In the days before its Production Code got really strict (around 1934)
Hollywood had extraordinary latitude in the subjects and attitudes it
could address. Turner Classic Movies has just released a set of three
pre-code films, under the title Forbidden Hollywood, that gives some
startling examples of the freedom that was lost.
Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, presents a world-view of
jaw-dropping cynicism — a case study of bimbo feminism that would be
shocking even in a Hollywood film of today. Stanwyck plays Lily, a
girl who’s been hooking since she was 14, pimped out by her own
father. She meets an eccentric Nieztsche fan who tells her to use her
power over men ruthlessly, without sentiment or conscience, to get what
she wants. And this she does — fucking her way to the big city, and
up the ladder of success, until she’s the filthy rich mistress of a
pathetic old banker.
The passion and jealousy Lily arouses in the men she uses eventually erupt in violence, and set up a nifty blackmail opportunity for her, but also throw her into the orbit of a different sort of man than she’s used to, a man who knows all about her past but loves her anyway . . . and she finds a kind of redemption in his arms.
All the men Lily encounters, except for the last one, are slimeballs
and pushovers, and Lily never shows even a flicker of remorse about
exploiting them and destroying them. The really shocking thing is
that the film doesn’t condemn her for this, any more than her last lover
does — she’s been dealt a bad hand in life, as a woman, and she’s
played it the best way she could.
This is all dizzyingly surreal. Seeing Hollywood stars and Hollywood
production values deployed in the service of a story like this makes
one feel one has entered an alternate universe — except of course that
it’s closer to the universe we actually inhabit than to the post-code
Hollywood version of reality.
Baby Face is lurid pulp melodrama at its most entertaining, and it’s
something more, too — a vision of what movies might have been if
corporate hypocrisy and totalitarian concepts of social hygiene hadn’t
put them in an artistic straightjacket.
Rush out and get this set, and prepare to be seriously discombobulated.