Baby Face (1933)
Reviewed on 2011 October 2
I had no idea what I was getting into watching this old classic from 1933, but it had Barbara Stanwyck and was featured on TCM, so I figured it had to be worth a look. I realized five minutes into it that someone at Warner Brothers must have used his copy of the Hays Code as a beer cozy for whatever illicit stuff was served at the board meeting where this thing was greenlit. Good deal. It’s an excellent peek at the kind of movies that got made before Hays anointed himself as Head Party Pooper, and yet compared to the completely overt stuff like American Pie that we’re served today (and probably other pre-Code flicks, I remember seeing some wild stuff from the ’20s), it’s tame. That didn’t stop the censors from retroactively turning the thing into Swiss cheese, but you can still get your hands on the original movie, and I think the un-bowdlerized version is part of the Forbidden Hollywood DVD set.
Lily Powers (Stanwyck, looking incredible here; what were people thinking with those 1940s poodle hairdos?) never had a break in life. Her lout father runs a speakeasy, and in order to keep it from being raided, has no qualms serving up his own daughter as a chaser to the local authorities. She has a mentor of sorts, a man named Adolf Cragg (Alpohnse Ethier), who notices her ability to turn men into drooling idiots — a kind of a low-rent Circe who can also make a pretty good boilermaker. Cragg is a follower of Nietzsche, and isn’t so much horrified that a young woman is passing herself out like Halloween candy to get by, as he is by the fact that she’s doing it in what looks like a suburb of East Ebola, Pennsylvania. He encourages Lily to kiss the steel town goodbye and use the rich and powerful men in New York.
Lily is a fast learner, whose morals are replaced by an overabundance of street smarts. For the rest of the movie, she practically brachiates from man to man up the corporate ladder. This, to quote the demotivational poster, will not end well.
Even though there’s no skin (well, except the face that shows the title is perfect; Stanwyck didn’t even have pores), there’s enough innuendo to make a censor hyperventilate. The dialogue! The scandal! The meaningful glances! And yes, the acting is pretty good too. Stanwyck seems to be having a lot of fun playing the biggest tramp her co-workers have likely seen, and even though it’s kind of cringe-inducing, it is kind of funny watching the men in her orbit act like a bunch of dweebs that have never seen a girl before. Not like her, they haven’t. The Cragg character was also good, and rather frightening. If you watch the “unsanitized” version you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Three chocolate morsels.