Pairings/Characters: Natasha/Pepper, Steve, JARVIS
Continuity: The Avengers (2012)
Genres: Fluff, Romance, Slice-Of-Life
Spoilers: For Baby Face (1933)
Summary: Pepper joins Steve and Natasha to watch a classic 1930s movie.
Date Of Completion: July 21, 2015
Date Of Posting: October 22, 2015
Disclaimer: I don’t own ‘em, Marvel and Paramount do, more’s the pity.
Word Count: 2075
Feedback welcome and appreciated.
The entire series can be found here.
“Wow, Baby Face sure gets around.”
Natasha’s wry statement made Steve quirk his lips in a smile. They were both sitting on the couch in the living room of Stark Tower. She had just come into the room, attracted by the movie on-screen. The camera panned up from one department window to another in the bank building as the jazzy St. Louis Blues music underscored the scene.
Barbara Stanwyk was Lily Powers, a dirt-poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks making her way up in the world, man-by-man. What might have astonished some people, Natasha thought ironically, was this film Baby Face had been filmed in 1933. People, especially anyone younger than twenty-five, thought sex had not existed until the 1960s.
“This is what they call a Pre-Code film,” Natasha said.
“Ah, yes, the Hays Code. Finally got some teeth in 1934, thanks to the Catholic Church. I remember the hullabaloo over all these ‘evil films’.” Steve smiled. “I remember some of this one.”
On-screen, Lily was maneuvering her current boyfriend’s fiancée into finding out about her affair.
“A genius at work,” Natasha said admiringly. The click of stiletto heels signified that Pepper was passing by out in the hall. “Honey, come in here and watch this!”
“Come on, sweetie. Stanwyk’s kicking butt.”
Pepper sighted. “Oh, well, I’m sick of these reports, anyway.” She marched in on her stiletto heels, dumped her files on an overstuffed chair, and sat on the couch next to Natasha, who was sitting cross-legged next to Steve. “Ooh, this is an old one.”
“So far her character, Lily, started out working in her father’s ratty speakeasy in Pittsburgh with nearly every guy pawing at her. Dear old Dad was whoring her out since she was fourteen, and her one male friend encouraged her to use men to get what she wants. After her father was killed when his still blew up in his face, she took Chico and went to the Big Apple.”
“Yeah, she’s an African-American who worked washing glasses in the speakeasy. When Lily’s old man threatened to fire her, Lily said if Chico went, so would she. They’re good friends.” Natasha rested her chin in her hands. “Theresa Harris is a fine actress.”
“JARVIS, popcorn, three bowls.”
“Yes, Ms. Potts.”
Pepper unstrapped her stilettos and put them next to the couch. “So she’s sleeping with guys?”
“We saw her convince a railroad guard not to throw Chico and her off when they were starting out by having sex with him. It was a close-up shot of him putting his lantern down and then tossing his gloves while Chico walked to the end of the car while humming a sexy song.”
Pepper blinked. “This is a Pre-Code film.”
Steve looked totally relaxed. “Tony thinks they invented sex in the ‘60s.”
“Tony is naïve, if you can believe that,” Pepper said.
Steve chuckled. “I learn something new every day.”
“Ms. Potts, the popcorn is ready.”
“Thanks, J. Be right back.”
Pepper ran to the kitchen and was back in less than five minutes with a tray laden with three bowls of popcorn and three cans of Coke. After distributing the goodies, she sat down again.
“Looks like Lily’s on the make again.” She took a handful of warm, buttery popcorn.
“Up another couple of floors,” said Natasha as she settled her bowl into her lap.
“She's efficient,” Steve remarked as he opened his soda can.
Pepper laughed. “Yes, very. I know that feminists today would frown on this movie, but the only weapon a woman had in those days was sex, especially if she came from the bottom of the economic barrel.”
Natasha nodded, casually eating her popcorn. “Lily’s a pragmatist. She uses men before they use her.”
“Cynical but effective.”
Steve remained silent, watching the screen as scandal unfolded, and the spurned vice president with the outraged fiancée discovered the president of the bank in a ‘love nest’ with Lily and so shot the president.
“He’s going to turn the gun on himself next,” Pepper said calmly.
Her prediction came true in the next second. Steve looked at her askance.
“Remind me never to get on the wrong side of either of you ladies.”
“Duly noted,” Natasha said while Pepper smiled knowingly.
“Did you notice the change once they enforced the Code, Steve?” Pepper asked.
“Hard not to. Hollywood made a big deal out of Joseph Breen taking over and Will Hays out. They wanted to avoid a Roman Catholic boycott of all films and possible Government oversight of their industry.” He scooped up a handful of popcorn. “I remember Bucky and I discussing whether we’d follow the boycott or defy it. We both loved movies and didn’t think it right that all films fell under the boycott.”
“Did you make a decision?” Pepper sipped her Diet Coke.
“We didn’t have to. That’s when Hollywood trumpeted the new enforcement of the pre-existing Hays Code.”
“Did you miss the freedom of the Pre-Code days?”
“Sometimes.” They watched as Lily was sent to Paris by the bank as she claimed she just wanted to make an honest living. “There would have been better representation of blacks and gays, and a lot more women’s pictures exploring their lack of power. Actresses like Theresa Harris might have had a far better career.”
“Her character, Chico, is Lily’s confidante. She ends up as Lily’s maid, but considering her lousy job in the speakeasy, she probably considered it a step up,” Natasha said.
“What about the themes? Were they too moralistic after 1934?” Pepper asked.
“Well, a lot of the Code injured free expression, and as an artist I’m not happy about that, but some of the greatest films came from the Code years. Creative types worked their way around the restrictions. Sometimes we artistic types needs some boundaries,” Steve said wryly.
