"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 2, 2011

"Baby Face" (1933) (Film review)

Baby Face is a great Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. It was made at the end of the Pre-Code years and shocked censors, who forced the studio to cut out fragments and change the ending. Fortunately, the original uncut version has surfaced in recent years.

The film surprises by its openness and bluntness, a very refreshing change from the political correctness that usually plagues American film. Stanwyck is hard-as-nails Lily Powers, whose father runs an illegal whiskey joint in filthy Erie, Pennsylvania. He pimps his daughter to the more well-to-do customers, but she is no sissy and if their hands wander too far she hits them with the bottle on the head. When the father dies in an accident with the whiskey still, she sheds no tears but takes the train to New York - no, she doesn't have the money for the trip but she is nice to the railway inspector.

Upon arrival she selects one of the tallest office buildings in the city and literally starts to sleep her way to the top - beginning with the personnel manager. Five men later (whom she sheds like old clothes) she arrives at the bank's elderly vice-president (she calls him "Baby Face"), who becomes her sugar-daddy and sets her up in a luxurious apartment.

Her ruthlessness is fun to see: in order to force things, she embraces her man on purpose when his fiancee is about to enter! One of the men she has thrown away really has a crunch on her and gets so mad that he shoots the vice-president before killing himself. No problem for Lily, who arranges with the Board to be sent to the Paris branch. The new bank president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) is something of a playboy and she shrewdly ensnares him in her nets when he comes to the City of Light. She even pushes him to propose marriage...

But we are in the 30s, another time of financial upheaval: the bank goes unexpectedly under and Trenholm is arrested. He asks for Lily's not inconsiderable savings to get back on his feet again, but she refuses... at least initially... then she realizes he is what she wants after all, and she rushes to him with her suitcase with jewels.

Barbara Stanwyck shines in this subtle and compact comedy. She never looses her cool, even when bodies are falling around her, and she always thinks faster than the guys. She is seductive with a hard edge and gets every man she wants. Men are there to be manipulated, they are the steps on her ladder to success. Until the sentimental ending (but that's just the last five minutes) she has no tender feelings for anyone.

The film is very well crafted. Hardly a kiss is shown on screen, everything is done with innuendo, but the effect is infinitely more sexy than watching sweating bodies.
Be sure to see the uncut version of this film, brought out as Vol. 1 of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection of Warner Bros.