Friday, December 27, 2013

The grit has always been there

Like many mystery writers, movies of the thirties have influenced how I perceive noir. The interplay of gray, the shadows, and harsh glare are great visual metaphors for ambiguous moral drama and the compromises that the characters make. On the other hand, movies produced during the heyday of the black&white period were under the scrutiny of the Hays Code and other censorship authorities (such as the Catholic League of Decency) and so presented a sanitized view of the world. The new rules mandated that the good guys always win and that asocial behavior must be punished. Prior to the Hays Code, Hollywood delved into the grittier aspects of American life with depictions of violence, drug use, prostitution, and promiscuity.

Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is an amazing film treasure that shows a side of society swept under the carpet for much too long. Even though I had read that Baby Face was one of the last pre-Code movies Hollywood made, I expected a silly, comedic farce. Thankfully, I was wrong. The story begins in a grimy, nameless factory town. Rough, blue-collar types pile into a dumpy speakeasy, run by the father of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck). The two don't get along and we learn he's been pimping her since she was fourteen! Later he's burned to death when his still explodes and Lily responds to his demise with a tight grin. A Nietzsche-quoting cobbler advises that she leave for the big city and exploit men with her womanly charms. While we never see any nudity or sex, the movie uses clever camera work to show her numerous trysts--as a stowaway with a railroad guard, with one boss in a women's restroom, and then with the bank president in her swanky NY apartment. Lily climbs over men like they were rungs on a stepladder. After she's caught in a scandal (one that she instigated) and threatened with termination, she coyly allows that a newspaper is interested in her story and so bargains for a cushy assignment. But she's more than a floozie, in fact she's an exceptionally competent worker. When she's exiled to the bank's office in France, we briefly see an exchange in French between her and a co-worker. Unlike Hays Code movies where the characters (especially women) were
punished for amoral behavior, Lily never is. In the end, she chooses love over money, but her man happens to be the top dog.

The acting in the movie isn't great. A lot of the characters give set-piece rants while the other actors pause and listen. The men give in to lingering, lecherous stares. But a choice detail is that Lily's best friend and sidekick is an African-American woman, a rarity to be shown in those days. Plus, a young John Wayne plays one of Lily's many suitors. We are treated to wonderful shots of office work with vintage typewriters, candlestick and handset telephones, and switchboard operators. And the costumes are marvelous Gatsby-era clothing. I like to think that if the Hays Code and other censorship hadn't been mandated, movies like Pulp Fiction would've been made fifty years earlier.

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