Plot: Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a waitress at her father’s speakeasy, but she also works for him in other ways and has since she was fourteen. He offers her to his patrons as a special service, which has taken an immense toll on her and as an adult, she struggles to find her place in the world. She is tired of being used and abused by men, but with no money or resources, she feels trapped in her current lot. But she has a friend who sees her for what she is, a strong and intelligent woman and encourages her to use her allure for her benefit. If she takes the power and uses the men, instead of the other way around, she could climb to the top of the mountain. So she heads to New York for a fresh start and a new attitude, but will she be able to use her charm and seduction skills to find the lifestyle she has dreamed of?
Entertainment Value: If you’re curious about pre-code Hollywood, Baby Face is an ideal place to start and to me, is one of the best examples of what pre-code cinema is about and has to offer. The narrative is likely to divide audiences even decades later, as Lily is driven by selfish reasons and leaves a lot of wreckage behind her, but to me, she is more than justified in what she does. She endured the abuse of men, including her own father since she was a young girl, so to see her take back her power is liberating and the men she uses are all to willing to be used. This movie is about Lily’s use of sex and allure to get what she wants, but the men line up to tear down their marriages, businesses, and personal lives, so they’re not sympathetic characters, at least to me. The story is always interesting and the pace is brisk, so even if you’re not usually into older movies, this one will hold your interest. Barbara Stanwyck is fantastic in the lead and just goes for broke in the role, embracing the character and making the most of the material. She truly shines here and commands the screen, this is the kind of screen presence you rarely find, truly remarkable work. The rest of the cast is fine as well, but Stanwyck owns this one and outshines even the best of her costars. Baby Face is a bold, dynamic movie that lets Stanwyck showcase her talents and tells a memorable narrative, all with no punches pulled.
No nakedness. The movie is candid and blunt about sexual elements however, in ways that pushed censors to excise several minutes of footage before release. But you can see the original, pre-release version thanks to a Library of Congress restoration and soak in Baby Face as it was meant to be seen. The controversies center on Lily’s open and frequent use of sex to further herself, whether she sleeps with a man to advance her career or just to get a free ride on a wagon. Even decades later, we rarely see women shown as this sexually free and while Lily faces some tough moments, the movie never judges her harshly for her choices. No blood. But there is another controversial element in this area, as a suicide is involved and while this was changed for some releases, it remains intact in others. The dialogue is dark at times and quite at other times, with Lily getting most of the best lines. She has a sharp tongue and doesn’t hesitate to use it, which leads to some memorable exchanges. I also think the men falling all over themselves to win Lily’s affections can be humorous at times, so there’s some fun stuff even beyond Lily’s banter. I can’t forget the philosophy rants that inspire Lily, as those are wild as well. The movie’s bold approach to Lily’s persona and sexuality earn a couple points, but this still feels grounded and not super over the top.
Overall Insanity: 2/10