Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her best performances as a girl who climbs the ladder of success "wrong by wrong" in BABY FACE, a once-notorious and still quite outrageous pre-Code sex fable that was one of the key movies that led to the adoption of Hollywood's censorship board. Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) is the attractive young daughter of a steel-town...read more
Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her best performances as a girl who climbs the ladder of success "wrong by wrong" in BABY FACE, a once-notorious and still quite outrageous pre-Code sex fable that was one of the key movies that led to the adoption of Hollywood's censorship board.
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) is the attractive young daughter of a steel-town speakeasy owner (Robert Barrat) who forces her to be "friendly" with the customers. When her father dies during a still explosion, Lily takes the advice of a kindly old cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) to go to New York and
make something of herself. Using the only thing she's got, her feminine wiles, Lily immediately gets a job at a bank and quickly works her way up through the company by seducing and abandoning the various departments heads. After breaking up the engagement of Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) to the
daughter (Margaret Lindsay) of bank vice president J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), Lily dumps Stevens and becomes Carter's mistress. He sets her up in a swank apartment and lavishes money and jewels on her, but the jealous Stevens finds out and shoots Carter to death and then himself, causing a
scandal at the bank.
The bank directors hire a new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), and when Lily threatens to sell her diary to the tabloids, Trenholm pays her $15,000 and transfers her to their Paris branch. While visiting France, Trenholm falls in love with Lily and eventually marries her, but they
have to return to New York when the bank closes due to charges of mismanagement. After being indicted, Trenholm asks Lily to help him raise bail by giving him back the securities and bonds he gave her, but she refuses. Lily boards a ship to return to France, but realizes that she really loves
Trenholm and sells everything she has to help him pay back what he owes to the bank. Penniless, they return to Lily's hometown and make a fresh start.
BABY FACE is a prime example of Warner Bros. productions of the early '30s: fast, gritty, slangy, and sexy. Under the aegis of then-writer and supervising producer Darryl F. Zanuck (sometimes using the pseudonym "Mark Canfield") the films were remarkably realistic in their depiction of the seamy
underbelly of American society, replete with raw portrayals of poverty, crime, drugs, gold diggers, and illicit sex. BABY FACE is rife with such subjects, yet like all of the Warners pre-Code films, treats them in an offhand manner and with snappy dialogue. (Father: "I'm your father." Lily:
"That's my problem. I'm a tramp and who's to blame?") The film was so shocking when it was first released that it ran into numerous censorship problems and had to be pulled from theaters for several changes, including the deletion of blatant references to Lily being kept by men, changing the
character of the cobbler from a Nietzchian philosopher who actually encouraged Lily to use her body to get ahead into the voice of morality who chides her for "taking the wrong path," and adding the obviously tacked-on ending where the bank directors read a letter about how Lily lost everything
(showing that vice does not pay). Still, the film remains quite risque, so much so that the Variety review of the censored version calls the film "blue and nothing else," and states that "anything hotter than this for public showing would call for an asbestos audience blanket."
At the center of all the gleeful amorality is the superb Stanwyck, who, whether she's wisecracking, being sultry, or "innocently" crossing her legs and batting her lashes, radiates a smoldering sensuality that's still powerful. Even with the cuts, it's still clear that Lily's father is practically
pimping her out, while the depiction of every man being a sexual slave who can't control themselves is unequivocal. The fact that Lily literally sleeps her way to the top is shown in a hilarious sequence where the camera cranes up the outside of the bank building as she seduces each man (one of
whom is played by a young and innocent-looking John Wayne), moving from a window marked "Personnel," up a flight to "Filing," then to "Mortgage," and finally "Accounting." (Sexual situations, violence.)