Cinema Slueth – Baby Face

For review of all movies starring Barbara Stanwyck, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation:  The cast is exceptional, brings out the social ladder success some have by betting everything even their own soul. It is a very fascinating film with explicit pre-Code melodrama completely overpowered by Stanwyck’s blazing performance

Prologue: This series follows movies of Barbara Stanwyck. I have gained a certain fascination for her as she reminds me so much of one my favorite yester year Hindi Indian language actress Nutan. Here is my review of her next film.

Baby Face is a 1933 American pre-Code drama film directed by Alfred E. Green, produced by William LeBaron and Raymond Griffith; and released by Warner Bros. The screenplay was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based on an original story written by Darryl F. Zanuck under the pen name Mark Canfield.  The film has Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Theresa Harris and a plethora of male actors as Lily Powers’ lovers.

Lily Powers (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck) who had been exploited since she was 14 years old by her father who had pimped her out, when he dies, she uses that power of sex over men to make her way up the ladder of success. She learns that instead of men exploiting her, if she exploit them sexually, she can have everything she wants.

Barbara Stanwyck gave an excellent performance as Lily Powers, one don’t see Stanwyck at all. It simply impressed me that Stanwyck didn’t hesitate at working on such a bold topic, and with actors twice her age and height in some scenes. She was a natural as Lily Powers – cool as a cucumber even while raising chaos in the lives of the men around her.

Donald Cook portrays the role of Ned Stevens, one of Lily Powers’ lowers in the film. His character is charming, attractive and at the same time thoroughly in love with Lily. We can see the shades of emotions in his character so well put.

George Brent portrays the role of Courtland Trenholm, Lily Powers’ final conquest.  He doesn’t appear in the film for atleast 50 mins into it even though he gets the second top billing.

You get to see a very early appearance of John Wayne “The Duke” as one of the lovers of Stanwyck’s Lily Powers, Jimmy McCoy Jr. He even gets credits in the film.

The film was marketed with a salacious tagline “She had it and made it pay”. The film’s open discussion of sex made it one of the most notorious films of the pre-Code era. This also further pushed the Production Code to be enforced for all films. Several scenes were altered or cut to give it an ok by Hays Office prior to its release.

Eventually the film with cuts, alters and censored version was released in 1933 which became a huge success. The original uncensored version was however found in 2004 at Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio. It was premiered at the London Film Festival in November 2004, more than 70 years after it was made. I am glad Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel aired the uncensored version as opposed to the censored theatrical release, although I wish they had showed the ending that the Hays Code mandated.

The film was finished in a breezy 18 days at a very low-budget cost. The opening credits have live-action figures with their name and the character name printed on them.

Costumes specially the gowns for Stanwyck were designed by Orry-Kelly. However, here is a look at her clothing as she transitions from a speakeasy hooker to a penthouse banker’s wife – some very racy for her time.

Since MGM had presented the 1932 American pre-Code romantic drama The Red-Headed Woman with Jean Harlow in the lead, Warner Bros. had to come up with a response in the form of Baby Face. This film also shows a very equal comradery of a white woman with an African-American woman.

The cast is exceptional, brings out the social ladder success some have by betting everything even their own soul. Movie is filled with plenty of double entendre and risque situations lined with exceptional quips. It is a very fascinating film with explicit pre-Code melodrama completely overpowered by Stanwyck’s blazing performance

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. The 1925 popular Tin Pan Alley jazz song Baby Face is played over the opening credits, as well as during the film several times. Also we get to hear the instrumental version of Saint Louis Blues by W. C. Hardy through the film. The character Chico (portrayed by Theresa Harris) sings the lines from the Saint Louis Blues in several scenes. This film was also the first on-screen credit for Theresa Harris.

2. The brakeman on the freight train was played by the silent film actor James Murray who had fallen on hard times. He had committed suicide in 1936 by throwing himself in the Hudson River. He had only one scene in the film and the censored version had cut it off. But the recently released uncensored version has it back again. Glad to see that scene considering how he died.

3. The building that has Gotham Trust Company is shown to be in is in reality The Empire State Building in New York City.

4. The ship scene in this film used the same set as in the 1932 American pre-Code crime drama Three on a Match.

5. Stanwyck’s character Powers refers to herself as a “Ball of Fire” early in the film. Incidentally in 1941 Stanwyck also acted in a screwball comedy film of the same name along-side Gary Cooper.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophy books are mentioned – Thoughts Out of Season published in 1873l; The Will to Power published in 1901.

7. The newspaper front page headline of “The New Star” reads, “BANK OFFICIAL SLAIN!” The story to the far right located directly under the “AIN!” actually comes from a story in the December 14, 1932 front page edition of the New York Times written by a reporter named Hugh Byas.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

  1. When Lily reads from Nietzsche’s book, Thoughts Out Of Season, the page that’s highlighted repeats the same paragraph above, and again below, the highlighted lines.

2. The newspaper announcing Courtland and Lily’s wedding misspells Courtland’s name as “Courtney” and the word company as “comany.”

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