“That’s an interesting view.”
“Well, I guess it’s because I don’t need to see blood spattering the walls or explicit sex scenes all the time. Movies during the Code forbid that, and mostly it worked out well enough. Now we get plenty of blood and gore. Modern filmgoers certainly aren’t deprived of it.”
On-screen, Lily married the bank president, who had been given the job after the Love Nest scandal.
“This ought to go over like a lead balloon at the bank,” Pepper commented.
Natasha snickered. “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”
“I’ll remember that,” Steve said with a smile.
They watched the remainder of the movie, with Courtland Trenham, Lily’s new husband, indicted for bank failure. He needed the money, securities, and jewels he had lavished on her for paying his defense lawyers, but she refused. She made a passionate speech about what she had gone through to get this wealth. She was never going back to what she had been in that dirty Pennsylvania mining town, a whore in a sleazy speakeasy.
“Can’t fault her reasoning,” said Natasha as she drained her can of Coke.
“But her husband needs her help,” Steve objected.
“Hey, it’s either help hubby or be a lady of leisure,” Pepper teased.
They continued watching and after the movie ended, Pepper frowned. “Well, I’m not sure I liked that ending.”
“I know what you mean,” Natasha said, finishing her popcorn.
“What are you two talking about? Lily changed her mind and went back to Courtland.”
“Doesn’t that seem contrived to you?” Pepper asked. “Her only steady companion throughout the film is Chico, and yet she all of a sudden gives up her money and jewels for this guy?”
“She realized that Courtland loved her and didn’t care about her past,” Steve said.
“Well, I suppose it’s all right for an ending, but I still think it’s too pat, too Hollywood. Oh, well, I guess even Pre-Code films can’t always escape schmaltz,” Pepper said with a resigned sigh.
“You don’t like happy endings?” Steve asked.
“It just doesn’t quite fit this film.”
“I agree.” Natasha took a handful of popcorn from Pepper’s bowl. “I would have liked to have seen her shimmy her way through Paris, dripping with jewels.”
“Mae West would have ditched the poverty-stricken palooka.”
“You bet your shoulder pads, sister.”
Steve shook his head. He knew when he was being teased!
“So, the Pre-Code films are still gems,” Natasha opined. “People who don’t know film history are shocked by the frankness of these films. They even indicated that Lily’s father had slept with her. And you, Steve, don’t think the Code is that bad?”
“Let’s say I have mixed feelings about it.” Steve set his bowl on the coffee table. “I don’t like certain groups becoming invisible during the Code, like gays, or the menial roles for blacks, but I don’t mind the lack of blood and going to ‘fade-to-black’.”
He leaned back, his face thoughtful. “It’s like the general state of American culture these days. I like how much more free it is, but it still jars me to walk down the street and hear four-letter words flying through the air. Being in the Army was different, guys swore all the time, but you didn’t hear such things in ‘mixed company’, which meant women and children. Sure, women swore behind closed doors, but the expectation was they didn’t do it in public, and men watched their language in certain social situations.” He shrugged. “You don’t have to tell me how society has improved when it comes to racism, sexism, and homophobia. I lived through it. It just seems to me that American culture is ruder and cruder now. There’s always trade-offs, and that means the Hays Code, too.”
“What would you say to those critics who say that whitewashed violence is illusory, that young men didn’t know what they’re getting into to when they marched off to war in the ‘40s?”
Steve ran a hand through his hair. “They do have a point, but no way was the Government going to allow a Saving Private Ryan-type of film to be shown. They needed a lot of soldiers. But movies like The Sands Of Iwo Jima captured the essence, the spirit of the times.” He shrugged again. “The Government kept combat footage on a tight leash. They didn’t want bodies floating in the bloody surf at Tarawa to get back home. Can’t blame ‘em.”
Pepper finished her Diet Coke. “I suppose nothing’s really black-and-white in life.”
”No, there isn’t.” Steve smiled slightly. “Though gray areas seem to rule here in this century.”
“And married couples don’t use twin beds,” she said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Steve laughed. “I can tell you that people shared beds in my days.”
“Good to know.”
Pepper’s grin seemed to relax Steve. Natasha checked the listings. “Looks like we may have a Pre-Code classic this time next week with Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman. You guys game?”
“It’s a date.”
As they readied for bed that evening, Pepper asked, “I know we were teasing Steve, but would you have preferred an ending with Lily going off to Paris with Chico and her money and jewels?”
They were turning down the covers on their bed, Pepper wearing a peach-colored short negligee and Natasha in silk pajamas. They were light-green and short-sleeved, and the pants were shorts.
Natasha puffed up her pillows. “I think it fits the mood of the movie better, but there’s something to be said for love reforming a person.” She climbed into bed with a smile as Pepper’s eyes sparkled. “Of course, she had the good sense to be heading to Paris with Chico.”
Pepper laughed. “The lady had good taste.” She climbed into bed, too, and pulled up the covers.
Natasha settled beside her. “You would have been a strong woman back then.”
“Well, thank you, dear.” Pepper traced her hand down the side of Natasha’s face. “You would out-Lily Lily.”
“Oh, my Pepperpot!”
Pepper laughed. “Pre-Code films are pretty sexy.”
Natasha turned onto her side and snuggled up to her companion. She rested her hand on Pepper’s warm breast. She kissed her lips and rubbed up against her body, Pepper reaching down to cup Natasha’s buttocks.
Their touch was tender, both luxuriating in silken skin and passionate kisses. Natasha whispered in Pepper’s ear, “Baby Face.”
They both grinned as Pepper unbuttoned Natasha’s pajama top.