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February 1-7, 2006

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Baby Face

Bad Girl

In 1933, Barbara Stanwyck starred in 'Baby Face,' what was to be the last seriously adult Hollywood movie for 35 years

By Richard von Busack

EVERY YEAR, new research and new biographies come out disproving the certainties that film fans once relied upon. When Gary Wills examined John Wayne, for example, it turned out that the Duke hated horses and dodged the draft.

Still, there's one rule that's unshakable. Other actresses were more iconic, others were more famous, but no studio-era actress was as completely versatile as Barbara Stanwyck.

She starred in the most indispensable of all film noirs, Double Indemnity, as well as the most irreplaceable of romantic comedies, The Lady Eve. She was a self-created woman: a Brooklyn orphan called Ruby Stevens who assumed a great lady's name and who became a great lady.

And the 1933 movie Baby Face shows the will-power with which she took control of her life. The recently rediscovered uncensored version of Baby Face brings back scenes that are loaded, even by the loose standards of the pre-Code era. "Blue and nothing else!" Variety said of the film. But it is something else.

In Erie, PA., Lily Powers (Stanwyck) has a status just above the bar rag in her father's speakeasy. Her father tries to whore her out for protection to a local politician, but she clubs with a beer bottle after he tries to cop a feel. Then the liquor still explodes, taking the father with it.

Lily and her female traveling companion Chico (the amazing Theresa Harris) head to New York. In a newly discovered scene, Lily leases her body for the train fare, as an amused Chico sings "St. Louis Blues" to encourage the trick.

Once in Manhattan, Lily makes it to the top, encouraged by liberal quotes from Nietzsche—"The greatest philosopher of all time!" Lily trapezes her way up by using the execs. One of her saps follows her into the women's restroom for a tryst. Indeed, Lily almost breaks the Gotham Trust Company with the power of sex.

The essence of Stanwyck's appeal is all here: the hard shell and the soft center; the self-amusement of letting her roots show a little, or of watching her male prey struggle a bit. Though glamorized by James Van Trees's art-deco photography, Stanwyck has the appeal of commonness. Yet she's never an infantile floozy.

Baby Face gives a woman's view of male respectability. Censors correctly understood they were dealing with something subversive. They forced a grafted-on ending in which Lily returns to work off her sins back in Erie.

Now free of that preaching ending, Stanwyck is a variety of women: the nail-tough gamine, the fur-wrapped penthouse dweller, the unrepentant hustler and the sorrowing lover whose heart overrules her head.

In Baby Face, Stanwyck has the DNA of all Hollywood movie heroines, and she keeps the shifts in mood intact through force of silky personality, and her rock-hard sense of humor.

Baby Face is double-billed with 1931's Night Nurse. Here, Stanwyck puts Clark Gable in his place, in the same way she makes short work of John Wayne in Baby Face.

Also included is a hallucinatory short directed by Three Stooges auteur Jules White. "The School for Romance" (1934) has the vaudeville phenomenon Lou Holtz playing the French accented "Count Romansky" teaching the ladies (and one guy!) how to kiss, as Betty Grable looks on from the chorus line. Shorts like this are what brought out the reformers, and barred the American cinema from the realms Stanwyck fearlessly trod.

Movie Times Baby Face and Night Nurse plays Feb 3-9 in San Francisco at the Balboa Theater.

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