Pre-code movies are lots of fun to watch and one of the most audacious is “Baby Face.” (1933), a splendid movie for people who think old movies are all sweetness and light.
“Baby Face” was recently released in DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood series, and the DVD includes both the pre-release version (about 75 minutes) and the general release version (about 70 minutes). The first version of the film was so blatant in its sexuality that the censors would not release it unless cuts were made. It went out later that year in the 70-minute version, which was still steamy enough to help bring about the Production Code the following year.
The complete 75-minute version sat unseen for almost 70 years until a complete print was discovered at, if memory serves, the Library of Congress.
I watched the 75 minute version last night and enjoyed every minute of it. The first 45 minutes are the best. After that it becomes more of a conventional melodrama, but those 45 minutes (which just fly by) make up for the rest of it.
After a short credit sequence with an orchestra playing a lively version of the song “Baby Face” (played like we were about to watch a musical or a comedy rather than the sordid melodrama that follows), we are shown the belching smokestacks of Erie, PA. We are introduced to a bunch of low-life characters in the grimiest speakeasy imaginable ever, run by Robert Barratt. Since she was 14, Barratt has been pimping out his daughter Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) to his buddies. After turning down the lecherous advances of a local politician (pre-paid to her father) with a swift hit to the head with a blunt object, she tells her father off. Her father is killed that night in an accident.
She despises all the men at the speakeasy save one, a professor who introduces her to Nietzchian philosophy and tells her to go to the big city and turn the tables on the male sex. He tells her to take advantage of them and use men to get ahead in the world.
Lily takes this advice and is accompanied by her best friend Chico, an African-American servant girl at the speakeasy. (It’s rare to see a deep friendship like this between the races in a 1930s movie).
They hitch a ride in a railroad car where they are discovered by a trainman. He’s going to turn them in until Lily says she can make it worth her while for him. Chico walks away singing to herself. I’ve only half described the scene, but it’s a shockingly brazen one, and one of the scenes that was cut before the picture went into general release.
Upon entering the big city, Lily takes one look at a massive bank building and decides she wants to work there. She goes to personnel to inquire about a job. Starting with the guy in the personnel department she sleeps her way to the top, bringing scandal and ruin to every man she meets, including accountant John Wayne, his boss Douglas Dumbrille and executive Donald Cook. Eventually she becomes mistress of the bank’s elderly president.
It’s all very entertaining, and Stanwyck makes her character vulnerable. Not exactly sympathetic, but vulnerable. Since we know her background, we can understand why she is the way she is.
She later falls in love with the new owner of the bank, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). Brent is often characterized as bland and colorless. He doesn’t have the forceful personality of a Gable or Cooper, but leading ladies of the 1930s enjoyed acting with him. (Bette Davis was a fan, and frequent co-star). These actresses, dynamic personalities in their own way, knew that Brent would not overshadow them but would provide capable enough support. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with his line readings, and he’s fine in the role.
I really enjoyed “Baby Face” and am looking forward to seeing the other films in the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 1 set, Jean Harlow (one of my favorites) in “Red Headed Woman” (1932) and director James Whale’s version of “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) with Mae Clarke.
It was recently announced that Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2 would be released in March, 2008. One of the titles will be another Stanwyck starrer called “Night Nurse.” (1931). Stanwyck and fellow nurse Joan Blondell spend a great portion of the movie in their underwear, until Stanwyck gets a job in a mansion to nurse the sick kids of a mother who would rather drink, take drugs and host wild parties at her home than think of the kids (do you think Britney Spears ever saw “Night Nurse”?). There’s a kidnap plot hatched by the family’s chauffeur (Clark Gable), one of the meanest, most depraved characters in a pre-Code movie. I can’t wait to see it again.
Rating for “Baby Face”: Three stars.