US / 76 minutes (cut on initial release to 71 minutes) / bw / Warner Dir: Alfred E. Green Pr: William LeBaron, Raymond Griffith Scr: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola Story: Mark Canfield (Darryl F. Zanuck) Cine: James Van Trees Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Theresa Harris, Donald Cook, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay.
(The Encyclopedia does in fact have an entry on Baby Face but, as befits the movie’s protonoir status, that entry’s somewhat truncated.)
Nick Powers (Barrat) runs a speakeasy in which he essentially pimps his daughter Lily (Stanwyck). After he attempts to set her up with sleazy local hoodlum Ed Sipple (Hohl), Lily packs to leave, but before she can do so the boiler explodes, killing Nick. Encouraged by friendly old local cobbler Adolf Craag (Ethier) to seek her fortune in the big city, Lily and her father’s servant Chico (Harris) hop a freight train to New York City. There Lily seduces her way into a job in the Filing Dept. of the Gotham Trust Company. Well, if it worked once . . .
Thanks to supervisor Jimmy McCoy Jr. (a very young John Wayne), promotion ensues to the Mortgage Dept., where office manager Brody (Dumbrille) is next to topple. When they’re caught in flagrante by the boss of the Accounts Dept., Ned Stevens (Cook), it’s his turn: “Oh, I’m so ashamed,” says Lily, with the kind of innocence that can blister paint. “It’s the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.” Even though engaged to Ann Carter (Lindsay), daughter of one of the company’s directors, Ned sets Lily up in an apartment. The father himself, J.R. Carter (Kolker), is next on Lily’s list of conquests, and fixes her up in an even grander apartment. But then disaster strikes: mad with jealousy, Stevens shoots Carter dead and then himself.
Lily ducks out of the scandal, but is rusticated to the company’s Paris HQ until things cool down a bit. There she snares the company’s new president, Courtland Trenholm (Brent), and marries him, a union that brings her his fortune. When the company faces bankruptcy, Lily refuses to give him his money back to bail it out . . .
Baby Face was made just on the brink of the introduction of the Production Code, and by the time it was ready for release the Code was coming into effect. The movie’s theme was obviously scandalous in the new, prim context; perhaps every bit as scandalous was the fact that Lily’s one true friend throughout was the black woman Chico: the affection between the two is almost palpable when they’re on screen together (and at these times Harris at least matches Stanwyck and indeed comes close to stealing scenes from her—something few players could ever boast!). It’s clear that Lily regards Chico almost as a sister; this cannot have pleased the bigots of the time.
Whatever, the New York State Board of Censors rejected the movie unless a number of changes were made: the released movie was a full five minutes shorter than the full version. In 2004, however, an uncut copy was discovered, and so Baby Face was able to have its true premiere on January 24 2005, in New York.
Even the cut version has a quite astonishing amount of sexual charge. Stanwyck was not an especially beautiful woman, but here she succeeded in projecting such an aura of female sexuality that there seems nothing improbable at all in her being able to seduce any—and every—man she chooses; despite the monochrome, despite the passage of over seven decades, despite the fact that all undress and explicit impropriety are of course absent, there have been few sexier screen performances. No wonder the New York Censors were startled.