This month for my spotlight, I’d like to talk about Barbara Stanwyck. She was one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood history. Yet I still don’t think she gotten the credit she deserves for her acting chops. Whether she’s doing screwball comedy such as The Lady Eve, strutting her stuff as the queen of film noir in Double Indemnity, or showing her skills on television (she was on the classic western The Big Valley), Stanwyck was the type of talent that came along once in a lifetime. To start things off, I’d like to discuss the pre-code film of pre-code films: Baby Face. It was racy in 1933 and it’s still pretty racy in 2016. Stanwyck’s performance is part of the reason the film left quite an impression on audiences.
Baby Face tackles really hot-button issues like prostitution. The main character is pimped out by her father at a young age and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Here’s a more detailed plot description so you know what you’re getting into:
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has led a difficult life working in her loutish father’s speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania, he who coerced her into prostitution since she was 14. When she is given a chance to start a new life, she is advised by Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), her friend and a follower of the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche, to use her power over men to get want she wants. Moving to New York City with her friend and conspirator Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily does exactly that. She decides to sleep her way up the corporate ladder at Gotham Trust, using men the way they have used her in the past. In her quest, she not only uses those men, but ruins them in the process. Her main goal is to find the man who can best afford to provide her a carefree lifestyle. Things for Lily and for Gotham Trust itself change when the bank’s board appoints a new company president, playboy Courtland Trenholm.–IMDB
The pre-code era produced some really daring films. This was the time when prohibition gangster films like Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Public Enemy came out. Filmmakers were pushing the envelope when it came to violence and taboo topics. Prostitution had been dealt with before in film, but this was one of the first films to address it in such an open and adult way. It’s no surprise that it was banned in some US cities due to its controversial subject matter. In fact,it wasn’t until 2004 (70 years after it was made) that the original version was seen. It was screened at the London Film Festival after a “dupe negative” of the uncensored version was located at the Library of Congress.
But enough of the history lesson. While its place in film history is important to understand, Baby Face is also worth studying because it was a breakthrough role for Stanwyck. Her performance is so raw and real that you believe everything is happening to her. The anger and pain of her character comes through right from the word go. The early scene where she tells her father off for getting her into prostitution to begin with is just as powerful today as it was in 1933.
Nick Powers: You little tramp, you!
Lily Powers: Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what’s it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you’re lower than any of them. I’ll hate you as long as I live!
Baby Face goes right for the jugular with dialogue like that. Stanwyck in that scene shows raw emotion in a way not many actors can pull off without going over the top. She strikes just the right chord.When Lily Powers decides at the suggestion of her friend to use men the way they’ve used her, it really challenges the viewer to consider their beliefs about a subject rarely explored so openly in film history, especially at that time. It’s a wonder the film was even released in a censored version. The film’s power comes not just from its groundbreaking story line. The film comes alive because of its talented cast, led by Stanwyck. Stanwyck isn’t just able to portray rage, as in the early scene with her father. She projects female heat in a way that would serve her well in film noir (see: Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers just to name a few). It was a performance that turned heads and gave viewers a taste of what this talented actress was capable of.
It’s also worth noting that the rest of the cast is quite good, especially Theresa Harris as Lilly’s friend Chico. Harris and Stanwyck are an engaging screen team and make the sordid tale of Baby Face compelling from beginning to end. And it wouldn’t be right to not acknowledge director Alfred E. Greene as well as screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. All the talents working on this groundbreaking film deserve recognition. Baby Face was a great showcase for Barbara Stanwyck. It’s one of many reasons she’s one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen.