With a couple simple adjustments, Stanwyck changes Lily from a bristly, overworked barmaid into a sinister man-eater. She stands up straight, places a gleam firmly in her eye, and lowers that voice of hers to a perfect husky purr. As you can imagine, she uses the raised single eyebrow to her advantage more than once.
It turns out she needs this ruthlessness from the moment she hops a train car to get out of town. She is soon discovered stowing away by some guy, but with a savvy eyebrow up, Lily quickly gets to business. A closeup of the man’s lantern as she sets it down, removes her gloves and a fade out tell us what we already know, the deed is done. No subtlety, no apologies. Next it’s the hiring manager at the big New York City bank (“Do you have any experience?” “Plenty” door slams…), and from there up and up and up. She secretaries, wears fabulous outfits and head-turning scarves, and flirts until she’s in furs in a penthouse suite where the president of the bank (her bank roll, her boyfriend) calls on her. To get here, she had to sleep with only four bank employees (if you count the hiring manager) – not bad.
It is at this point that the outfits truly shine. Sparkles, diamonds, furs, satin. Her man spares no expense even though he only really sees her in the privacy of her sitting room while they drink champagne and he pays her compliments. It’s weird that she’s gotten this far so quickly and easily. Nobody comments that she’s more beautiful than anyone else, and her personality isn’t made of much aside from ambition. But maybe that’s all it takes, that and a willingness to abandon the socially accepted moral code.
When the shit hits the fan, it’s not surprising. This is a Hollywood picture after all, and the cruel and self-centered can never just live happily ever after. For all her hardness, she mishandles the men when they actually fall for her. She may be using them for personal gain, but they want more than just her body. They love her, need her, she drives them wild. Men lose their jobs, their wives, banks fall, and people are murdered as a result. What should be lesson learned doesn’t touch her. Lily remains unscathed. Like her father’s untimely death, these horrific events don’t affect her – she just keeps steamrolling her way to the top – and we are never truly asked to consider the gravity of what’s occurred. Fathers and husbands die over this woman, but it seems more like an inconvenience than a tragedy.
Is it a morality tale? A character study? Unclear. Lily is too one-dimensional to be anything aside from an avatar for American greed. Her cold-bloodedness imbues the film with the distance of allegory. History has given us two endings to the film: one pre-code and one censored, but both shy away from committing fully to the message. After leaving her wealthy husband in the lurch when she finds out he’s about to lose everything, Lily realizes that she might actually love him. She runs back to him only to find him laying on ground with a bullet through his head – it’s too late. If the film ends here, we have our lesson plain as day. Lily is punished for her loose living and the effects of her lifestyle finally make an impact. But both versions save his life. He comes to in the ambulance, smiling when he realizes he’s got his lady by his side. In one version, the epilogue details their life in poverty, the other is more ambiguous. Whether or not they end up with money, she’s still living happily ever after despite bringing death and destruction to a few families and causing a major bank to default.
So what is the takeaway? We’ve already seen the innuendo, seduction, Lily freshening up in her boss’ bathroom as he exits, buttoning his pants. Why back off at the most crucial moment? Lily doesn’t give anyone else the benefit of the doubt. That she is offered this final redemption is much too romantic a notion for those of us who’ve enjoyed the prevailing cynicism up until this final moment. I will choose to blame the censors for this cop out and from now on, I will stop the film just before she gets her happy ending.