Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) lives in a dead-end part of a small American city and is resigned to having no prospects as the Depression continues to bite. She stays with her father, who makes his money from a speakeasy he runs from his own home, with Lily as stand-in barmaid, all very illegal but the local politician turns a blind eye as long as he gets his share, but she is growing tired of either being taken for granted or treated as a sex object by the rough and ready patrons. Her best friend, indeed her only friend, is Chico (Theresa Harris), her father's housemaid, but they have an understanding to look out for one another so that her father will never fire Chico as long as she is around. Yet the final straw arrives when that politician attempts to rape her...
Baby Face was perhaps the most notorious of the Pre-Code movies, that was the films released by Hollywood from the early talkies era, the period from the late nineteen-twenties to around 1934 when the Production Code of censorship ensured that everyone was behaving properly, or if they were not then at least they would be a lot more guarded in the depiction of that activity. But in '33, just as the Code was being drawn up thanks to the new permissiveness an audience battered by financial woes seemed to be demanding, this film was regarded as one of the final straws as even in the version that saw the inside of theatres there had been cuts and replaced scenes: incredibly, it was 2004 until the original incarnation was seen after the initial previews over seventy years before.
Was it worth the wait? Even in its bowdlerized version, it still depicted a go-getting young woman who was prepared to sleep her way to the top, only you had the impression nobody was doing much sleeping when they were alone with Lily. Interestingly, she drew her inspiration from reading Will to Power by the celebrated psychologist and philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, recommended to her by an old professor type (Alphonse Ethier) who had evidently fallen on hard times, yet saw her as a project to build up her influence and potential success in a man's world by using what assets she had, namely her sexuality. No sooner have Lily and Chico climbed aboard a freight train to New York City than Lily is bedding the guard to ensure a smooth journey.
Chico was an especially interesting character, and has brought new fans to Baby Face for decades; played by the undeniably beautiful Harris, she was not your usual maid in this era's movies, she was on equal terms with her gal pal and instead of her ending up giving up her body for Lily's gain, Lily does so to help them both. Harris got to sing a little too, a blues tune that hinted at her talents too little used by Hollywood, but those were the times and the lucrative Southern market must have bristled at her prominent role, which explains why the scene-stealing actress rarely had the chance to share the limelight many times after this. All that said, it was Stanwyck who was awarded the showcase for her abilities, and few could essay the hardboiled dame with the same allure she was capable of.
Her Lily seeks out the biggest bank building in The Big Apple and applies for work there, that was, shags the assistant to the man who accepts the newcomers to the organisation, and once she has her foot in the door she begins her rise up the floors (depicted literally) as she moves from mail room employee to secretary to personal assistant, discarding men like so many used tissues, among them a young John Wayne who is crestfallen at the knock back he gets from her. But her ruthlessness grows worse as she demonstrates the lengths a woman would have to go to in order to get anywhere in business: she's like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, only without the comedy, and precious little romance either until, one murder-suicide later which conveniently gets two suitors out of the way, she has a chance with George Brent, staid as ever as the man at the top. Here she either makes the mistake of getting emotionally involved, or thaws her principles and proves she is human after all, though the reshot ending offered her a life of contrition, and the original is more forgiving. No matter, Stanwyck had already shown herself as a force to be reckoned with and never looked back.