Monday, 30 May 2011

Old Movie Madness: Baby Face (1933)

Golly, it really has been a long time since I last wrote one of these.  I haven't stopped watching films though and have such a backlog of reviews to get through that it has become quite daunting.  I've decided to start easy - with a film I watched just this morning whilst waiting for a particularly exciting eBay auction to hot up (exciting to me means a 1939 knitting pattern...heh!)

Baby Face stars my all time favourite actress, the indomitable Barbara Stanwyck, here playing the kind of character which became her stock in trade - the tart with a heart.

Barbara plays Lily Powers, a young woman whose father has been prostituting her to the customers in his speakeasy since she turned 14.  When he dies in a fire Lily sees a chance to escape and following a conversation with her friend and mentor, a local postman and philosopher, she decides to head to New York and use her considerable charms to exploit men.

She leaves town with her African/American colleague/maid Chico and they ride a freight train to the city.  Caught on the train Lily has her first opportunity to test her new philosophy and flirts with the guard.  A fade out and the image of his gloves falling on the floor tell us that she slept with him to ensure their passage on the train.  Neitzsche has a lot to answer for!

Once in the city Lily is determined to get a good job and sleeps her way up through the hierarchy of Gotham Bank until she lands a role working for Ned Stevens.  Stevens is engaged to the Vice President's daughter but this doesn't stop him falling for Lily.  Ned's fiancee walks in on them in an embrace and so her father intervenes to separate the couple.  Falling for Lily himself he sets her up in a lavish apartment with Chico as her maid and Lily settles into a life of luxury.

Unfortunately a besotted Ned tracks her down, determined to marry her.  When he walks into the apartment and sees his future father in law he flies into a rage shooting his rival and then turning the gun on himself.

The recently elected President of the bank, a young playboy called Courtland Trenholm, is brought in to try and calm the scandal.  Hearing Lily has been offered $15,000 to sell her story the bank offer to match the sum however Courtland tricks her into taking a job in their Paris office instead.

Once in Paris Lily, a bright girl, works hard and is promoted to running the travel department.  When Courtland visists the office he is surprised to see her still there and realises he has underestimated her.  Courtland woos Lily and the pair marry, Courtland for love and Lily still seeing dollar signs.
Courtland is indicted when the bank fails due to mismanagement and he deperately needs to raise one million dollars.  Lily refuses to help him by selling all the gifts he has given her and runs away with Chico.  Her boat is about to sail for Europe when she realises she is in love with Courtland, finally a man who knows her past and loves her anyway, and she rushes home to tell him that she will help.

On her return she finds that he has shot himself - he is still alive and ,terrified of losing him, Lily tells him that she loves him and doesn't care about the money anymore.  The film closes with them in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

This is an interesting little film (little at just over an hour in length) for two main reasons.

Firstly - for me - the costumes are outstanding.  You can see Lily maturing from a bar girl to an office girl, through over the top brashness and finally into a stylish woman as the movie progresses.  Her clothing very much shows her role at each point in the movie, with hugely over the top ruffles and furs when she is a kept woman to more elegant clothing as the wife of the President of the bank.  This is a movie wardrobe to die for.

Secondly - this is a stunning example of pre-code movie making.  The subject - child prostitution and sleeping around to further your career, are shocking.  There is heavy sexual innuendo and some of Stanwyck's lines bristle with her care worn attitude to love and sex.

I'm a Stanwyck fan, so I know I'm biased, but boy does this gal light up a screen.  She is far from classically beautiful but she really does ooze sex appeal and this is used so well in her pre-code movies.

I thoroughly recommend this as an orgy of amazing early 30's fashion and a fine example of pre-code cinema.


  1. i didn't read! As I want to watch! xx

  2. The poster looks familiar,but I don't think I have seen it.I will definatley check it out.I keep my tv on TCM all day and I love we can order any movie we want off thier site.I have thought about making a list just on movies I want.Lol.Barbara is my favorite.I love her take to crap characters.

  3. This and "Forbidden" are two of my favorites of hers. What a lady.