From the time she was just 14 years old, Lil Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) was pimped out by her father to the customers of the sleazy speakeasy he runs. She hates the dingy, disgusting world she’s stuck in and her only two friends are her co-worker Chico (Theresa Harris) and the local cobbler. When her father is suddenly killed in an accident, the cobbler encourages her to go out and make a better life for herself by exploiting men.
Lil takes the suggestion and she and Chico hop on the next train out of town, with Lil seducing any man she needs to get her way. They make their way to New York City and Lil decides she wants to work at Gotham Trust and sleeps her way into getting a job, then continues seducing other men to work her way up in the company. It isn’t long before she’s living in a swanky apartment with Chico working as her maid.
After he many affairs ends up causing a big scandal for the company, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) takes over as president. At first it seems Courtland is one of the few men who can resist Lil’s charms, but he eventually succumbs. He may have changed his tune about Lil, but has her relationship with Courtland made Lil a changed woman?
I have a hard time resisting any movie that involves Barbara Stanwyck being a total tough woman and not taking anything from anyone and Baby Face is one of her best movies in that respect. The whole beginning where she’s stuck in that dingy speakeasy, breaking glasses over people’s heads or pouring hot coffee on men who try to manhandle her, yelling at her good-for-nothing father, talking smack about the guys in the joint to Chico, it’s all just spectacular.
As much as I adore Stanwyck in it, I love everything else about Baby Face just as much — the writing, the direction, the costume design, the music. I have a particular fondness for the music. A really gritty version of the song “St. Louis Blues” plays throughout the movie, and whenever I hear that song, it makes me think of Baby Face. I also really love how Lil’s promotions at work are represented by exterior shots of the building, with the camera moving up one floor each time she moves up in the company.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moment
The entire movie, really. But I love the part when Lil goes to apply for a job at Gotham Trust and this exchange happens:
Guy: Have you got any experience?
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
I don’t think anyone will argue that Baby Face is the reigning champion of pre-code content. Baby Face was Warner Brother’s response to MGM’s Red-Headed Woman, and they certainly managed to one-up MGM. A movie about a woman who is pimped out by her own father, then actively encouraged to make her way in life by seducing men was simply completely unacceptable to censors. To get it approved, the cobbler’s speech about how Lil should exploit men had to be changed to a speech about being strong and in control, but specifically warning against going about it the wrong way. Between that and some of the suggestiveness being toned down, a watered-down version of Baby Face made its way to theaters, but still managed to cause a ruckus in many cities. The uncensored version went unseen until it was discovered in a Library of Congress film vault in 2004. The uncensored version and the censored theatrical version are included as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1” DVD set and the uncensored version is frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies.