Monday, January 02, 2006

100 Films: Baby Face

I can't help feeling a certain kinship with Baby Face's [1] Courtland Trenholm, a polo-playing old money playboy turned bank president, who (albeit after a scandalous marriage, an indictment for some shady bank business, and a botched suicide attempt) moves to Pittsburgh with his formerly Nietzschean Überwench bride to "work out their love together" and work in a steel mill [2]. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, it is a surprisingly entertaining movie for one organized around a cliché: the main character Lily literally sleeps her way to the top of a multinational bank, with the sort of cinematic economy only found in old movies, floor by floor. The coldness and straightforwardness of her rise is more shocking than her means, and I doubt a mainstream movie like this would be made today (even in 1933, the censors apparently objected to Lily's power more than the sex).

With such a simple plot the film is kept to a short 75 minutes and that is enough: Stanwyck's clever delivery and disinterested acceptance of the ruin she causes to others provide most of the entertainment, while most of the other characters are stereotypes with at most one dimension. The "lesson" we are given at the end, we accept only because it seems to be the only satisfactory ending ready to hand, although it is not particularly believable.

It is useful to compare Baby Face to The Lady Eve, a far superior film also staring Stanwyck in a very similar role [3]. In The Lady Eve, the plot has more depth and richness, the message is more complex, and the characters are more nuanced. Baby Face might be seen as a sketch and precursor to Eve which would be made 8 years later. It is also helpful to notice that Eve did not need to censored, yet it dealt with similar subject matter in a more mature [4] way.

So it goes. Watch it, if you watch it, for Barbara Stanwyck.

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[1] More from Lucas and IMDB... The name of the movie is the name of her nickname which was given to her, Lucas tells me, by John Wayne.

[2] Although some of these details we only learn in the ridiculous censored version of the film.

[3] The movie, incidentally, is also on our 100 Films list.

[4] And I mean a more traditional use of the word "mature" than the one given by contemporary ratings boards.

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