Monday, March 9, 2009

She climbed the ladder of success - wrong by wrong!


I adore Barbara Stanwyck. She may just be one of my favourite actresses. She's got a husky voice that's to die for and excells in every genre. Baby Face is no exception to the rule. While the cast of supporting characters is decent at best, Stanwyck's Lily has one fascinating personality. Baby Face was released for the first time in April 1933, before the Production Code, and a censored version (due to complaints from the New York State Censorship Board) was released in June 1933. I saw the uncensored version.
The plot is quite simple: Lily makes a living by being a waitress in a small town. She is aware of her charms and wants more but doesn't know how to find it. One day, she realises (with some great help from one of her friends who coaches her) she can have anything she wants from men provided she uses her beauty to get it. Lily goes to New York with her friend and maid Chico and climbs the social ladder by having relationships with important men. However, in the second part of the movie she realises there may be more to life than that. She doesn't repent nor is she punished but can't deny she has feelings anymore and ultimately saves the man she betrayed the most. I'm not fond of the ending. You can tell it was done in the 30s whereas the rest of the movie seems very contemporary. On the other end, Hollywood hasn't changed, apparently the producers still think people need a romantic ending to everything.
It's a compelling and very funny movie. Funny because so daring. Stanwyck plays sexy Lily with a naughtiness that only she could have brought to the part. A few scenes are very memorable.

Small town Lily dreams of New York.

Chico and Lily gossip about a politician who's just entered the café. Their relationship is frankly surprising for 1933: everywhere she goes, Lily hears racist and disrespectful remarks about Chico, yet she says one thing and sticks to it: "If she goes, I go", "If I stay she stays". I was very pleasantly surprised, it's not often you get to see such a relationship on screen in the 30s. Chico is played by Theresa Harris, she's a terrific actress. Yet Chico becomes Lily's maid later in the movie, even though she's clearly the only one who understands her. That was disturbing.

Lily pours hot coffee on the important politician's hand - he was touching her thigh without asking. She is to set the rules.

Turning point in the movie - Lily is coached by an old friend:
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here – Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation”. That's what I'm telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!

Lily and Chico go to New York by way of train and have to hide in one of the carriages because they aren't paying. A man finds them and Lily decides to use her mentor's advice for the first time - she seduces the railway agent (it's fairly explicit) while Chico hums a song, leaves them together and smile.

Lily enjoys her success. She's managed to reach the highest floor of the building - that of the director.

I thoroughly enjoyed Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians. It's a good, very honest book about aristocracy, I thought. I was very much a commentary on aristocratic life and I didn't expect it to be so blunt (Sackville-West writes characters who comment on their own life, it's very original). In 1930, it is astounding indeed, considering that we can say a real system of class existed until at least World War I, or even II. The trouble-maker of the book, the one character who reveals the vacuity of his friends' lives to them is Anquetil, a self-made man. One of his contributions in particular I think summarizes the whole book. It's terrifying.

My dear boy, your life was mapped out for you from the moment you were born. You went to a preparatory school; you went to Eton; you are now at Oxford; you will go into the Guards; you will have various love-affairs, mostly with fashionable married women; you will frequent wealthy and fashionable houses; you will attend Court functions; you will wear a scarlet uniform -- and look very handsome in it too -- you will be flattered and persecuted by every mother in London; you will eventually become engaged to a suitable young lady; you will marry her [...] you will then acquire the habit of being unfaithful to your wife and she to you [...], on the first of October you will shoot pheasants, you will begin to wonder if your son wants you to die[...]

I leave you with Louis Armstrong playing St Louis Blues, with Velma Middelton singing, which is the trademark of the movie Baby Face. It can actually be a pretty saucy song when you think about it in this context. I added a fairly good selection of his songs after St Louis Blues. I honestly don't know if there's anything better in life than listening to Louis Armstrong. Perhaps seeing him perform live. So enjoy one of the greatest pleasures you can ever have!