Baby Face (1933) - full review!
Barbara Stanwyck is perfectly cast in the title role of this sexy drama that was recently restored to its scandalous pre-code origins. Alfred Green directed the Darryl F. Zanuck (aka Mark Canfield) story; Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola wrote the screenplay. It's the story of a woman who grew up in a horrible environment that made her a tramp. But she receives some advice from a local (factory town, Erie) immigrant, who inspires her with readings from Nietzsche - to use what she's got (desirable physical assets and sex) to get what she wants. Freed from her father's suffocating environment (per his death), she goes to Gotham (New York) where she literally sleeps her way to the top, floor by floor, of a prestigious bank. Throughout the film (which was added to the National Film Registry in 2005), the mood is perfectly set by the songs "Baby Face", usually spinning on a record player, and W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues", sung a capella by Theresa Harris, who plays Stanwyck's speakeasy co-worker come traveling partner and future maid, on several occasions in the background.
Robert Barrat is a speakeasy owner that uses his baby-faced daughter Lily Powers (Stanwyck) to help sell liquor and more; in fact, she's become a tramp, 'forced' to trade favors in exchange for his business's license and protection from the time she was fourteen years old. The one bright light in Lily's day, filled with shirtless factory laborers like Stolvich (Nat Pendleton, uncredited), is an occasional visit from an older, more respectable immigrant named Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier). He gives her advice and books like Will to Power from German philosopher Nietzsche, encouraging to use her allure and power over men who desire her to get what she wants. Shortly thereafter, she refuses a sleazy local politician (Arthur Hohl) her body and her father is killed in an explosion, which frees her and Chico (Harris) to start anew. In a restored scene, Lily tries her "power" with a railroad signal man so that she and Chico can ride by train boxcar to the big city.
Once in Gotham, Lily observes food, clothes, and real wealth for the first time. When she sees a tall skyscraper, she remarks to Chico that "there must be a lot of dough in a place like that", and smiling at a policeman gets her in the door to the personnel department, where she uses her newfound power to get a job. She proceeds to use the power again and again, moving up from clerical workers (John Wayne) to managers (Douglas Dumbrille) to young executives like Ned Stephens (Donald Cook). She causes heartache to those that she dumps along the way, and almost ruins Ned's engagement to his boss's daughter Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay); Henry Kolker plays bank vice president J.P. Carter. However, she manage to finagle becoming Carter's kept woman. He sets her up in a nice town-home with a butler; Chico is her maid. But Ned is obsessed with her. He discovers her set-up and kills Carter, then himself (a murder-suicide). The scandal causes the bank to bring in a new man, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). He sizes up Lily who's threatening to give her memoirs to a newspaper for $10,000 unless they pay her $15,000. Though the other board executives were willing to give in, Courtland correctly assumes that Lily's not the demure "this was my first time ever" gal she's pretending to be. He says that giving her a job in their Paris office would satisfy her requirements to go away quietly and anonymously without the large cash settlement.
When Courtland visits the Paris office, he's surprised that Lily has kept to herself and not repeated her scandalous behavior there too. She says that she's done it to prove him wrong about her. Of course, it's just a clever ruse because soon Lily has Courtland eating out of her hand - she gets him to marry her! This last scandal is just too much for the bank, which is about to be forced to close. Courtland is indicted. Lily is admiring her accumulated jewels, furs, and half a million dollars cash, boasting that she can get the other half, when a dejected Courtland comes home begging for her (financial) help to hire lawyers for a court fight. She refuses saying she'll never go back to what she was, without her booty nothing would have been worth what she went through, etc.. She tells Chico that they're going on a cruise. Once onboard ship, however, Lily has a change of heart, decides that she really does love Courtland, and rushes back to the bank building to tell him. She finds him in his office shortly after he'd shot himself, an attempted suicide. The film closes with Lily in the ambulance clutching a recovering Courtland eyeing her case full of jewels, telling the attendant that they don't matter anymore before she kisses her husband, grateful he's going to live.