Baby Face [1933] – The Rise of a Femme Fatale

One of the flaws that contribute to black-and-white American movies’ outdated nature is its tenuous character sketches of the central players: women remain chaste, obedient, and wholesome; men are gentle, strong-headed, and achievers. But the black-and-white movies in the classic Hollywood era haven’t always relied on gender stereotypes. While there has been numerous film-makers who have campaigned against strict American censors, there was also daring film-makers who thrived before censorship guidelines was set forth in mid 1930s. Pre-Code Hollywood era brought upon few strong female characters who didn’t mask their sexuality or succumb to the masculine power. The array of allegedly nefarious depictions in this era’s movie contained infidelity, harsh violence, promiscuity, reference to prostitution and other sexual innuendos. Gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932) delineated the massacres initiated by protagonist characters rather than showcase their violence as cathartic. Drama & comedies like Red-Headed Woman (1932), The Divorcee (1930), Gold Diggers of 1933, etc possessed strong female characters that fought against powers-that-be. The anarchic and unpredictable behavior on-screen unnerved the state censors, but the ticket sales only skyrocketed. The Pre-Code era mostly refers to the period between the introduction of sound pictures and strict censorship rules, shaped in 1934, popularly known as ‘Hays Code’ (it was terminated in 1968). Political and religious factions came together by the end of 1933 to bring down American cinema’s ‘immorality’ which they thought promoted bad behavior. The big studios naturally succumbed to these external pressures.

Film critics and scholars often cite Baby Face (1933) as one of the significant and controversial movies of pre-code era. It’s considered to be the last straw that propelled the higher powers to bring about censorship rules. When the Hays Code went into effect, Baby Face was pulled from the theaters and heavily censored. Set in the late 1920s with Prohibition era still in effect, Baby Face tells the story of a young woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. Even by today’s standards, the raw sexual power emitted by the great Barbara Stanwyck retains its boldness and cool efficiency. The film opens in a dead-end industrial American small-town where Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) serve drink to workers in her wily father’s illegal joint. The way the workers paw her as she walks past them suggests how the father lends her for gaining ‘favors’. The only persons who don’t see Lily as mere sexual object are: Chico (Theresa Harris), African-American housemaid; and an old, intellectual cobbler Mr. Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) who encourages Lily to live as per the words of celebrated philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. Since it’s the local politician who helps Lily’s father to keep the bar open, he asks for his prize. Lily doesn’t relent and even breaks a bottle on his head. She confronts her father and says she is tired of giving herself to men (ever since she was 14 years old). This line of dialogue alongside the professor’s incendiary advice: Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation”. 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! makes up for some of the boldest statement made in black-and-white Hollywood cinema.

Lily’s fate changes when her father dies in an accident. She travels to Manhattan with Chico and sets her sights on Gotham Trust Bank. Starting from the position of under secretary, the shrewd Lily uses her radiant beauty to seduce men and climb up the social ladder. Twenty-five year old John Wayne plays a minor role as Jimmy McCoy, the lowly positioned young man whom Lily dumps after her inescapable gaze falls upon his boss Brody. The future all-American film star looks docile in front of the assured heroine here. Lily spends her free time reading etiquette, distances herself from female co-workers, and wears the flawless mask of purity and innocence in the men’s presence. Her effortless rise through the ranks is funnily portrayed by panning up the camera outside the bank building – from Personnel to the top most Accounting Department. Even when her actions bring upon tragedy on others, Lily doesn’t question her methods, up until meeting Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the playboy who takes over the bank’s Presidential position. It all leads to an interesting climax where Lily isn’t punished in the familiar way as employed by most of the 40s Noir movies.

In 2004, a curator in Library of Congress stumbled upon the original print of Baby Face that’s five minutes longer than the widely circulated version (in the edited version the radical nature of cobbler’s words were also altered). The shots of men’s lusty gaze on Lily plus the risque scenes where Lily openly invites men for sex were cut out. The censored version was instilled with a false sense of morality which dilutes the complexity of Lily’s characterization. Directed by Alfred E. Green and story written by Darryl F. Zanuck (couple of years later he founded the famous studio 20th Century Fox), the movie resorts to clever sexual innuendos and subtle visual cues to delineate its alleged proto-feminist message.

The writing exhibits admiration for Lily’s exploits as well as nudges at the utter emptiness of her pursuit of material wealth. Lily has all the characteristics of Hollywood’s archetypal ‘ice queen’, popularly dubbed as the ‘femme fatale’. The character type, well circularized in Noir cinema, was shown to be as strong-headed women who had the sheer force of will to decimate male-dominated universe. However, often in Hays Code Hollywood cinema femme fatales are eventually punished with death, their beauty equated as instrument of chaos. In Baby Face, the femme fatale protagonist is more empathized and stops just short of brutally punishing her with a lame ending. The film isn’t without flaws as there are problems with some caricatured representations of both genders and with slightly misleading interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Yet, the film’s visceral power, boosted by Barbara Stanwyck’s majestic performance couldn’t be ignored. She is much enigmatic and alluring than she was in her much acclaimed role of Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck effortlessly envisions her characters' emotional damage that’s reflected in the escalating actions of ruthlessness.

