Music Dept: Leo F. Forbstein Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook and John Wayne
Baby Face is a Depression-era story about a poor woman whose father runs a speakeasy for working men. But he also acts as her pimp when it can get him enough money. Stanwyck hates it, and takes every chance she can get to throw it back in his face. But during an accident with his still, the father dies and she gets advice from an older German gentleman who tells her to use her good looks and body to get her what she wants. So she sets out for New York with her black maid in tow to see what her flesh is worth. She immediately sets her sights on working in a big bank, and her ability to sleep her way to the top is graphically represented by how high in the building she goes.
This is a pre-code film that makes no pretense about the sexual nature of Stanwyck’s character and how she uses it. The naked--so to speak--ambition with which she uses men is actually fascinating when one considers how well that character dovetails with her character from Double Indemnity. They could be the same person. She carves a swath out of the men in her life, leading them to lose their jobs, commit murder, and even suicide. But her German friend back home keeps sending her books by Nietzsche that harden her character even further and create the philosopher’s ultimate “super woman.” It’s not a particularly unique story--and one that wouldn't really be done well until Presumed Innocent--but Stanwyck’s joie de vivre is stunning to watch.
The man she finally winds up with is George Brent, filmed the same year as his appearance in 42nd Street. But there are also some great actors in small roles, including John Wayne as a clerk who helps Stanwyck on her way up, and becomes one of her first victims. The venerable Edward Van Sloan plays one of the bank’s board members, and a supporter of Brent. And the wonderful actress Theresa Harris, who worked in dozens of well-known films during her career, opens her role in this one by singing Bessie Smith better than the Queen of the Blues herself. Stanwyck keeps her on as her maid, and Harris continually sings “St. Louis Woman” throughout the picture.
As I said, the film is not great, but the pre-code license the story takes is fascinating. The film was severely cut by the studio prior to distribution and a more sanitized ending tacked on. In addition, different dialogue was substituted in places to make the whole thing more in line with prevailing moral standards. Still, none of that could really hide what was going on. Ultimately, this would be one of the last few films made during the un-enforced period of the production code and by the next year film like this would not be produced at all. Baby Face is racy even by today’s standards and, though it’s very straight forward, what it lacks in imagination it makes up for in sheer daring.