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Arriving by boxcar in New York City, the shrewd young woman with the BABY FACE begins to methodically canoodle her way to the top floors of power in a great bank.
Barbara Stanwyck is fascinating as the amoral heroine of this influential pre-Code drama. Without a shred of decency or regret, she coolly manipulates the removal or destruction of the men unlucky enough to find themselves in her way. A wonderful actress, Stanwyck has full opportunity here to display her ample talents.
Appearing quite late in the story, George Brent is a welcome addition as the one fellow possibly able to handle Stanwyck; his sophisticated style of acting makes a nice counterpoint to her icy demeanor. Douglas Dumbrille, Donald Cook & Henry Kolker portray a succession of her unfortunate victims.
John Wayne appears for just a few scant seconds as an unsuccessful suitor for Stanwyck's affections. This would be the only time these two performers appeared together on screen.
Movie mavens should recognize Nat Pendleton as a speakeasy customer, and Charles Sellon & Edward Van Sloan as bank executives - all unbilled.
The music heard on the soundtrack throughout the film, perfectly punctuating the plot, is Baby Face' (1926) by Benny Davis & Harry Akst and St. Louis Blues' (1914) by W.C. Handy.
BABY FACE is a prime example of pre-Code naughtiness. In its frank & unapologetic dealing with sex, it is precisely the kind of film which the implementation of the Production Code in 1934 was meant to eliminate.
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
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)
"Baby Face" is a precode melodrama starring a very young Barbara
Stanwyck, an almost unrecognizable George Brent, and Theresa Harris.
It's about a girl who goes to the city to make good...or should I say
make time. Stanwyck's father has been pimping her for one reason or
another her whole life in dingy, depressed, filthy Erie, Pennsylvania.
After her father dies, one older father type who knows what she's been
through and truly cares about her future advises her to go to the big
city and take advantage of opportunities there - and not the easy ones
- and to take the high road in life. (Note that I saw the censored
version and not the uncut - this part of the film was redone for the
censors.) She and Chico (Harris) go to New York where Lily (nickname:
Baby Face) decides the low road's a lot smoother and will get her where
she wants to go a lot faster. In the movie's most famous scene, the
camera moves us up the corporate ladder by taking us from floor to
floor as Lily sleeps her way to the top. She finally corrals the big
man himself and is able to quit her day job. Trouble follows, and she's
soon involved in a huge scandal.
Stanwyck wears lots of makeup and for most of the film is cool as a cucumber as she seduces one man after another with no regrets, and she's great at playing the innocent victim. In one scene, she sits staring at a king's ransom in jewels while wearing a black dress that looks like it's decorated with diamonds at the top. Then she asks Chico for another case, and that's filled with more jewelry, plus securities. All in a day's work.
Theresa Harris was an interesting talent - she could be played down or glamorous, and was a talented singer and dancer as well. Here, she sings or hums the movie's theme, "St. Louis Woman" throughout. She worked in literally dozens of movies and is very good here as a friend of Stanwyck's, her best work being in the precode era. As a bizarre byproduct of the code, blacks were often given less to do in films after it was put in place.
Precode films could be more sexually blatant and therefore, though they're 70+ years old, seem more modern. Even though these films didn't have to have moral endings, Baby Face learns her lessons - how like life it is after all. There were several endings of this film, all with the same message. The one I saw had an added scene, but apparently, there were two other endings that didn't pass the censors. (There wasn't a code but there were always censors.) At any rate, it's a neat surprise. "Baby Face" is an important film in movie history - a must see.
No sense going over the story since enough reviewers have done that.
Here's a few different slants on it from one of those "religious nuts,"
as one bigoted reviewer puts it so tolerantly.
1) "Baby Face" (1933) offers perhaps THE classic example ever put on film of how women can manipulate men with sex. There is a lot of truth to what Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates in this film: look cute, bat your eyelashes, offer your body for free.....and men will fall over themselves to help you out with whatever you want.
In this case, it was job advancement with the ultimate goal of money.....lots of it. At least four men in this film do provide just that, even if it ruins their lives in the process.
2) The ending - which many of the reviewers here seemed to hate - gives another great message: all the money and material goods in the world won't make a person feel fulfilled. A sad comment that so many "critics" here would rather have immoral messages, preferring sleaze over substance. No surprise, I guess.
Any way you look at it, the movie is entertaining start-to-finish and Stanwyck has some great lines, particularly in the beginning when she tells off her crude father and his unruly bar customers. At a little over 70 minutes, this film moves at a fast pace and is over before you know it.
Finally, the uncut version of "Baby Face" surfaces and from what
source? The Library of Congress. The restored four minutes, snippets
here and there, make for a much better film. We now know that Baby Face
was pimped by her old man from the time she was at least fourteen years
of age. Another reason d'tat for her behavior and cold, calculating
Barbara Stanwyck is indeed amazing in the role of Lily Powers (notice the moniker), a part that called for just the right amount of sexuality coated with power, cunning, and revenge, yet tinged with virginal pretense when called for, a very difficult portrayal to make convincing. Barbara Stanwyck conveys the necessary nuances to show that though she sleeps her way to the top (literally), she still has good in her heart--note the way she treats those few who have been kind to her such as Chico (the marvelous actress Theresa Harris) and the old philosopher. And though she exploits her sexuality to make mush of men who are rich and powerful, those same men are attempting to exploit her for their carnal desires with no intention of permanent ties until they fall in love with her.
Lily Powers fails to understand, at first, that emotions are difficult to ride, that it's easy to lose control. One possible result is death. Hitching a wagon to a star of course materialism can take one to a destination where nothing else exists but the ephemeral, and it's a cold lonely location.
A word should be said about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche whose will to power is stressed in "Baby Face" by the elderly philosopher who befriends Lilly when she is still turning tricks for her old man. "Baby Face" was released the same year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Though it's highly unlikely that the semi-literate Hitler understood much about Nietzsche, he considered himself a Nietzschean to the nth degree and touted it along side his other rantings. "Baby Face" serves as an indictment of the popular interpretation of Nietzsche's will to power concept, especially in the final scenes.
Although "You've got the cutest little baby face." is apropos as a theme for "Baby Face," an even more telling and applicable melody is W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" played throughout the film, especially at times when the camera has to drift away from what would otherwise be sexually explicit scenes. "St. Louis Blues" is also used wisely toward the end as Lily begins to see beyond materialism to eternal values. Chico is singing a raw, salacious version of "St. Louis Blues" when Lily, now disagreeing with the lyrics, orders her to stop.
The restored version of "Baby Face" makes the film more modern in its approach and attitude toward sex as power than many a new Hollywood release. By all means watch this gem from the distant past and enjoy.
An original uncensored print of this amazing film was discovered in 2004 in the Library of Congress, and has been shown in a few specialized theaters around the world in 2005. According to current reviews that I've found online, the original has all of the nastiest dialog and innuendos intact; they were later either removed or completely re-shot by the studio prior to initial release, in order to pass the New York state censors. I have also read that a DVD is "expected in 2006" and one can only hope! If we're really luckily, it will include comparisons between the 2 versions. Note that the released censored version was originally available on Laserdisc, which I have seen. Stanwyck rules!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Contrary to MGM, Warner's films had little to do with the glitz and
glamour of the era and a lot to do with the decay and corruption and
the little people that was the norm in the early Depression years, and
before the Code came and basically threw most creativity out the
window, many of the females were strong, gritty, tough-as-nails vixens
who exuded an earthy sexuality and lots of brains to keep themselves
afloat in what was a men's world.
Barbara Stanwyck, no stranger to strong roles, was one of them, and here she plays an openly amoral woman, Lily Powers, who is practically being pimped by her own father in a sleazy speakeasy. Once it burns to the ground, she and her maid Chico (Theresa Harria who has quite a lot of screen time at almost a co-starring level), take to New York City and it's not long before Stanwyck is essentially climbing the ladder man by man when she gets a job in a bank, among them a young John Wayne in a brief appearance, casually breaking their hearts until she basically has reached the top but eventually pays for it when a crime of passion takes place in her posh flat and she has to flee to Paris. A tacked-on romance between Stanwyck and George Brent and a moment when she (sort of) comes to terms with her dog-eat-dog attitude, mainly caused by the dawn of the Code era and censors who were outraged brings this film to a happy conclusion as she goes back to her home town.