Baby Face (76 minutes) is a profoundly dark and racy melodrama that’s now perceived as significant artifact of Depression era & Pre-Code Hollywood. The naughty sexual implications plus Stanwyck’s performance still holds the punch to engross modern cinephiles.  


The Women’s Balcony [2016] – A Charming Tale of Religious Discord and Female Empowerment

When religion rejects pluralism and kowtows to predefined set of rules, allowing no space for discussion, then the ensuing orthodox establishment tends to weave rigorous control over its followers, and pits one against the other. Normally, the word religious extremism brings to mind ISIS soldiers, cloaked in black and carrying a black flag parading the streets of some long-forgotten, bombed-out Middle-East country. But religious extremism or stern orthodox beliefs are confronted at all levels of community, regardless of the country’s overt peaceful status. Israeli film-maker Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Ismach Hatani, 2016) deals with onset of religious extremism within a serene Israeli, working-class community, where the moderate number of congregants go to their synagogue with an air of jubilation and festivity, rather out of fear.  The film opens on a narrow street with a well-dressed young woman coming out of a house, carrying a dish container. Soon, we see group of men and women joining her, and they move rapidly through the narrow, stone-paved alleys, bearing infectious excitement before reaching their small synagogue.

The Women’s Balcony was written by first-time screen-writer Shlomit Nehama who says she grew up in a similar religious yet buoyant community. She effortlessly imbues an authenticity to the characters and their conversations flow naturally. Particularly, the female characters are written in an impassioned, believable manner that’s reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar and Nadine Labaki’s films. The chief characters of the narrative are: Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), a religious but independent middle-aged woman; and her loving husband Zion (Igal Naor), an active member of the small community. The joyous gathering at the synagogue is for Zion & Ettie’s grandson’s bar mitzvah (Jewish coming of age ritual). The women in their formal attires elatedly watch the ritual from their section, a balcony. Elderly Rabbi, Menashe (Abraham Celektar) conducts the proceedings in an easygoing manner. The turmoil then begins through visible structural damage. The women’s beloved balcony caves-in and the accident puts Rabbi’s wife in a coma.

The old rabbi is in shock and the men of the congregation move to a temporary place, although the new setting makes it difficult for them to bring at least 10 men to fulfill their worship (a quorum of ten Jewish adults are required for performing religious service, known as ‘minyan’). But one charismatic, smooth-talking young Rabbi, David (Aviv Alush) brings his loyal students and takes charge of the prayers. The four men of the tight-knit community, including Zion, confess their misfortune to Rabbi David. They show him the collapsed temple, and David promises to help them rebuild it. The men easily fall for the young Rabbi’s courteous sermons. Although the Rabbi doesn’t deliver firebrand speech, he slowly and surely injects his extreme orthodox beliefs. He ‘soulfully’ explains why it’s an honor for women to keep them a little out of sight, covering their head with scarves. When Zion buys a scarf as present for Ettie, she vehemently protests. Furthermore, adding to the women’s growing frustration is that the rebuilt synagogue doesn’t have a balcony. An adjoining, claustrophobic space in the back is assigned for them. More alarming is how the new Rabbi’s cascading idea wedges rift between the people’s unity. Hence, the women decide that it’s time to rebel.

The Women’s Balcony was a biggest hit at Israeli box-office which is understandable. It’s interesting to see how a country that thrives in different areas of technological industries also has this dilemma over women’s place in its religious lifestyle. Of course, this isn’t a political movie, but only a light-hearted dramedy. Yet, the narrative offers brilliant insights on the aforementioned dilemma without demeaning or angelicizing the characters. Even though the specificity of the rituals may baffle those not familiar with Judaism, gradually we could see universality in the character’s dynamics and concerns. We could easily feel the agony of these once-happy congregants reduced to wretched state and also their sharp anger on the annoying Rabbi, spouting out-dated religious rhetoric. Moreover, thanks to Shlomit Nehama’s well-attuned script, the narrative expertly focuses on each characters’ worries and foibles, extracting humor and poignancy in equal measures. The story line has all the ingredients to devolve into preachy drama, but each narrative moment is well-grounded in genuine human emotions.

