The mirror motif in Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face

I believe that if you don’t appreciate Barbara Stanwyck, you’ve just not seen enough of her movies. She is perhaps the only female star who started in the 1920s and had a career that lasted until the 1980s without becoming a caricature of herself or advertising her availability in the newspaper. Her career encapsulated melodramas, film noir, westerns, screwball comedies and TV dramas. Her realistic portrayals fit in with all these genres and her female characters were always the strongest and most resilient. Being a freelance actor in a time where the rules were made by the big studios perhaps meant that she was free to create her own image, which brought her the longevity much coveted by her peers. Speaking of images and essence of a character…

The concept of the doppelganger existed before cinema was invented, with the most well-known story that of The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The idea that one person, one body, can hold two opposite personalities has fascinated humanity perhaps for many centuries. Thus, cinema as mirror presents the duality of a character, who, through the mirror motif might reveal a hidden face, a previously unexplored angle that comes as a surprise and has the ability to shock the audience or other characters on screen. By contrast, the mirror might also help conceal or apply a new face, a mask, thus creating a new identity for the character as they interact with the others.

Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent in Baby Face

I would thus like to explore the concept of duality and the mirror motif by using Baby Face, a fascinating Pre-Code film, starring the one and only Barbara Stanwyck . The film centres around Lily, a young woman from the wrong side of the train tracks. In order to get what she wants from life, she must use men, she is told:

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 t’ings you want.

Taking her friend’s advice, she proceeds to sleep her way upwards to a top position in a bank. There is a brief shot of Lily when she is caught kissing her boss in the ladies’ powder room of the bank where she works. Her boss’ boss looks at her through the open door. We can only see the man framed in the door, and two walls of the powder room, both which have mirrors, through which we see our protagonist reapplying her lipstick. She is framed, not by one, but by two mirrors. It is suggested that, by this point in the film, she has applied and reapplied countless of masks, layer upon layer to hide her true self and advance in her career, that the double mirror motif is used to great effect.

Barbara Stanwyck and the lovely Theresa Harris in Baby Face

This scene is not only indicative of her duplicitous identity, but also by the idea of threshold signifying the crossing of an invisible line, a boundary. The man looking at her as she reapplies her lipstick is standing on the other side of the door (line). He won’t enter the room, thus he won’t cross the line from his turf to hers. He will not be inappropriate. However, it is Lily who will walk over to him, thus moving into his turf. Her agency is showcased throughout the film either through her body movement or camera movement. She will move in towards him, indicating that she will eventually seduce him and that he cannot resist. She is audacious but not fully duplicitous, until she is forced by circumstances to play the victim.

As she turns from the mirror towards the man who caught her in flagrante with her boss, for one moment she looks as if to say “so you caught me. So what? As a woman how else am I going to advance in this man’s world?”, but then she puts on a demure mask to catch her prey. This idea of her seducing yet another manager of the bank is reiterated by the film editing and the camera work which shows the outside of the bank where Lily works panning up yet another floor, while the audience hears once again the jazzy tunes of St. Louis Woman. Lily has made yet another conquest. One of the recurring jokes in the film, which is also suggestive of Lily playing a role, putting on a mask is that whenever she is offered a drink she says “No, thanks, I never touch it” only to change her mind the next moment with “oh, maybe just a sip” and end up sculling the drink down like a professional drinker. One can read this as Lily hating her background and wanting to move away from it, but always being made to return to the sort of experience she grew up with, the “swell start in life” she got from her father, who pimped her out to his friends.

Having worked her way to the top of the corporate ladder, Lily has to renounce her wealth and stay with the man she’s fallen in love with. However subversive this ‘happy ending’ might be, what leads up to it cannot be clearer: women will need to be without scruples if they want to succeed in a world of men. This abused and knocked around Lily resonates with a post #Metoo audience more than some of the flamboyant, happy-go-lucky Pre-Code heroines, like Lil from Red Headed Woman, played brilliantly by Jean Harlow, who gets to have her cake and eat it too. Both women have a lot of agency, they never lack focus and they don’t let minor and major obstacles like wives, private detectives, murder and suicide get in their way. Lil continues her crusade in Europe, while Lily becomes the wholesome martyrial woman, giving up money for love. The duality of the two characters is evident: while they both seem to be working on the same principles, one woman type is to recant her errors and choose love, while the other is to go ahead and enjoy life, sex and adventures in exotic places with millionaires.

Leave a Reply