Potentially the Pre-Code film that should be held up as the dictionary example of what Pre-Code films could be, Baby Face is a scandalous delight, as knowing as its main character and star, winking at the audience with salacious glee even as it accepts a Hollywood fate it can’t yet know will be the future norm.
Barbara Stanwyck (Forty Guns [review] stars as Lily, the titular “Baby Face,” though she is only called such once (and by John Wayne, no less!). At the start of the picture, Lily lives with her degenerate father (Robert Barrat, Captain Blood), who has turned their house into a speakeasy. Lily and their African American servant Chico (Theresa Harris, Cat People [review]) serve as barmaids in the gambling saloon, but the old man would have Lily do a lot more with their male clients if given the chance. And, make no mistake, the male clients are ready to do those things, as well. Lily is too tough for any of that, though, and too tough to give up or pack it in when daddy’s still blows up, killing him and shutting down the family business. She won’t knuckle under for nobody, she just needs a new direction.
That direction springs from a surprising source. One of the regulars at the speakeasy, an old European professorial type named Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), has been encouraging Lily to leave for a better life for some time, and he’s given her the instruction manual for how to do so: Nietzche’s Will to Power. Armed with this philosophy, and Cragg’s regressively progressive insistence that women have more natural tools to conquer the planet than men, Lily and Chico head to the big city. There, Lily begins working her way up the corporate and social ladder, using the one thing she knows the fellas want. Her body becomes a bargaining chip, her charms a negotiation tool. In each situation, she spots the top man and sets her sights on him, ultimately seducing him and then setting him up for the kind of fall that will allow her to leapfrog to the next step.
The best part of Baby Face’s racy drama is how unapologetic Lily is. Stanwyck is at her fiercest here, and her sexiest. The young actress prowls each scene with supreme confidence, only showing the audience an occasional glimpse of vulnerability, a brief aside when we are the only ones looking (god forbid anyone else on the screen spot it!). This sets us up enough emotional currency for us to buy into an ending where the character finally does have a change of heart, having met her match in playboy banker Trenholm (George Brent, later the star of many Bette Davis movies like Jezebel and Dark Victory). The “crime does not pay”-style happy ending that Baby Face was saddled with was imposed by censors, a portent of things to come, but with Stanwyck’s natural nuance, it plays as intentional.
Baby Face was released in 1933, just a year before the Hayes Code would go into effect. You’d almost think director Alfred E. Green (The Jolson Story) knew what was coming and decided to get all his ya-ya’s out before it was too late. Baby Face aims at every taboo and hits them square on the chin. There is no antidote to Lily’s bad behavior, and more to the point, no escape from similar badness in the male world. Cops, politicians, bankers, average joes--all are capable of moral corruption. Only other women seem to provide any conscience, observing Lily at work, disappointed in how predictable the male population consistently proves themselves to be. And it’s Trenholm who ends up on the wrong side of the law, despite not meaning to.
Even as the movie ends, with Lily rushing to Trenholm’s aid, Green doesn’t dull its fangs. Lily seems to act almost out of fatigue rather than a moral epiphany. At some point everyone has to settle down, she can’t keep jumping from man to man, so why not go after the one who has challenged her the most?