The pre-code should’ve-been classics Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933) share the same basic narrative, revolving around a bad-girl woman who decides, hey screw it, I can make use of my goods and services to move up in the world. A novel idea in the 30s – at least novel-ish to feature it in a film – each of these stories ends with the woman getting punished and put back in her “rightful” place. This is to say nothing of the fact that the only way the women could ascend the social ladder at all was by means of men allowing it, one way or another. Ironic perhaps that these films gave birth to the Hays Code, in order to prevent undesirable ideologies from sprouting up in otherwise good American viewers. Films like His Girl Friday more subtly allow women a foot in the door of the business world without exploiting her body in the process. The reasons for suppression and censorship seem to be that the films put ideas in the viewers’ heads that were best kept swept under the rug (even if the ideas were punished), and that they created a basic world in which women could quite easily make men do whatever they wanted by means of sex. Interestingly, in this world it’s the men who have no power at all (at least none they can manage to hang on to) and become forced to stifle woman-power by appealing to their maternal instincts. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck’s character only stands by her man rather than running off with her new-found wealth because he’s terribly injured and needs her help. Ironies infest these stories like maggots in garbage: while the filmmaker’s patriarchal intent seems to be to put the woman back in her place, after creating a narrative exposing the powerlessness of men, he can only reduce Woman back to her previous status by essentially re-castrating the man. This conveniently concludes the stories with both Man and Woman stripped of power; or, the man only has power by virtue of the woman’s unavoidable return to her self as maternal.
Red-Headed Woman should perhaps be distinguished from Baby Face. Red-Headed Woman lets its female protagonist escape from her suitors, taking their wealth with her. Not before being reduced to a hysterical, pathetic, and infantile brat, the woman gets away not in Thelma and Louise style but rather as a child on the lam. The only ingredient lending believability to her new independence is the dual presence of men with her in the car – one of them driving, of course – as the film ends. One man is a young, attractive plaything and the other an old, rich father figure. It may take two men to keep this unruly woman under control, but she is back in her place. And more than ever, she is still well-off only through feeding off of male power and capital. With no possibility of finding and submitting to her maternal nature, she instead is babysat – two men and a little lady. The unjust depictions of women in these films would be outdone only by the unjust depictions of men, except that the focus happens to be on women. (And also, aside from gender, people can be pretty wretched in reality.) If the women are just vixens, temptresses, and seductresses, the men are animals, puerile at best and like ravenous dogs at worst. Their complete and shameless inability to resist the slightest bit of attention or, as it were, legs, boils them down to something worse than biology. It’s really an insult to animals to call these guys “animals.”
Despite a less subtle ending, Baby Face is a better film than Red-Headed Woman. Not only does Stanwyck hold up better than Jean Harlow (she’s more coy, more premeditated), but cinematically Alfred Green directs Baby Face with an eye for cinema. It feels less like an exploitation film, even if the dialogue within it literally discusses the exploitation of women. Settings are staged prior to scenes, giving a context to them and giving the screen a more centrifugal nature, at least when Stanwyck isn’t at its center. Then there’s the racial element, apparently another reason why the film was suppressed by the Code. Lily’s African-American maid Chico is her best friend. They talk like peers, even if their social statuses aren’t allowed equality. As Lily moves up in the world, so does Chico. No drama is injected into their relationship (it would now be obligatory, though more realistic, to insert jealousy into it). The more cash Lily has on hand and spends on nice clothes and accessories, same with Chico. How all of this fits together – sexual liberation, willing female exploitation, racial equality (on a certain level) – is intriguing. These films may not have “intended” to break boundaries of class, race, and society, but as one boundary starts disintegrating, so do others. This happens not only within the film’s diegesis but to the film itself, through the Code. Now these films seem tame by movie standards, but at least some of them couldn’t be shown on broadcast television. The extra-diegetic element has been removed, but the intentional or unintentional – conscious or subconscious – gender dynamics and the assumptions that underlie them are still alive, well, and only sometimes challenged.
First, Red-Headed Woman:
Now, Baby Face: