Film Title: Baby Face
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Barbara Stanwyck
- George Brent
- Donald Cook
“Don’t be fooled by a baby face”. There’s a reason that saying exists. In 1933, the reason was Lily Powers. Powers is played by Barbara Stanwyck in this “pre-code” film about a woman’s determination. The term “pre-code” is in reference to those films that were created before the Hays Code was put into effect in mid-1934. The Hays Code dictated what could and could not be shown in a movie. It also didn’t allow crime in movies to go unpunished. The films that slipped in before the code were some of the most racy, nasty and scandalous pieces of cinema to ever grace the screen. Baby Face was perhaps one of the biggest examples of this.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lily Powers, a small town girl who is quickly tiring of her dead-end job waiting tables for the sweaty men who come in after working at the local plant. Through the window, the plant’s smoke stacks can be seen in the distance, and to Lily, they are the representation of being ordinary. Lily’s father Nick (Robert Barrat) owns the run-down speakeasy. The patrons are the stereotypical rude, testosterone-fueled laborers, never missing an opportunity to shout innuendos or grab for Lily’s “assets”. Though she is full of sharp-witted replies, her breaking point is drawing near. Lily and her father fight often, and after one such spat, he storms outside into a shed that suddenly explodes in a freak accident. With her father gone, Lily decides to take a shot at making a better life for herself. She travels to the “big city”, where she believes something better must be waiting. She has no qualifications, hardly any education and her unending slang does little to hide where she came from. Lily walks into the office of a large bank. She figures that if she’s going to climb the ladder, she may as well start with her feet planted in a pile of cash. The bank’s guard sits at his desk and is obviously taken with Lily. She notices this and uses her physical attributes to her advantage. When he tells her that she won’t be able to get an appointment, she suggests that they “work something out”, at which time they both walk into a vacant office and shut the door behind them. This is the first move in Lily’s sexual game of chess. She’s right on schedule. Her plan is working. Lily is on her way to the top of the monetary ladder.
The camera continues to pan upward on the outside of the large bank office. This signifies Lily’s promotion to a higher position. She starts out on the bottom floor, but every couple of weeks, she advances with the help of her tried-and-true methods. Before long, Lily is wrapped up with the bank’s assistant manager. She has an ability to act like a helpless little girl, and the powerful men around her continue to fall right into the trap. In true Lily Powers fashion, the assistant manager she’s been fooling around with is no longer good enough. Sure, he’s gotten her more than she’d ever known waiting tables, but now she needed even more. She needed the big score. She needed something substantial enough that she wouldn’t have to play these games. She needed the boss, the bank president. Just like that, she tosses the assistant manager aside like a high school boyfriend. It only takes a few looks from her suggestive face before the bank president is caught in the web. She throws herself at him, fooling him into thinking she’d be lost without his affection. By now she is becoming quite an actress. He showers her with gifts and vacations. She is covered in expensive jewelry and furs. Lily Powers had truly become something. She’d become a ruthless gold-digger. When the money is flowing and the champagne is never-ending, life is beautiful. But suddenly, an unexpected monkey wrench is thrown into Lily’s plans. Her falsified love for the bank president was now a full-blown marriage. As his wife, Lily promised herself to him for better or worse, never assuming that the “worse” would actually happen. It does.
Baby Face is one of those films that grab you from the very beginning. This was no doubt because of Stanwyck’s fantastic performance. She has a tendency to play the bitter roles, the femme fatales and the black widows. In the 1940s, she had two Film Noir hits with “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and “Double Indemnity”. The latter would become known as Film Noir’s poster child. In both of those films, she echoed the same icy personality that she displayed here. If ever there was such a thing as a one-woman show, Baby Face is it. Lily knows right from the start that she’s living in a man’s world. She also knows that men are weak, and can easily be brought to their knees with the slightest hint of affection. This is something that she’s more than willing to exploit. Her loving glances are like fishing lines that reel her a little bit closer to self-sufficiency each time. It never occurs to her that she’s playing with emotions, or that she could be damaging someone’s true feelings. This is the very thing that makes her as good as she is, she’s like a hit-man, free from the burdens of having a conscience. Stanwyck perfected this kind of persona. She’s always tough and unbreakable; at least that’s how she presents herself until some twist of cruel irony smacks her back into reality. In the final minutes of this film, she gets her just desserts in the worst possible way. What could hurt this woman the most? Without giving anything away, it’s best to remember that what goes around comes around. When it comes around this time, it’s speeding like a train going a thousand miles an hour. There are some things that a kiss can’t prevent.
Baby Face was released on DVD in 2006 as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood Collection”. This set is made up of three films that are some of the best examples of Hollywood’s pre-code days. Also in the set are “Red-Headed Woman” starring Jean Harlow and Leila Hyams, and “Waterloo Bridge” with Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery. The transfers are actually quite good given the age of the films. Baby Face includes the Original Theatrical release and a Pre-release version recently discovered and restored by the Library of Congress, before the censors of the day demanded the elimination of several scenes. The whole set is kicked off with an introduction by TCM’s host Robert Osborne, being that it is part of the TCM Archive series. This is labeled “Volume 1”, so let’s hope that a second installment is in the works. The movie world would be lost without its daring beginnings.
We’ve seen movies with powerful women before. We’ve even seen movies with ruthless women, but Baby Face will forever be in a class of its own. Lily Powers could easily be a symbolic personality. How many people around the world have slept their way to the top? Barbara Stanwyck was perfect here in every way. She was the perfect perpetrator and she was the perfect victim. This is a mirror-image of real life, not only in the sense of sexual power, but also with respect to opportunism. If you should have some trouble finding the single disc, don’t hesitate to purchase the complete Forbidden Hollywood set! You will step into an unrestricted world of madness!
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