This is a very good movie. Unusual for its day, due to the overt sex and plot. It also has a black playing a major role that is not a typical maid or servant, but more of a wise cracking best friend. Barbara Stanwyck, who I never considered very attractive, is quite stunning in a trampish sort of way. You will recognize a very young John Wayne as one of her boy friends, as well as many other character actors and actresses of the day. The woman playing the black girl, is new to me, she has a nice voice, as she sings a few jazz tunes of the era, I wonder what happened to her. This movie was before the Hays Code of Decency and it shows. I highly recommended this movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This one is considered a key Pre-Code film from the director who
later made the musical biopic THE JOLSON STORY (1946), but also the
paranoid sci-fi INVASION U.S.A. (1952)! and features one of Barbara
Stanwyck's best early roles.
She's supported by a fine cast which includes popular actors and valued character performers of the day George Brent, Douglass Dumbrille, Edward van Sloan, Nat Pendleton and John Wayne (at one point addressing Stanwyck with the titular nickname, derived from a popular song which is heard constantly throughout) in the former category and, in the latter, Robert Barrat (as Stanwyck's father), Donald Cook (as her most tragic conquest), Alphonse Ethier (as her elderly mentor more on this later), Arthur Hohl (as a lecherous politician) and Henry Kolker (as Cook's boss and father-in-law, whom Stanwyck also seduces). Curiously, scenes in which Walter Brennan appeared were subsequently deleted at his own request when the film ran into trouble with the censors!
Abetted by crackling i.e. typically hard-boiled dialogue and realistic Anton Grot sets, the narrative contains unexpected overtones of Nietzschean philosophy fed to our small-town heroine by the intellectual Ethier (Stanwyck complains to him early on that she's no "ball of fire" which, of course, contradicts her later comedy directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Gary Cooper of that name!). Under Ethier's auspices, she quickly blooms into an essentially heartless character determined that nothing shall stand in her path to success; the symbolic depiction of her rise in stature at the New York firm she's eventually employed with is reminiscent of a similarly sardonic one relating to an ambitious statesman's lust for power in Sergei Eisenstein's October (1927)! Sociologically, it's also interesting that Stanwyck is constantly seen sticking her neck out for her black maid/companion.
The first two-thirds of the film are simply terrific; at first, I found the latter stages somewhat disappointing because I was expecting to see Stanwyck get her comeuppance by falling for the belatedly-introduced George Brent character while he ignores her but, just like the others, he's soon under her spell! On second viewing, however, this aspect felt less jarring as it's evident that Stanwyck has been affected by the two deaths her selfish behavior has caused, and that her tenure in Paris has softened her (even if she tries to cling to her hard-earned wealth for as long as it's possible).
Released on DVD by Warners as part of their FORBIDDEN Hollywood VOLUME 1 COLLECTION, the film is presented in two strikingly different edits a recently unearthed Pre-Release version and the tamer Theatrical Release print. Among the considerable footage cut from the latter is dialogue pertaining to Stanwyck's life as a tramp from the age of 14 (though it's heard in the accompanying trailer!), while many other scenes have been shortened (i.e. censored for content): the violent fisticuff which develops between Stanwyck and Hohl after she resists his advances; the seduction at the railroad car; the scene in which Dumbrille is surprised with Stanwyck by Cook; the shooting, followed by a suicide (only shots are heard in the shorter version); Stanwyck thinking about her conquests while the phonograph is playing (again, only Brent appears in the version released to theaters), etc. Tha latter, then, utilizes alternate takes for some scenes and includes an establishing shot of the city which is missing from the longer version; however, we also get an obviously tacked-on happy ending (the Pre-Release version concludes abruptly on a very effective open-ended note) and an equally unconvincing cautionary letter sent by Ethier to Stanwyck in New York which, basically, has the function of substituting all references to Nietzsche!
The National Gallery of Art showed the long-thought lost original uncut version of this film on July 10, 2005. It restores vital scenes cut by censors upon its release. The character of the cobbler, a moral goody-goody individual in the original censored release of 1933 is here presented as a follower of the philosopher Nietsze and urges her to use men to claw her way to the top. Also, the corny ending of the original which I assume is in current VHS versions is eliminated and the ending is restored to its original form. A wonderful film of seduction and power. Hopefully, there will a reissue of this film on DVD for all to appreciate its great qualities. Look for it.
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