Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Film #9: Baby Face (1933)

Director: Alfred E. Green

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (In which I shamelessly give away the plot, key points and all. Fair warning.):

Lily Powers is a young, beautiful and intelligent, though jaded and cynical woman who works in her father/pimp's run-down speakeasy "parlor" in their apartment. When her father offers her up to a local politician in exchange for police protection, she becomes fed up and splits town for New York, with her trusty friend and father's former servant, Chico, in tow. She vows to herself to use her beauty and smarts to her, and only her, advantage.

In New York, she uses her brains and feminine wiles to sleep her way up the ladder of a major banking firm, abandoning each man after getting what she wants from them. Eventually, one young executive becomes obsessed enough to kill Lily's current meal ticket, the bank's vice president, and then commit suicide. In the face of public scandal, the bank executives quickly decide to fire the president and bring in Courtland Trenholm, playboy descendant of the bank's founder. Trenholm quickly and astutely sizes up Lily for the opportunist that she is and sends her to work in Paris, assuming that she will soon quit and leave the company in peace.

In Paris, Lily takes the job, does masterful work, and stays very quiet, all just to prove Trenholm wrong. During a visit by the young president, Lily and Trenholm find fondness for one another, begin an affair, and are soon married. This all sets off another firestorm of controversy back in New York, ruining Trenholm's career with the bank. Lily initially tries to abandon the now-ruined Trenholm, sticking to her self-serving mantra; however, she comes to realize that she loves him and rushes back, prepared to offer up all of the vast amounts of money that she's gathered from her past conquests. As she returns to him, she finds that he has just attempted suicide. The film ends with the both of them in an ambulance, where the couple is told that Trenholm should recover, and with Lily ceasing to care about the money that will be lost.


Take 1. My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing & before any research):

Quick note: there were 2 versions of the film on this disc. I watched the unedited/pre-theatrical release version.

This is a pretty much the kind of movie that I was hoping to find when I conceived of this blog: a previously unknown (to me) gem. There are a few reasons I liked it so much, but the hands-down winner is Barbara Stanwyck. I really only knew her from Double Indemnity (1944; film #25 on the TIME list), but she is now becoming one of my favorite classic film actresses. She had such incredible sex appeal that she was perfect for this role. Sure, she's good-looking enough, but very few actresses could pull off the natural intelligence, cunning, and allure that Stanwyck did with such ease. In fact, her steely, manipulative gaze is so convincing that I felt a true sense of change during the few moments when, for just a few seconds, her eyes would soften and suggest that she's not just a mercenary to the bone.

Lily begins coolly working her way up the ladder. She'll soon be trading in that polka-dotted secretary garb for furs...

Another intriguing thing is the story itself. On the surface, it may seem to be merely seedy, but there a fair bit of thought put into it. In the beginning, as Lily is working in her scumbag father's speakeasy, an older, uptight German patron tries to convince Lily to read the works of Nietzsche and empower herself. Keep in mind that this was 1933, not long before Hitler used some of Nietzche's ideas to promote his notions of racial superiority and the "Ubermensch". In Baby Face, such philosophy is suggested as a tool for the empowerment of women. Once Lily adopts this strategy and executes it effectively, the only question that remains is: will she get what she wants and crush all the men in her path; will she herself go down in flames; or will she find her heart again. In the end, just when it seems not to be, she does find that she has a heart. This is quite touching and plausible, oddly enough. Right up to the end, Lily has shown herself a master of manipulating men, and has all but banished sentimentality to do it. And yet, her character and Stanwyck's performance are such that you can sense a true caring somewhere deep inside of her.

Another quick note about the story is the pacing. As you can see from the long summary, a lot happens, and this film is only 75 minutes long!! And yet, it doesn't ever feel rushed. Thanks to good scripting, directing and editing, it flows very smoothly, with not a scene wasted.

The overall acting is solid, even by most of the supporting cast. At this point in film history, I'm starting to notice a gradual but steady evolution of both scripting and screen acting. Sure, the dialogue is still a wee bit forced and the lines are delivered in an unnatural, staccato way in many cases, but not quite as much as I noticed in King Kong and other, later films that I've seen. The actors seem more at ease from head to toe, and don't overdo too many of their gestures. Stanwyck was the standout in this. Up to this point, she's the most relaxed actor I've seen, both with her lines and with her general postures.

I suppose the only minor gripe I have is that the ending, while not bad, felt a touch sugary. It seems odd to say, since it involves an attempted suicide, but it seemed to let off of the gas just a bit. I'm quite alright with Lily rediscovering her heart, but my eyebrows raised just a bit upon discovering that Trenholm will recover. As with the end of City Lights, I feel like a more powerful ending was abandoned. If the film had ended with Trenholm, Lily's new-found love, dying, I think it would have had more impact.

This is where the film shied away a bit, so as not to upset too many viewers. Personally, I think having Trenholm succeed in killing himself would have been far more impacting. 

Amazing how an extra 51 seconds can completely alter a story. Alas, it's a much happier ending for all.

If you like older movies that touch on darker subjects, or even like film noir flicks like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or Sunset Boulevard, I'm pretty sure you'll love this one.

Take 2. Or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (Done after some research on the film):

Well, well, well. I guess I wasn't the only one who didn't like the slightly more upbeat ending. Apparently, the original writer and director didn't like it either. The production studio, Warner Brothers, forced them into it, not wanting alienate too many viewers with such a downer ending as Courtland Trenholm killing himself, leaving Lily Powers only her money and the crushing guilt of having destroyed the one man that she loved. As I suggested, a missed opportunity.

I guess the critic at TIME Magazine wasn't too crazy about the film as whole. Here's their write-up.

Another interesting note is that this film was part of the "pre-Code" Hollywood, a roughly six-year period when studios released a number of films that dealt with seamier topics. This was all in order to attract any Depression-era dollars that they could. Hence Barbara Stanwyck's sexual predator character. At this point, in 1933, Hollywood had only about one more year before the real crack-down began, and we could no longer see women in their "undergarments," interracial relationships, open references to drug use, or any other sorts of fun stuff.

That's a wrap. 9 shows down. 96 to go.

Coming Soon: It's A Gift (1934):

I can't wait to watch this one. I love W.C. Fields, even though I've only seen a handful of his short and full-length movies. We'll see what kind of antics he gets up to in this one.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.