Sunday, June 19, 2022

Baby Face

Baby Face

Directed by
Alfred E. Green
Written by Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola (screenplay), Darryl F. Zanuck (Story)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne, Theresa Harris, Alphonse Ethier
IMDB Entry

Movies always attracted the attention of bluenoses, and the introduction of sound made it worse. Eventually, a code of censorship – the Hays Code – was set up in 1930, but not rigorously enforced until 1934.* During that short period, files did not shy away from adult subjects, and a perfect example is Baby Face.

Lily “Baby Face” Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) works in her father’s speakeasy, where he forces her to have sex with customers. She develops a friendship with Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), who introduces her to the philosophy of Nietzsche and gives her the idea of only doing anything she needs to survive. When her father is killed, she leaves for New York City with her friend Chico (Theresa Harris), seducing a railroad worker to let them jump a freight. The pattern established, she rises in success by seducing men who are in a position to help her goals.

The movie is much franker than Hollywood films from when after the code is established. It’s perfectly clear that she’s sleeping her way to the top and has no compunction about doing it.

Stanwyck is excellent. In her career, she often showed a hard edge in her roles and it is quite apparent here, along with the ability to turn sweet and helpless when it suited her. George Brent plays the man she finally falls in love with.

As an aside, Theresa Harris is excellent as Chico. Lily treats her as an equal throughout, unusual for a Black actress of the time.  Harris had a fairly long career in films but – as she complained – usually as a maid, because that was the best she could hope for.** This may have been her best role, she it’s clear that, though she is Lily’s maid when she rises to success, she is treated as a friend, confidant and equal. Theresa was also an excellent singer, and was given the chance to sing a bit in the film.

A discussion of the film usually mention John Wayne was in it. This was early in his career and before he established himself in westerns. But his role is small – just a couple of scenes and a dozen lines of dialog.

Despite there being no Hays Office, the movie was censored. Most notable is the addition of a final scene where Lily sees the errors of her ways. The original ending was darker and much more downbeat. It was lost for years, but someone uncovered the cut scenes and added it to the film in 2004.

The movie is a fine example of what movies can do when allowed to take on adult themes.

*Partly in reaction to the sexual innuendo in the films of Mae West.

**Her most visible role this days is as the housekeeper/maid to Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street.

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