Pre Code Confidential #8: Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (Warner Brothers 1933)

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Barbara Stanwyck uses sex as a weapon and screws her way to the top in BABY FACE, an outrageously blatant Pre-Coder that had the censors heads spinning back in 1933. Miss Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who works in her Pop’s speakeasy in smog-filled Erie, PA, where Pop’s been pimping her out since she was 14. Lily has a black female friend named Chico who seems to be more than just a friend (though it’s never stated, the implication’s definitely there). All the men paw over her like dogs with a piece of raw meat except the elderly Mr. Cragg, who gives her a book by Fredrich Nietzche along with some advice: “You have power… you don’t realize your potentialities… you must use men, not let them use you… exploit yourself, use men! Be strong, defiant!”.

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When Pop’s still blows to smithereens, taking Pop with it, Lily and Chico hop a freight train to New York City. It’s here she first tries out Cragg’s advice by seducing the railman who tries to throw them off. Arriving in The Big Apple, Lily and Chico stop outside the Gotham Trust Company, a huge skyscraper that’s an obvious phallic symbol. Lily quickly lands a job by seducing an office boy and begins her climb to the top. One of her first victims is a young John Wayne , an innocent sheep to Lily’s ravenous wolf. Wayne introduces her to Douglass Dumbrille , who’s been around enough to know better, but inevitably succumbs to Lily’s carnal charms.

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Lily and her boss get caught together in the lady’s room by his boss, Stevens (Donald Cook); he’s dismissed, but sly Lily gives a sob story about the rat forcing himself on her, and the gullible Stevens makes her his secretary. If you guessed Stevens is next on Lily’s list, give yourself a hand! However, Stevens is engaged to bank VP Carter’s daughter, who catches the two fooling around in his office, and she flees up to Daddy’s suite. Big Daddy Carter orders Stevens to fire Lily, but the jerk can’t bring himself to do it. Lily’s called up to see Carter and gives him another sob story claiming she didn’t know about the engagement. Carter then axes Lily, but sets her up in a lavish penthouse to become his mistress! Stevens loses his cool, barging in on them and shooting his former future Father-in-law, then committing suicide in Lily’s boudoir!

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This headline-inducing scandal results in the Board of Directors terminating the bank’s president and bringing in the founder’s grandson Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). “a playboy… society globetrotter” with no experience whatsoever. But Courtland’s no dummy; after Lily demands $15 Grand for her diary (the newspaper’s have offered ten), Courtland refuses, not buying her story (“I’m a victim of circumstance!”) and shipping her off to their Paris branch under an assumed alias. Courtland thinks he’s solved he problem, but when he arrives in Gay Paree, there’s Lily, and yep, he falls for her, this time actually marrying Lily, resulting in another scandal that forces the bank’s closure, an indictment for Courtland, and a suicide attempt.

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I’ve gotta say, the men in BABY FACE act like complete idiots, practically driven to the brink of madness by Lily’s sexual prowess. She must be really good to elicit that kind of response! This kind of sex scandal isn’t unheard of in real life,  especially among the rich and powerful (hello, Anthony Weiner!), which leads me to conclude the more money and fame you have, the stupider you get! Stanwyck is really good as Lily, the original Material Girl, who goes after what she wants using what she has. Equally good is Theresa Harris as Lily’s companion, Chico, who spends much of the film singing “St. Louis Blues”. Harris was an African-American actress and singer who’s featured in many classic films of the 30’s and 40’s, and doesn’t play to the stereotype of the times, but rather as an equal. Other Familiar Faces dotting the cast (besides those mentioned) are Robert Barratt, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay Nat Pendleton Harry Gribbon , and Edward Van Sloan .

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Director Alfred E. Green keeps things moving as fast as Lily herself. His fifty year career in films includes directing two stars to Oscars (George Arliss in DISRAELI, Bette Davis in DANGEROUS), but he’s most remembered for THE JOLSON STORY. Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based their sordid little screenplay on a story from Daryl F. Zanuck, shortly before he moved over to Twentieth Century Pictures. The cinematography by veteran James Van Trees is superb, as is Anton Grot’s amazing art direction. BABY FACE contributed mightily to the formation of the Hays Code, its frank look at a wanton woman causing blood vessels to pop in prudes across the country. It’s a film of its time, when the Great Depression caused desperate people to take desperate measures, and a must-see for lovers of Pre-Code films.

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