To say that Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) had a lousy upbringing is a huge understatement. Her mother died when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by her father Nick, the owner of a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. He makes her work in the speakeasy and has even been pimping her out to his customers since she was fourteen years old. She does have two friends in Chico (Theresa Harris), her co-worker, and Adolf, a cobbler who is a big fan of Nietzsche. Lily has had just about enough of her life and is ready to leave, but just as she gets into a huge fight with her father about it, a still explodes and he’s killed in the fire. Not knowing where else to turn, she turns to Adolf, who advises her to go to a big city and use men to get whatever she wants. So she and Chico sneak onto the next train, where Lily seduces a worker on the train so he won’t throw them off the train.
When they arrive in New York City, Lily sets her heart on getting a job at the Gotham Trust. She’s never worked in an office before, but once again, she seduces her way into the job. She continues to use men left and right to move up within the company. Even a young John Wayne is no match for Barbara Stanwyck’s wiles. She works her way up to executive Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). Ned’s happily engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), but Lily likes the challenge. She even specifically arranges it so that Ann will find her together with Ned! Ann tries to get her father J.R. Carter, the vice president of the company, to make Lily back off, but Lily wins him over in her usual style. Not only does Lily get herself a new boyfriend, he gets her a stylish new apartment and a job for Chico as her maid. What Lily doesn’t count on is Ned flying into a jealous rage and shooting J.R. before shooting himself.
The only man who seems able to resist Lily is Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). After he’s elected president of the company, Lily’s first order of business is to try to get $15,000 from the company to stop her from handing over her personal diary to the press. Instead, Courtland gives her a job in their Paris office to get her out of the way. Lily accepts, and in Paris, she works her way up to being the head of the travel bureau. When Courtland stops by the Paris office, he’s quite surprised to see that she wasn’t just another gold digger and finally succumbs to Lily’s charms. Like J.R. before him, Courtland buys Lily lots of expensive gifts. Unfortunately, Courtland finds himself in hot water after the bank fails. He turns to Lily and asks her to sell her expensive jewelery so he can afford to defend himself, but she refuses. Rather than face ruin, he shoots himself. But Lily realizes that no amount of money can buy true love and changes her mind. She finds Courtland in time and she’s able to save his life.
You didn’t think I was going to spend thirty days talking about pre-codes and not mention Baby Face, did you? There were some pretty scandalous movies made in the pre-code era, but I think Baby Face is most definitely the most sordid of all the pre-codes. There is absolutely nothing even remotely safe about Baby Face. It takes elements that would be controversial enough on their own, but then adds a twist to them that makes them even more shocking. Not only was Lily a prostitute, she was pimped out at a very young age by her own father. And not only does she use men to get ahead in life, she’s actually encouraged to do so and she doesn’t blink an eye at her own behavior. Baby Face is Barbara Stanwyck at her toughest and she is amazing to watch. If you’ve never seen this movie before, just watch this clip:
It’s always great to watch Barbara Stanwyck telling somebody off and the scene where Lily yells at her father is my favorite instance of that. And I love her tough girl attitude in that scene. Who else could break a bottle over a man’s head and go back to her drink like it was nothing more than hitting a fly with a flyswatter? This is one of those movies that truly must be seen to be believed.