[Film Review] Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face poster

Title: Baby Face
Year: 1933
Country: USA
Language: English, French
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Alfred E. Green
Gene Markey
Kathryn Scola
Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Barbara Stanwyck
George Brent
Donald Cook
Henry Kolker
Alphonse Ethier
Arthur Hohl
John Wayne
Theresa Harris
Douglass Dumbrille
Robert Barrat
Margaret Lindsay
Rating: 7.4/10

Baby Face 1933

A Hollywood Pre-Code drama stars a deadly enthralling Stanwyck as the titular Baby Face, a nickname for Lily Powers, at the age of 26, Stanwyck is strikingly as the acme of her beauty. At the start of the film, Lily lives with his father (Barrat), who opens a speakeasy during the Prohibition in a small town, and the unadorned truth is that her father has pimped her to any men who is willing to pay ever since she was 14, the straight-from-the-shoulder account does clobber like a slap-in-the-face to the prudishness of the Tinseltown in retrospect.

Illuminated by Cragg (Ethier), an upright old patron who is a fervent advocate of Nietzsche’s philosophy, after her father’s abrupt death in an accident, Lily follows the maxim “use men but not being used by them”, and arrives in New York with her maid/friend Chico (Harris), exploits her gorgeous sex appeal to procure higher positions in the soaring Gotham Trust tower, there is a brilliant metaphor of her ascending juxtaposed with the literal moving-up of the floors where she works. Various men, fat or lean, young or old, uncouth or suave, ordinary do rich (a very young John Wayne is one of them) are all infatuated with her, well, this assumption might seem a bit oversimplified from men’s motivations, but Stanwyck gracefully downplays the oversimplification with her felicitous flirty spirit and confidence, as if she subtly declares – it is my film and I’m the only protagonist. Accumulating wealth is Lily’s sole target, yet, one of her jilted lovers, Ned (Cook), a young executive, cannot take it lightly when Lily becomes Vice President Carter’s (Kolker) mistress, a loaded pistol takes two lives away, also worth mentioning is that Carter is Ned’s soon-to-be father-in-law, that is how mixed-up things are, men, always men, hold things back into a mess.

Eventually, destiny gives Lily another opportunity, to meet her ultimate match Trenholm (Brent), the newly elected bank president who is set to assuage the bank’s public image after the Ned-Carter scandal. The eventual seduction takes place in Paris, is Trenholm different from all the other men Lily have maneuvered, aside from he is even richer? The final struggle for her is a simple option, to choose money or the man, as woman-empowering as this film has been until the finale, the out-of-the-blue realization after the nondescript montages of all the men she utilize to move upward fleeting over her mind, can be a major letdown. Why Trenholm is different? Audience can hardly find any clue from the story itself. However, we shouldn’t make excessive demands on an early talkie made in 1933, what we are expecting? She flees away with her wealth and leaves her man dying? That will be outstanding but too dark for even today’s viewers to assimilate, thus such an ending is inevitable, the only wishful thinking is that the transition could be made with a more plausible mechanism, a 71-minutes length is too brief for so many happenings.

BABY FACE has received quite a strong revaluation a little while back simply because its flagrant sex policy leaning on women’s favor (although she is defeated by love in the end) and the sensitive timing, but also if I may say, it may not be her most acclaimed role, but certainly is one of Stanwyck’s most glamorous metamorphosis on screen, even for this reason only, film buffs cannot leave it unattended, a magnificent Blu-Ray edition of this Black-and-White oldie has been released.


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