Even today Babyface is still a fairly racy film and I imagine that most modern viewers would be shocked at some of the content. To me, this may be the quintessential pre-code movie. The plot revolves around a young woman named Lily (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who works at her father’s speakeasy. There are no pretensions to happiness or affection in her life. Her father leaves her alone with a politically connected man who wants to take advantage of her (her father does this knowing what will happen and it is implied that it isn’t the first time he has done so). She rebuffs his advances and, because of the man’s connections to city hall, damages her father’s business (you can see this scene in the photo above. She’s threatening to hit him with a bottle). Her father dies soon after and she decides to move on to another city.
Lily begins work at a bank and uses sex to move her way up the corporate ladder. She finds a man to take care of her until she can find someone with more wealth and position, leaving a trail of broken men in her wake. Of course (since this is Hollywood we’re dealing with) she meets a man with good character and falls for him. The ultimate fate of this relationship at end of the movie points out the greatness of the script and Stanwyck’s portrayal. She must choose between her money and the man who loves her. She initially chooses the money but eventually reconsiders. I would not have been surprised if she did not reconsider at all and simply moved on to another man. This is the great strength of the movie, it does things so outside of our expectations that any ending that the screenwriters came up with would not have surprised me.
Stanwyck is brilliant as the unscrupulous and world-weary Lily. Changing from a frowning woman who is fed up with life to whatever mood her current beau requires quickly and seamlessly. The supporting cast is also quite good and features many character actors that appear in other great movies from the era.
Lily’s relationship with her compatriot Chico is interesting for a film from this time period. Chico was an employee at her father’s speakeasy. Lily cares for almost no one in the film except Chico, who is African-American. They have, especially for the era, a surprisingly equal relationship (although it is clear that Lily is calling the shots) until Lily becomes wealthy. When they were both poor, Lily cared for her and treated her as a friend. When Lily becomes rich, she hires Chico and treats her more like a maid. It is an interesting look at race and class relations during the depression.
All in all, Babyface, is a great watch and definitely worth checking out. Make sure that you get a fairly recent version (I watched the version from the TCM Forbidden Hollywood collection) because, as you can imagine, certain prints were heavily censored for release and you may not be getting the whole film.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1933 worth seeing):
Some critics believe that Duck Soup is the greatest Marx Brothers movie and it is a ton of fun. It might be little too anarchical if you are not used to the brothers sense of humor, so I usually recommend starting with another film if you aren’t sold on them, but Duck Soup is an awesome film.
The Island of Lost Souls is a movie adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. It is a well-acted and interesting movie about the nature of humanity. The Invisible Man was the first American movie appearance of Claude Rains. Directed by James Whale, it is a meditation on the corrupting influence of power and the dangers of human experimentation.
Queen Christina is a period piece that is good for all you Garbo fans out there. I find her fascinating onscreen, but cannot really tell you why. King Kong is a genuine classic that everyone should see. I don’t think that I need to write too much about it. Fay Wray, the female lead of King Kong and the lead of last year’s entry, Dr. X, is joined by her Dr. X co-star, Lionel Atwill in The Vampire Bat. It’s a fun horror film that features one of my favorite character actors of all time, Dwight Frye.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film collaboration between husband and wife team Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou. Lang left Germany with Hitler’s rise to power and his wife joined the Nazi Party. The movie was banned by the Nazis and was not shown in Germany (anything the Nazis banned is worth a look, in my opinion).
Did you know? (1933 Trivial knowledge)
“You don’t know your out until they stop counting. Wake up kid, Baby Face is moving outta your class.” One of Babyface’s co-workers to one of her former suitors.