Notorious for its resolutely sordid look at a woman’s place in the American socioeconomic structure, circa 1933, Baby Face was the film that pushed the movie studios to start enforcing the production code that would, for decades forward, strictly control the content of American movies. Barbara Stanwyck rules — she rules! — as Lily Powers, a sardonic barmaid who, liberated by the chance death of her dominating father and emboldened by the advice of an old German who quotes Nietzsche at her and lectures her on the art of using men but not being used by them, embarks on a quest to sleep her way to the top of a New York City bank.
It’s easy to understand where her bitterness comes from — it’s established early on that Daddy has been pimping her out to barroom patrons (!) since she turned 14. Freed from his grip, Lily proves she can take care of herself, and she doesn’t spend a moment of screen time mourning her lost childhood. Instead, she puts on a permanent come-hither look (tinged with resignation and disdain) and starts banging away at every man who crosses her path and has something to offer, from the guy who kicks freeloaders off the freight train (how else is a poor girl meant to get to Manhattan?) to the hapless bankers, thinking with their dorks, who risk family and career over a cynical fling that they mistakenly believe is love true love.
(John Wayne, believe it or not, has a small role.)
Baby Face is sort of the ultimate pre-Code film, with its repetitive form — that same come-hither look, that same goggle-eyed assent from the dude on the receiving end — almost beggaring belief. But eventually the story comes around to its moral agenda, as Lily finds herself actually falling in love with the bank’s president, who finds her favor by, essentially, treating her as the stern but caring daddy that she never had. By the final reel, she’s having visions of all the lovers she’s used, doe-eyed specimens of abject gullibility to a man, and feeling remorse over her gold-digging ways. The film’s final scene is its least convincing (which is saying something), but a viewer gets used to seeing tacked-on moral lessons in films of this era. At any rate, the effort to depict the redemption of a fallen woman seemed to convince nobody in the Hays office of the filmmakers’ good intentions — the first half of the film is so much more fun than the second half, after all. My favorite bit is the scene where a scuzzy barfly puts his hand on Lily’s knee, and she responds by dumping a cup of coffee on him. That’s how it’s done.
Contemporary critics may not have been terribly scandalized (Time magazine called it “morose and timidly salacious,” which sounds like a review that might have greeted Eyes Wide Shut or Nine Songs in later years), but neither did they have the benefit of seeing the film before the first round of censors hacked away at it. The original version of Baby Face languished in the darkness for 70 years until somebody at the Library of Congress discovered an uncut pre-release print. I haven’t yet seen the edited version, but by all accounts it reflects a large number of small changes that cumulatively soften the film’s backbone considerably. Both versions are included, with Waterloo Bridge and Red Headed Woman, on the new Forbidden Hollywood collection of pre-Code films. B-