“What chance does a woman got?”
For the third consecutive year Barbara Stanwyck acted brilliantly, as Florence Fallon, the Aimee Semple McPherson-character, in Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931), Selina Peake in Wellman’s So Big (1932) and, here, Lily Powers in Baby Face, which made Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 greatest movies ever made. (Stanwyck was also named one of the four greatest film actors.) Lily, a quintessential role for Stanwyck, is tough when vulnerable and vulnerable when tough.
Alfred E. Green launches the film magnificently: a long-shot of a smoke-heaving industrial town; a closer long-shot of the same; in a yet closer shot, a tenement street—an increasingly claustrophobic homing-in finally admitting humans into the frame as factory workers after the last whistle head for and pour into Nick Powers’ dingy speakeasy. At home, which is above the establishment, Lily is Nick’s much-fucked daughter, the result of her father’s having used her to grease patrons’ return visits. (There’s a glimmer, too, of a more agreeable lesbian relationship between Lily and black maidservant Chico, beautifully played by Theresa Harris.) As a result, Lily has grown increasingly disdainful of men. Her first name suggests the innocence that has been soiled; her surname signals her ambition in New York following her father’s death.
The Gotham Trust Company, which occupies a building that rises to heaven, becomes Lily’s mark; she sleeps her way up from personnel, to filing, to the mortgage department, and so on. (This means giving up John Wayne for Douglass Dumbrille!) Each time Lily gets a higher lay the camera withdraws and, to honky-tonk accompaniment (signifying payback for the old times), scales the building to her new level. Eventually, Lily’s quest for money yields to love, chided in part by Chico’s alternative route.