Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933), and Ladies They Talk About (1933). Today…
Baby Face (1933)
A beautiful schemer sleeps her way to the top of a banking empire. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook. Screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. Based on a story by Mark Canfield. Directed by Alfred E. Green.
“Although Lily Powers, the beautiful young daughter of Nick Powers, a steel town speakeasy owner, struggles to protect herself from men, her father forces them on her. Finally Lily rebels and, on the advice of her friend, the local cobbler, decides to use men to get ahead. She leaves the steel town and takes her maid Chico with her to the city, where she takes a job in a bank. There she seduces men like Jimmy McCoy, his boss Brody, and eventually Ned Stevens, Brody’s supervisor. Stevens sets Lily up in an apartment, although he is engaged to Ann Carter, the daughter of one of the bank’s executives. Then Ann’s father discovers Lily’s charm and provides her with an even more elegant apartment. In a jealous rage, Stevens kills Carter, then himself, creating a scandal at the bank.
“Lily claims she is a victim of circumstance, convincing the bank to pay her enough money to go to Paris and make a fresh start. A well-respected socialite named Courtland Trenholm is subsequently appointed president, and after he is transferred to Paris, he too falls in love with Lily and marries her. Trenholm signs over his fortune to Lily, and when the bank is faced with bankruptcy, Lily refuses to help him. Convinced he is ruined, Trenholm decides to shoot himself, but Lily arrives in time to save his life and promise her devotion to him. After she uses her jewels to pay back the money he owes, Lily and Trenholm move to the steel town to start over together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Ah, Baby Face, the movie to which this entire Stanwyck blog series has been building, and one that has been cited, by many film scholars, as belonging to a short list of Pre-Code essentials. What makes the picture so dynamic? Without a doubt, the answer is Stanwyck, who plays one of the most determined and intrinsically motivated characters of her entire career. The strong willed Lily, who goes from being a seedy whore for the customers at her foul father’s speakeasy to the bejeweled wife of a ritzy New York bank president (in only 76 minutes), is in the metaphorical driver’s seat for the entire duration of the story; and what’s more, the character’s “dirty doings” never alienate her from earning the audience’s affection, for her emotional complexity and psychological motivations are easily established from the first reel.
But beyond Stanwyck’s winning performance of an interestingly drawn character, viewers have been attracted to Baby Face for its bold audacity and unadulterated adultery. In simple terms, it’s a highly sexualized picture that makes no apologies for its seeming salaciousness. Furthermore, it has the figurative balls to present an anti-heroine — one who, as mentioned above, does not get rejected or vilified by the story — without the trepidation or uncertainty that plagues too many of the Pre-Code films we’ve covered here in the past. Thus, although my affection for the quality craftsmanship of both the character and the story maintain upon repeated viewings, it’s the tonally tawdry Pre-Codeness, which among other things, lets Lily tote around her sexually knowing black gal pal Chico, that does the most for furthering the film’s captivating fever. (Plus there’s the enjoyment one gets from seeing a young John Wayne in a brief role as one of Stanwyck’s early conquests.)
Meanwhile, the inherent intelligence and repressed emotionality of the title character allow for Stanwyck’s Lily to arc and break the naughty shackles in which the film (and we, the audience) enjoys relishing. And while I must admit to almost wishing the character never forsakes the morally questionable guidelines by which she lives, I am not dissatisfied by the character’s development. For though she recognizes the insufficiency of her steadfast conviction to use others before they can use her, the turn doesn’t feel like a reaching for repentance or a forced redemption mandated by Breen. In other words, the ending isn’t a cop out; it’s a logical and earned conclusion for this beautifully crafted character.
Part of the reason Stanwyck’s journey works so well is due to the fine scripting, which crafts realistic dialogue that allows for Lily to establish a repartee with the otherwise mediocre (but always dependable) George Brent, and their chemistry is unique. (The only thing that does feel gratuitously tacked on is the happy ending in which the suicidal Brent is shown to actually be alive and near recovery; while I don’t want the film to punish Lily for her sexual power and perhaps shortage of scruples, I miss the tragedy of an ending that rejects this conformity. But it really is a nitpick…) Baby Face is an outstanding motion picture; it’s well crafted, with superb performances, and its lasciviousness makes the film a joy to watch. Although I wish not to echo the sentiments of past scholars and critics, I must: this is a Pre-Code essential. Highly recommended.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!