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Olivia de Havilland,
Lilly (Baby Face) sleeps her way from basement speakeasy bartender, literally floor by floor, to the top floor of a New York office building. Bank sub-manager Jimmy McCoy finds her a job in the bank only to be cast aside as she hooks up with the bank's president. When he complains of not seeing her she says: "I'm working so hard I have to go to bed early every night." Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Beautiful Schemer: The Strange Loves of Lily Powers
BABY FACE (Warner Brothers, 1933), directed by Alfred E. Green, stars the young and forceful Barbara Stanwyck in a "pre-code" drama that has gathered a "bad" reputation in its initial release, only to become a cult favorite decades later, thanks to frequent revivals on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. A hot item it its day, the initial 45 minutes of BABY FACE is hard-hitting and fast-pace, with intentional or unintentional funny lines combined. Only after the arrival of co-star George Brent does the story begin to lose steam. Only when it begins to recover some strength during its concluding minutes, the film fails to recapture whatever essence it had during the initial three quarters of an hour.
The focal point is on Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the sassy daughter of Nick (Robert Barrat), an abusive father of the slums of Pittsburgh who has her working as a barmaid in his speakeasy entertaining low-life factory working friends. After Nick is killed in an explosion, by which Lily watches, showing no remorse or emotion whatsoever, decides on leaving her hometown, accompanied by her friend, Chico (Theresa Haris) on a freight train for New York City. Upon her arrival, Lily uses whatever life has taught her to get ahead, rising up the corporate latter of a banking firm, by showing her feminine wiles to full advantage. Becoming responsible for the breakup between banker, Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) and his fiancée, Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), followed by a murder/suicide, the notorious scandal finds Lily about to transferred to the Paris branch until she captures the attention of Trenholm (George Brent), the new president of the Botham Trust Company, as her latest victim.
Featured in the supporting cast are Douglass Dumbrille (Brody, another one of Lily's "love slaves"); Nat Pendleton (Stolvich, a sleazy factory worker); Maynard Holmes (a personnel office clerk); with Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker and Charles Coleman in smaller roles. Along with Dumbrille, Cook and Kolker as men who fall prey to a gal called Lily, the biggest surprise is finding the youthful John Wayne, years prior to his major star status, as one of Lily's rejected suitors. Wayne's role as an office clerk is brief but noteworthy as being the one and only collaboration of the "Duke" and "Stanny." James Murray, the leading actor in MGM's silent masterpiece, THE CROWD (1928), in a career setback by this time, appeared briefly as a railroad brakeman. His scene, however, was taken out prior to its release. A director's complete cut that included Murray and other edited scenes were later discovered and presented on TCM for the first time December 4, 2006.
A dress rehearsal for some of her latter tough-as-nails dramas as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS (Paramount, 1946), for example, Stanwyck plays Lily Powers to the hilt, a strong-willed woman with a lot of hate, especially towards men. When pitting them to their own destruction, her eyes stay motionless, detailing reactions through silence rather than with words. Regardless of movie title and popular song by Benny Davis and Harry Akst (scored during the opening credits) that could have served as a Broadway musical about a cute chorus girl, Stanwyck, hardly a "baby face" by any means, is referred to as such once by Jimmy McCoy (John Wayne) and office secretaries (one played by Toby Wing), but never referred to that name again. Aside from other songs, "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame" is underscored several times during the latter portion of the story.
A forerunner to the "trash" movies of the 1960s and 70s, what makes BABY FACE so watchable is the explicit way it uses sex and immorality out of camera range, leaving questionable situations to the imagination of the viewer. A prime example is witnessing Lily's job promotion up the corporate latter with the camera panning from the outside office window from personnel, filing, mortgage and accounting departments to the underscoring of burlesque-type music.
Could anyone else but Barbara Stanwyck handle such an assignment as depicted in BABY FACE? Joan Blondell, another resident Warner Brothers stock player, perhaps, considering how Stanwyck's blonde hairstyle bears a strong resemblance to Blondell's, especially during the more glamorized moments in the film's second half. Blondell, might have handled her task well, but the major difference is that Blondell, as good as she is, or was, wouldn't have handled the forcefulness the way Stanwyck had. Stanwyck, a brunette, was at her best playing nasty blondes, especially here and a decade later in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944).
Aside from BABY FACE as one of the favorites shown on TCM, it did have some exposure during the early 1990s on Turner Network Television (TNT) and distribution to home video as part of Leonard Maltin's "Forbidden Hollywood" series, and finally on DVD. For a worthwhile introductory to "pre-code" movies, either the complete or theatrical edited release of BABY FACE, along with Stanwyck's earlier NIGHT NURSE (1931), should be tops in the assembly line. (**1/2)
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