Ben-Shimon perfectly juggles between the tones, avoiding the use of stereotypical behavior for the sake of few more laughs. He also uses the real Jerusalem locations with ingenuity, setting the character relationships and exploring the themes through carefully calibrated atmosphere (for example, Zion and Ettie are early framed closely by doorway or window, but with young Rabbi’s arrival this changes, but at the end we once again see the couple snuggling at the doorway). The performances from the large ensemble cast were nothing short of amazing. Although Evelin Hagoel’s turn as introspective & determined Ettie wholly attracts our attention, Aviv Alush as hate-inducing David was equally good. His minimalistic style of acting never transforms the character into a cardboard villain. May be, we could find some fault with the pat and very predictable ending. But it’s hard to be not overwhelmed by the movie, which takes a very complex theme and produces an entertaining fare with rich, memorable characterizations. 

Altogether, The Women’s Balcony (96 minutes) is a heartfelt & feel-good story of a vibrant community’s reawakening. 



A Good Wife [2016] – The Maladies and Doubts of a Middle-Aged Woman

A Good Wife (‘Dobra Zena’, 2016) marks the directorial debut of Serbian star Mirjana Karanovic who was best known for her roles in Emir Kusturica’s films (‘When My Father Was Away on Business’, ‘Underground’, ‘Life is a Miracle’) and for playing the central character in Jasmila Zbanic’s ‘Grbavica’ (2006). Karanovic also brilliantly plays the titular role in A Good Wife, a docile 50-year-old matriarch named Milena. Karanovic’s Milena is a mother of three, comfortably living under the care of her husband Vlada, (Boris Isakovic), a well-to-do contractor. She spends her day cleaning their Belgrade suburban house, taking care of college-going son Milos (Jovan Belobrkovic) and high school-going daughter Katarina (Isidora Simijonovic), and enjoys the occasional gathering with her husband’s war buddies and their life partners. Milena’s quotidian yet peaceful life is ruptured when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer (beautifully touched upon in the opening scene as she wistfully sits in front of a mirror, topless and examines her breasts). But soon a much bigger conflict overwhelms Milena. While undertaking the usual spring clean of the house, she stumbles upon her husband’s military uniform and a VHS tape, which contains more than the old footage of their family’s joyous gathering.

Apart from acting and directing, Mirjana Karanovic has also co-wrote the script with Stevan Filipovic and Darko Lungulov (Filipovic has directed Karanovic in 2015 dramedy ‘Next to Me’, whereas Lungulov has directed the actress in 2009 drama ‘Here and There’). The trio has written it as an intense character study rather than a thriller. The ‘cancer’ metaphor is especially employed in a sensible way without mining it for melodrama. Earlier in the narrative, Vlada seems unsettled by the news debate, where an activist remarks that former Serbian soldiers should be extradited and charged for war crimes in the Hague Tribunal. In the VHS tape, Milena discovers Vlada, in full paramilitary attire, and his buddies brutally executing civilians in the Yugoslav Wars (1991 – 2001). Milena passively watches the views of talking heads in the news, but she is visibly distressed by her husband’s war activities, so much that she doesn’t watch the video fully.

Natasha (Hristina Popovic), Milena and Vlada’s independent, art-loving eldest daughter deepens the good wife’s inner conflict. Natasha has stopped talking with her father because of her works with Belgrade human rights organization and for looking beyond the rosy glow of their nation’s war history. On one hand, Milena’s growing closeness with Natasha makes her to question Vlada’s inhumane acts, in the name of war. At the same time, being aware and taking action pushes Milena into panic because it would bring unprecedented transformations to their lives. Should Milena be the proverbial ‘good wife’ and endure, preserve husband’s dirty secrets? Or should she do the ‘right’ thing and in due course ruin their family unit? It’s fascinating to see how Karanovic and her co-writers find parallels between the personal and societal cancer that’s disturbing Milena’s composure. The doctor after suggesting immediate surgery says, “We'll do reconstruction, everything will look the same”. We know the ‘reconstruction’ following the cleansing of ‘cancers’ aren’t going to be the same.

The symbols conjured may seem a bit convenient and unsubtle, but Karanovic’s performance and direction perfectly infuses the emotional beats. The slow shift in Milena’s emotionality is gracefully suggested. Karanovic builds the narrative out of interesting, little moments: the naturalistic chatter between mom and daughter; through awkward, non-erotic sexual encounters between Milena and Vlada; the calm sequence when Milena wakes up early in her house, takes the car to do what she feels right. In one memorable scene, Milena serves snacks to her husband, daughter, son and their friends who are deeply involved in discussing politics, education, etc. Milena, no longer wanting to remain passive, says something sensible but in a little harsh tone. The others are baffled, not by what she said or by the tone she assumed; it’s due to the fact that this acquiescent woman has opened her mouth to voice out an opinion. And Karanovic is uniformly phenomenal in playing the dutiful wife troubled by her conscience (as stunning as she was in ‘Grbavica’). Her towering presence smooths out the little rough edges that are evident with Karanovic the film-maker. 

Overall, A Good Wife (90 minutes) is a straightforward yet endearing tale of motherhood, post-war society, truth, and reconciliation embellished by good writing and impressive ensemble cast.