Sunday, February 18, 2007

Baby Face

Thanks to Netflix and the Turner Classic Movies Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1, we just saw the pre-release, no-holds barred version of Baby Face (1933), with the terrific Barbara Stanwyck as a woman on the make, armed only with her body and a secondhand volume of Nietzsche.

The first half is astonishing, a revelation, basically a series of sex scenes with ever-higher-status men, placed floor by floor up a phallic Art Deco skyscraper. The least interesting of Stanwyck's conquests is played by the 26-year-old John Wayne, then only beginning to make a name for himself in low-budget Westerns. Stanwyck herself was the same age as Wayne, but in their brief scenes together, you sure couldn't tell!

Stanwyck has one quickie in a boxcar, another in a ladies' room. She denounces her brutish (and possibly incestuous) dad for pimping her out from the time she was 14. Upon discovering the bodies of two of the men she's destroyed, Stanwyck's look of satisfied appraisal, on which the camera lingers, is colder even than anything she gave Billy Wilder's camera in Double Indemnity, 11 years later.

The second half of the movie, alas, is downright dull, as Stanwyck's character has an inexplicable change of heart thanks to the never-very-interesting George Brent, the 1926 hit "Baby Face" is played about six times too many (minus the Al Jolson vocals), and a sorta-conventional "happy ending" is trundled in like creaking scenery. But that first half, everything pre-Paris, is something! I was reminded of Nicole Kidman's character in To Die For, or Myrna Loy as the daughter of Fu Manchu.

Alfred E. Green directed Baby Face, but I suspect what credit doesn't go to Stanwyck goes to Kathryn Scola, who co-wrote the screenplay. She specialized, for a time, in tough and sometimes scandalous dames; her other early-1930s credits include The Lady Who Dared, Wicked, Midnight Mary, Lilly Turner, Female and Night After Night -- which was Mae West's movie debut, in a supporting role.

I thought of Baby Face this morning, when I read in Ellen Goodman's column that Anna Nicole Smith "made a name for herself the old-fashioned way, using the only thing she had." Smith was one down on Stanwyck's character; she didn't even have Nietzsche.

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