Baby Face (1933)

I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.

A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.

Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.

-Brandon Ledet

One Plot Two Ways: No Man of Her Own (1950) and Mrs. Winterbourne (1996)

I was first introduced to the zany Mrs. Winterbourne by a good friend of mine.  We giggled over the ridiculous plot, the fun overacting of Ricki Lake, the suaveness of Brendan Fraser – all of the things that make Mrs. Winterbourne its fabulous self.  It’s an entertaining, lighthearted, and strange movie.  It’s fun to see Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser in full 90s getup attempting to set up a plot about unwed mothers, literal train wrecks, domestic abuse, and murder into a screwball comedy.

Years later, I would search Netflix for “noir” and scroll through a list of noir films.  No Man of Her Own caught my eye, a 1950 film starring the ever-moody and beautifully tense Barbara Stanwyck.  It was somewhere around the train accident that I started to experience a strange sense of déjà vu.  Sure enough, the desperate pregnant woman wakes up panicked and decidedly un-pregnant at a hospital, only to find herself misidentified as a dead man’s wife.

What, I thought to myself, is going on here?  Could Mrs. Winterbourne be a remake?!

No, it turns out, it’s not.

Mrs. Winterbourne and No Man of Her Own are both based on the same book, I Married a Dead Man, written by Cornell Woolrich and published in 1948.  This book is firmly described as a drama, appropriate for a story dealing with mistaken identity, blackmail, and murder.  No Man of Her Own definitely sticks more closely to the original spirit of Woolrich’s novel.  [Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel]

The broad details of the movie are, of course, the same.  An unmarried pregnant woman is rejected by the baby’s father.  She takes a one-way train away from a nasty ex-boyfriend and meets a charming, rich couple.  The female half of the couple is also pregnant, leading to bonding between our protagonist and the other lady.  The charming couple is killed in a terrible train accident, but our protagonist survives and is mis-identified as the other woman .  She gives birth in the hospital while in a coma, and wakes to find that it has been arranged for her and the baby to be taken in by the family of the dead couple.  She and the baby are welcomed into the family’s home as their daughter-in-law, where she meets the brother of the dead man.  As she commits to living a stolen life and she and her “brother-in-law” fall in love, the baby’s real father finds her and starts to blackmail her, leading to a third-act murder mystery.

Despite the broad plot points (and a few smaller similarities, like the maid’s double-bun hairstyle), No Man of Her Own does several important things very differently.  First of all, No Man is firmly a drama.  The atmosphere is one of tension and anxiety, brought beautifully to screen by Stanwyck.  The chemistry between Stanwyck and John Lund is much more natural and less showy than the relationship between Fraser and Lake, which is one of my main complaints about Mrs. Winterbourne.  The focus on the film is much less about blooming relationships and personal growth.  I’m sorry to report that there is no tango scene.  No Man of Her Own is a much darker movie, which is appropriate for the content of the plot.  The pacing is tight and fast, and feels shorter than the hour and 38 minute run time.  There aren’t any scenes that leave you wondering what the hell the director was thinking (I’m looking at you, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”).

The differences that I found the most interesting are some of the more subtle ones.  Helen isn’t happy about the baby, but never has the option to consider keeping the pregnancy or not.  It is a given that she will have the baby as an unwed mother.  She also makes the conscious decision to masquerade as Mrs. Harkness much earlier on, before she leaves the hospital, instead of being browbeaten into by others.  Bill isn’t played as a stiff necked prat, but as a charming sweetheart who calls easily befriends Stanwyck’s Helen.  No Man of Her Own focuses less on the blooming relationship between the protagonist and her ersatz brother-in-law, and is much less interested in the personal growth of the characters. There is less interest in the class difference between Helen and her adoptive family as well, and though she is invested in the luxury of her new life, she is portrayed as polished and classy, running up and down the stairs for the baby’s bottle in heels and speaking in the same beautiful Mid-Atlantic accent as everyone else. Helen’s potential giveaways are about her knowledge of Hugh, her dead “husband”, not her inability to eat dinner without blurting out crude words in a Joisey accent.

There are a few things that Mrs. Winterbourne does better.  Shirley MacLaine’s portrayal of Grace Winterbourne is really lovely, and shifts the heart of the movie to her character in a way that makes sense in the plot as the protagonists in both movies are motivated to protect Bill’s mother from life-threatening stress.  I think that Mrs. Winterbourne does a better job of showing the confusion and heartache of a family that has just lost a loved member.  Grace Winterbourne’s reaction of attempting to drown Connie and the baby in gifts and kindness is portrayed much more strongly and Bill Winterbourne’s suspicion and coldness make sense as reactions to a death in the family.  Mrs. Winterbourne’s Steve, portrayed by Loren Dean, is so perfectly scummy and dramatically sociopathic that he makes Lyle Bettger’s slick and cold Steve look bland.  The charm of Miguel Sandoval as the sassy and wise Paco is missing from No Man of Her Own, and Helen is left to her own devices to figure out a course of action.

No Man of Her Own and Mrs. Winterbourne are on opposite ends of the genre spectrum – noir drama and screwball comedy.  Even so, I think that a comparison can be made between the two movies.  No Man of Her Own is very watchable, and an interesting entry in the noir genre because of its female protagonist.  Stanwyck’s Helen is much more self-determined than Lake’s Connie, taking action for herself and bringing more agency to the screen.  No Man comes across as more comprehensible and cohesive, while Mrs. Winterbourne sometimes leaves the audience incredulous.  Honestly, it’s a better movie than Mrs. Winterbourne, though I concede that it’s less entertaining. No Man might be a more difficult sell for modern audiences as well, and I have to admit that I’m a noir enthusiast to begin with.  Mrs. Winterbourne would probably be my pick for a movie night (and . . . it was, for the Swampflix crew) because of its humor.  It’s interesting to see two such completely different takes on the same plot, and I hope that you get the chance to compare the two for yourself sometime.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1996’s Mrs. Winterbourne, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s peek into the film’s press kit.

-Erin Kinchen