Baby Face (1933)

Directed by Alfred E. Green
Written by Gene Marky & Kathryn Scola

This movie surprised me. First, let me explain to you the circumstances under which the film was viewed. I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Philosophy Through Movies”. Looking at the course description I could tell it would be a class that would greatly interest me and one that I thought I could do fairly well in. While I am fairly well versed, though not near as much as some, in movies, I am not as versed in the art of philosophy, though the practice fascinates me to no end. So what an opportunity for me! Baby Face happened to be the very first film we viewed for the class. As the class in introductory we will be tackling one philosophy a week pretty much. This week it was Ethical Egoism, and what a gold mine this film was for such a topic.

The philosophy is fairly simple, as far as philosophies go. Ethical Egoism says that everyone ought to pursue their own self-interests exclusively, which is exactly what Lily Powers, “Baby Face” (Barbara Stanwyck), does. Lily is being used by her father in a gross looking bar, being used physically by the shady guests. After a not so tragic furnace accident, which kills her father, Lily sets out to the big city to make it on her own by using her sexuality and charm to rise to the top. And she is quite good at it. After sleeping to get a job, she sleeps to get a promotion, and then another, and then another. Somewhere along the lines is a young John Wayne, but once she hits the bosses future son-in-law, things start to get crazy, as if they weren’t already. Not to ruin anything, but people become way too involved and Lily’s drive to the top spares no man, dead or alive. And what is most remarkable is that she seems heartless to the whole matter, simply doing what it takes, pursuing her own self-interests exclusively, to make the best life possible for her.

What is so shocking about the film is its frankness. For a film released in 1933, it sure is upfront with the way in which Lily finds her success. And nothing is held back as men take to arms in response to the wooing prowess of Lily. And who is to blame them when Lily is played by the radiant Brabara Stanwyck who fills the screen with her remarkable presence and charisma. I do not know much about the pre-code era of cinema, but apparently these types of antics were not out of the norm during the time. But that being the case, I was pleasantly surprised by the frankness and promiscuity of the film. It was something I had never seen before. And the content of the film was perfect for a discussion on Ethical Egoism.

Seeing the film was certainly a shock at first, and as such was a great experience. But as for the films artistic merits, I would say that it came off as more of a matinée feel. It is not something that would probably be a main attraction or a film that was untterly groundbreaking, from what I understand of the pre-code era. So while it shocked me, the shock factor only took me so far, but the film was massively entertaining, even if it was just for the ridiculous plot of a young woman sleeping her way to the top with total disregard for the men she left in her wake.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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