15 July 2011

Baby Face

Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris contemplate their future in Baby Face.

This afternoon I saw a screening of Baby Face, part of Film Forum's four-week long Essential Pre-Code Festival. And if the film was anything to judge the festival by, it's going to be a doozy.

Baby Face (1933) stars a brilliant Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers, the daughter of a smalltime speakeasy owner in Erie, Pennsylvania. Forced by her father to sleep with his customers, Lily turns to the neighbourhood cobbler, Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), for friendship and advice. He gives her books by Nietzsche to read and urges her to leave town, telling her to “Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want.”

When her father dies in a still explosion, Lily takes Cragg’s advice and with her best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) in tow heads to New York where she gets a job at Gotham Trust and proceeds to sleep her way to the top.

Barbara Stanwyck and a young John Wayne.

Lily is ruthless in her goal to get rich. Men are tossed aside in her quest and some literally die for her. When one of them asks her for help she responds “I can't do it. I have to think of myself. I've gone through a lot to get those things. My life has been bitter and hard. I'm not like other women.” 

Stanwyck is perfect as Lily. With her lithe body and always knowing, dark eyes, she can turn on the charm in one instance while stopping a man in his tracks with a cutting response in the next. She is so good all of the male actors pale in comparison; the only memorable one is a young John Wayne who makes a brief appearance as one of the men she uses.

Along with the often clever dialogue are some amazing art deco sets (check out the foyer in her first upscale flat), great music (including Harris singing "St. Louis Blues"), and outfits by Orry-Kelly. Watch as the collars and cuffs on Stanwyck’s dresses get larger as she moves up in the company and her gowns become sleeker as she accumulates wealth. All of which makes for a highly entertaining and enjoyable ride.

The original version of Baby Face (before its release in 1933 it had to be re-edited to pass the New York State Censorship Board) was thought lost until 2004 when a copy was discovered in a Library of Congress vault in Dayton, Ohio. It’s since been restored, and is a great example of why film preservation is so important.

The Essential Pre-Code Festival runs through August 11 at Film Forum.

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