Tag Archives: Margaret Lindsay

Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
Baby Face
Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
Annex - Wayne, John (Baby Face)_01
Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

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Noirvember II #3 – Scarlet Street (1945)

scarlet-street-movie-poster-1945-1020413479Scarlet Street (1945)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardiere (novel) and Andre Mouezy-Eon (play))
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Jess Barker

“Jeepers, I love you Johnny” – These five seemingly innocuous words have haunted me since my first viewing of Fritz Lang’s brilliant film noir Scarlet Street.  Coming just two years after the previously reviewed Hangmen Also Die!, Lang shows the world exactly why he is regarded as such an innovator of the genre.  Starring the prolific Edward G. Robinson as a down-on-his-luck sad sack who gets wrapped up in an apparent love triangle, Scarlet Street offers up the trademark psychological twists and turns of the film noir genre, while also serving as an intricate and complex character study.  Today, Lang’s film is hailed as one of the best films the genre has to offer, but it didn’t fare nearly as well during its initial release.  Despite being a monetary success at the box office by more than doubling its budget, some critics felt that it was cliched and unethical – definitely not the first time in the history of the medium that the consensus would vary so wildly all these years later.

Scarlet Street follows a hapless middle-aged store clerk and aspiring artist named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) as he very literally stumbles into an unrequited romance with a younger woman named Kitty (Joan Bennett).  Cross, unsatisfied with his loveless home life, is immediately smitten with the young Kitty, who sees an opportunity to easily swindle the gullible Chris.  Together with her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), the two plot to extort money from Chris, whom they foolishly believe to be a famous and well-regarded painter.  Johnny, being the bold and mischievous man he is, steals paintings from our sad sack protagonist in order to sell them to an art dealer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, Kitty is given artistic credit for the paintings after art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) expresses interest in them.  This triggers an unforgettable and unpredictable chain of events that will forever change the lives of Chris, Kitty, Johnny, and all those around them. In typical film noir fashion, nobody gets off easy.

Fritz Lang is a director I’ve been interested in for many years now.  I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his films, but the ones I have seen have largely been excellent.  In my opinion, Scarlet Street stands out among classics like Metropolis and M as one of his very best.  It’s an incredibly bleak, obsessive, soul-crushing affair, but that’s where most of its charm comes from. While the story may seem contrived to some viewers, it’s one of the more focused and organic film noir’s I’ve seen.  The screenplay by Academy Award winning writer Dudley Nichols (The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Bells of St. Mary’s) is razor sharp, pitch black in tone, and concise.  Nichols’ focused narrative, paired with Lang’s penchant for moody, dimly lit imagery and fluid camerawork, makes for one of the most satisfying film noir experiences in the history of the genre.  Edward G. Robinson steals the show as Christopher Cross – perfectly capturing the spirit of the truly sad and pathetic character. Married to a woman who still pines for her ex-husband, stuck in an unsatisfying career, and hopelessly lusting after a beautiful young woman, it’s at times difficult to sympathize with Robinson’s character.  He very rarely sticks up for himself, letting all those around him treat him like a human doormat or a sad punchline.  He’s not particularly good at anything he does, he’s not especially charming or handsome, and yet there’s something so refreshing about the character. Edward G. Robinson’s Chris is one of the most complex, layered, and ultimately tragic characters I’ve seen in the genre yet.  It’s a shame that Scarlet Street initially opened to such a lukewarm reaction, because otherwise I would have considered it a shoe-in for a host of prestigious Academy Award nominations.
edward-g-robinson-almas-perversas
What I Liked:

  • Edward G. Robinson delivers one of the most complex and powerful performances I’ve ever seen.
  • Joan Bennett’s Kitty is another standout performance, mostly in how she successfully manages to convince both Chris and the audience that her intentions aren’t cruel.  She’s the perfect femme fatale.
  • The repetition of specific sounds and phrases (the record player skipping, “Jeepers, I love you Johnny”) throughout the run-time creates a haunting and at times hallucinatory atmosphere.
  • The film’s ending is perfectly twisted and tragic – ensuring that no single character escaped the situation unscathed.
  • Dudley Nichols’ narrative felt very unique and important, despite being so small in scope.
  • Rosalind Ivan’s turn as Adele Cross, Chris’ unhappy and spiteful wife, was perfectly grating and easy to hate.

What I Didn’t:

  • The emergence of a subplot involving Adele Cross’ deceased ex-husband feels too convenient in the context of the film.  I don’t have a problem with the actual subplot – it’s just introduced far too late into the film.
  • Dan Duryea’s performance as Johnny is slightly too ham-fisted to be a believable mastermind of the plot.  He comes off as brutish and dopey – never clever enough to be perceived as an actual threat.

While perhaps not as important as some of his earliest masterworks, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is a brooding, haunting, hopelessly bleak near-masterpiece.  It features a remarkable performance by one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung stars, an excellent supporting cast, a sharp script by veteran writer Dudley Nichols, and excellent film noir imagery by one of the genre’s innovators.  It may be flawed, but it’s an unforgettable and thrilling experience that I can’t wait to revisit over and over and over again.  Much like Christopher Cross, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to purge the phrase “Jeepers, I love you Johnny” from my mind – but unlike him, I’m certainly not complaining.  Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street gets my highest recommendation.

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