Thursday, November 21, 2013

Barbara Rises to the Top

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend part of a Barbara Stanwyck festival that was held at the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, MD. The festival was held to celebrate volume one of a new biography of the magnificent Ms. Stanwyck, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940  by Victoria Wilson.  As part of the series, I viewed three of the films.  Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some thoughts with you about these films (one of which was previously reviewed).

The first film was the infamous Baby Face (1933), starring Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers, a young woman from the absolutely wrong side of the tracks.  Lily lives with her father, a nasty, evil man who runs a speakeasy Erie, Pennsylvania.  It's clear that he has been prostituting his daughter, just as he did with his wife (before she left him and ultimately died).  Lily despises him, and, as a result of her experiences, has no use for, as she puts it, "Dirty rotten men!".  At the urging of the local cobbler (a fan of
Nietzsche), Lily packs up her meager belongings and heads for New York, to "use men, not let them use [her]."  And use men she does; from the minute she begins her trip, Lily is using her body to work her way to wealth and power.

Quite a bit has been written about this film.  Since the restored version was discovered by Library of Congress curator Michael Mashon, many authors have looked at the original version in contrast to the version that finally ended up in theaters.   Of particular interest are these, from and from Electric Sheep.  Obviously, many changes had to be made to make the film compliant with the newly enforced production code.  The result was a hodgepodge, with the film being neither the somewhat subversive, shocking film we can see today, nor the moral tale that Hays Office required.  Just a quick look at the  New York Times review from the period shows how the film suffered.  The reviewer said the film was about "an unsavory subject, with incidents set forth in an inexpert fashion."
The film is actually beautifully crafted.  One brief moment that, I felt, said so much about Lily was an early view of her leaning out the window of her Erie home, and trying to brush the soot off the flowers in her windox box.  It serves as a comment about the environment in which Lily has always lived, but also demonstrates her desire for beauty, as well as her stubbornness.  

The men in Lily's life are a real back of losers.  From the railway engineer who is her first conquest, to J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), men as shown as lascivious, vain, and quite stupid.  It's fun to see John Wayne in a very NON John Wayne role, the easily manipulated Jimmy McCoy.  You can't really imagine that they are totally unable to see that Lily is controlling them to her own aims.  Of course, they are so self-involved that it never strikes any of them as odd that a creature like Lily would want them.

One person who is wasted, however, is Margaret Lindsay as Ann Carter, the fiance of the somewhat insane Ned Stevens (Donald Cook).  Ann's whole part involves walking in on Lily and Ned, and then running out of the room in tears.  Cook gets more to do as Ned melts down when Lily dumps him.  Cook is such a low-key actor, it's hard to imagine his character being so volatile.  However, watch Stanwyck in that particular scene.  Her control is amazing.

George Brent, as Courtland Trenholm, is something different from the other men.  He does not immediately fall prey to Lily's charms; when they first meet, he is not willing to bow to her blackmail demands, and the look between them is one of mutual admiration.  When they encounter one another two years later, his admiration for her abilities turns to a love that is deeper and more meaningful than anything Lily has ever confronted.  Trenholm knows exactly who Lily is, yet he doesn't care.  He is willing to look beyond her past to what she might become. 

All through the movie, Lily has only one constant relationship, and that is with Chico (Theresa Harris), a young African-American woman who is an employee in the speakeasy.  Lily's loyalty to Chico (and Chico's to Lily) is unique in films of this era.  Chico is Lily's partner and confidant; she masquerades as Lily's maid, but we are always aware that the relationship is deeper.  To the very end, Chico is there; no man can come between them. 

If you've not seen Baby Face, treat yourself.  Here is a trailer: 

For another look at the film, take a look at this posting by Electric Sheep

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