Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Demand: Barbara Stanwyck in "Baby Face"

The Bible has 10 commandments. The Motion Picture Production Code enacted in 1934 had 37 more, most designed to curb Mae West's lip-smacking double-entendres and Barbara Stanwyck's sashaying salaciousness.

On Demand: Barbara Stanwyck in "Baby Face"

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily (right) and Theresa Harris as her friend Chico in the astonishing Pre-Code classic "Baby Face."
Barbara Stanwyck as Lily (right) and Theresa Harris as her friend Chico in the astonishing Pre-Code classic "Baby Face."

The Bible has 10 commandments. The Motion Picture Production Code enacted in 1934 had 37 more, most designed to curb Mae West's lip-smacking double-entendres and Barbara Stanwyck's sashaying salaciousness.

Like most movie geeks, I love pre-Code films . The fully-clothed Stanwyck suggests a steamier sexuality crossing her arms than does the skimpily-clad Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs. Thus I was thrilled to find Baby Face (1933), one of the key films in Stanwyck's brilliant career, in the alpha listing of my cable On-Demand menu. Contemporary actresses notable for their obvious effects could learn a lot from Stanwyck, chief among them restraint and complexity. She was a master in the art of saying one thing with her appraising eyes, another thing with that supple torso and yet another with her sharp tongue. Her Baby Face performance is an early version of the hard-boiled dame she memorably played in Double Indemnity (1945).

At a fighting-trim 75 minutes, Baby Face is the one about Lily, the tramp from Erie, Pennsylvania pimped out by her father since she was 14. (Dad: "You can't talk to me like that, I'm your father." Daughter: "Yeah? Well that's just my tough luck!) In a subplot trimmed from the prints available during repertory-theater days and restored to the print available On-Demand, what prompts Lily  to move from  Erie to Manhattan is the philosophy of Nietzsche (she uses Will to Power as her guidebook). Determined to use men instead of being used by them, she works her way up the power chain at a New York bank -- from deposits on the first floor to the president's penthouse -- through her serial conquests of her male employers, including the baby-faced John Wayne. Baby Face's horizontal rise to power is suggested by a vertical pan up the bank skyscraper.

In its time, Baby Face was so controversial that it forced producer Daryl F. Zanuck's exit from Warner Brothers. Today, it's a master class in acting, a snappy textbook of visual storytelling (from director Alfred E. Green) and an even snappier compendium of hard-boiled dialogue. Says Lily, cradling stock certificates and jewels like a baby, "I've got half a million dollars. Someday I'll have the other half that goes with it."

Much as I love Baby Face, it's not my favorite Stanwyck. For melodrama, I love her in Stella Dallas (1936). For comedy, I think Ball of Fire (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941) are sidesplitting. For drama, there are few movies better than Double Indemnity and Clash by Night (1952). Unclassifiable are her roles as an Aimee Semple McPherson-style evangelist in Frank Capra's Miracle Woman (1931) and  Elvis Presley's carny boss in Roustabout (1964), which  showcase her range and durability. Your favorite Stanwycks?

 

Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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