Retro Review: ‘Baby Face’

One era of film history which has seen renewed interest from cinephiles recently has been the Pre-Code approximately between 1930-1934. The loose cannon days of the silent era had ended and the studios were rising to prominence. With the Depression bearing down, these same studios knew to get audiences into theaters they had to rely on the old-fashioned appeal of sex and violence. The studio appointed censorship mainly oversaw any cuts in content local morality boards demanded. One of the watershed films in this period of cinema history was released in 1933 and featured the legendary Barbara Stanwyck as a cold seductress on her way to the top in Baby Face.

Ever since she was a teenager, Lily Powers has worked at her father’s speakeasy where he has forced her to do “favors” for men. When a still explosion destroys the place and kills her father, Lily and her best friend Chico take to the rails. Inspired by a Nietzsche-obsessed regular she once knew, the former speakeasy-worker plans to master her own destiny using sex as her weapon. She makes it to the big city where beginning with her immediate superior (played by a young John Wayne) she uses cunning, looks, and willingness to “sing the St. Louis Blues” in order to climb the corporate ladder at a major financial institution. Her ascent to the top carves a path of victims, and even causes some bloodshed, leading to playboy Courtland taking over the company and paying for her to leave. While Lily heads off to Paris to start a new life, Courtland finds himself in deep water as the failures already inherent in the bank have unfairly fallen on him.

As mentioned before, Baby Face holds a strong position in cinema history. I recall one film historian summing it up perfectly by saying it is to Pre-Code movies what Double Indemnity was to film noir. Given that both films feature Barbara Stanwyck giving a top-tier performances should support her spot as one of the greatest actresses of all-time. In a film which takes full advantage of the lack of censorship of the time, she is absolutely fearless in tackling a complex and morally questionable character like Lily Powers. What could have been a one-note seductress becomes a fully realized person who the audience can get behind, or at the very least understand where she is coming from. Stanwyck’s likability is helped immensely by the criminally underrated Theresa Harris as her best friend, Chico. Harris had a career which spanned decades in major films like: Merrily We Go to Hell, Cat People, Miracle on 34th Street, and more. The problem was that given the horrendous and disgusting status quo in entertainment about 95% of her roles had her playing a maid due to the color of her skin. This is a major reason for the importance of Baby Face in film history. It is made clear in the opening minutes of the film that Lily considers Chico an equal. Her being assigned the role of “maid” as Lily climbs the corporate ladder is merely a cover allowing the two to continue to pal around.

Being released during the Pre-Code era meant that many state and local censorship boards were allowed to make the cuts they deemed necessary for their market. For decades this meant there were different cuts of Baby Face floating around. Luckily in 2004 the Library of Congress uncovered a version of the film in its entirety. Audiences can now watch this classic with all of the raw grittiness that director Alfred E. Green intended. This was the final films prolific writer Darryl F. Zanuck would work on for Warner Bros. as shortly afterward he would found 20th Century Pictures which would merge with Fox Studios to become 20th Century Fox. Baby Face definitely proved to be a high note to go out on, a film which hits hard and probably left an impact on the Depression era audiences.

For those simple or naïve enough to write off older movies and innocent in their black & white nature, Baby Face will surely change your mind. A melodrama which is sure to leave an impression and potentially surprise you with its unabashed look at sexuality. For the great actress Babara Stanwyck, this stands as easily one of the highlights of her storied career.