Saturday Editor’s Pick: Baby Face (1933) & Two Seconds (1932)

by on July 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

All-Day Double Feature playing Fri July 15 & Sat July 16 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

BABY FACE 1:30, 4:25, 7:20

TWO SECONDS 2:55, 5:50, 8:45

 

Pre-Code fever is upon us! This weekend Film Forum commences four weeks of “lecherous cads, compromised virgins, slick racketeers, bullet barons, liberated ladies, enterprising immigrants, unscrupulous reporters, adolescent vagrants, and hard-boiled yeggs.” Fifty films in recession-friendly double and triple features, including 12 preservations by the Library of Congress. Stay tuned for Brynn White’s continuing coverage here at Alt Screen.

 

Meanwhile there are series overviews by Vadim Rizov for L MagBruce Bennett for The Wall Street Journal, Leonard Maltin for Indiewire, and Jaime N. Christley for Slant.

 

J. Hoberman on the more notorious half of Film Forum’s double bill:

Warners’ ineffably tough Baby Face is a crude but powerful morality play in which Barbara Stanwyck splits her father’s Erie, Pennsylvania speakeasy, where she’s a waitress-hooker, for the wider opportunities of New York. Landing a job by granting the personnel clerk a lunchtime quickie, she systematically sleeps her way up the corporate ladder (one rung being a youthful John Wayne). More businesslike than Lulu or even the Blue Angel, Stanwyck needs a mere seventy minutes to conquer the bank’s huge phallic skyscraper, climbing from one floor to the next….When this force of nature finally marries the Chairman of the Board, the bank is shaken to its foundations; it nearly goes broke from the negative publicity. Code, shmode. This movie probably couldn’t be made today even as a comedy.

 

 

Imogen Smith for the Chiseler:

At the demand of censors, Baby Face was altered before its release—though trying to clean up this story is like trying to sweep up the sand on a beach. The original, uncensored version adds a few sordid moments, but more importantly strips away clumsily inserted moralizing to reveal pure, unrelenting disillusionment. Baby Face has all the kick, the shocking laughs, and the underlying bleakness that define pre-Code. Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lily Powers, who languishes in a dreary steel town where her father pimps her to his speakeasy customers, until she takes the Nietzschean advice of a German cobbler and decides to exploit the men who have exploited her.

 

Setting her sights on a skyscraper housing a bank, she proceeds to sleep her way up the ladder from lowly file department to lavish penthouse. Lily is scheming, avaricious, selfish and heartless, yet far from asking us to pass judgment on her or to sympathize with the men she uses—a parade of weak-willed saps with only one thing on their filthy minds—the film shamelessly celebrates her triumphs. A low-down, growling rendition of “The St. Louis Blues” accompanies her climb, which is conveyed with such radical, telegraphic efficiency that the film achieves an exhilaratingly witty, insolent style.

 

A wounded fury festers behind Lily’s defiant poise; all the sullied, loveless transactions she has forced herself into have left a bitter poison that numbs her heart. No one could play the part better than Stanwyck, with her level, unwavering gaze; her sudden lashing rages; the enticing warmth that she could, chillingly, turn on or off at will. The riveting simplicity of her style comes from inner resolve, a hard-won self-mastery that allows her to look at life without fear, though not without anger or sadness.

 

Elise Nakhnikian for L Mag:

Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck (under a pen name), the screenplay is as efficient as its heroine, moving forward as smoothly and inexorably as a shark. It’s not exactly subtle (Lily’s last name is Powers, after all), but it’s knowing, smart, and often slyly funny. “Would you like to motor through the chateau country?” one suitor asks. “And see all those lovely 14th-century ceilings?” she replies.

 

John Wayne makes a surprising cameo as the sap who nicknames Lily Baby Face: a wage slave she uses and then shoulders aside at the start of her climb. But the real draw here is Stanwyck, whose coolly dignified, always calculating Lily wins our love because she never asks for or expects it. Like Stanwyck’s Jean in The Lady Eve and Nora in Night Nurse (also at Essential Pre-Code), Lily is one of the great broads of the American cinema, a heroine whose measuring gaze, dry wit, determined stride, and unself-pitying pragmatism feel as fresh and refreshing now as they must have back then.

 

 

Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

“Baby Face,” remains one of the most stunningly sordid films ever made, a standout even among the wave of risqué entertainments that filled American screens in the early years of the Depression. Even the cut version is a jaw-dropper; with its five full minutes of sleaze restored, it has to be seen to be not quite believed.

 

The heroine of “Baby Face,” Lily Powers (Ms. Stanwyck), was raised in her father’s second-story speakeasy in a working-class neighborhood of Erie. Pa. Dad (Robert Barrat), apparently, has been offering her services to the local steelworkers (one describes her as “the sweetheart of the night shift”), but when he sells her in a whispered conversation with a corrupt politician (we see a greasy wad of bills passing between them), Lily has had enough. The pol tries to touch her thigh, and she dumps a cup of hot coffee on his hand; obviously a slow learner, he comes up from behind to grab her breasts, and Lily smashes a beer bottle against his forehead and knocks him cold.

 

And that’s only the first reel. Urged on by a not-so-kindly old cobbler (Alphonse Ethier), who recommends that Lily read Nietzsche – and “Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!” – Lily hops a freight train to New York. A favor performed behind closed doors for a tubby office boy at the Gotham Trust Company gets her a job as a file clerk; with similarly persuasive techniques, she wriggles her way up the corporate ladder, ducking through a door marked “Ladies Rest Room” for a squalid encounter with one supervisor (Douglas Dumbrille) and deliberately destroying the impending marriage of another (Donald Cook). Finally, she agrees to be kept in an uptown apartment by the bank’s elderly vice president (Henry Kolker). Lily musses his hair and calls him “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.”

 

These all can be seen in the new print of “Baby Face.” But in the version of “Baby Face” that has been known for the last 71 years, most of those moments were either compromised or eliminated. In the censored version, the politician’s first look at Lily is no longer a leering panning shot that begins with Stanwyck’s legs and rises slowly, almost reluctantly, to her face; money no longer changes hands between her father and the politician; she’s now the “sweetheart of the night (blip!)”; and the incident with the beer bottle has been dropped entirely.

 

 

William Charles Morrow on the unsung but equally essential Two Seconds for The Chiseler:

You’d be hard pressed to find a darker melodrama than Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds, the pitch black story of an ordinary man who makes one very bad decision and then plunges headlong into an irreversible downward spiral. The film’s structure guarantees viewers a hard ride from the outset, for in the opening moments our protagonist, naïve construction worker John Allen (played by Edward G. Robinson, cast very much against type), is marched to the electric chair to pay for the murder of his wife. What follows in flashback represents the condemned man’s thoughts in his final two seconds as the switch is thrown. This movie could have been called The Events Leading to My Execution, as it surely would have been if they’d remade it in the ‘40s.

 

We associate “noir” with crime sagas made during and after World War II, but a number of proto-noirs emerged in the desperate years of the early ‘30s. John Allen’s situation was for many men the ultimate Depression era nightmare of emasculation: first he loses his job, then his wife reveals her true mercenary nature, and eventually he’s reduced to the status of helpless invalid, living off his wife’s dubious earnings. But we knew this couple was doomed all along. Perhaps Robinson was miscast, but there’s no denying he threw himself into his role with alarming intensity, heatedly insisting in the courtroom finale that in killing his wife he regained his manhood. Two Seconds is audacious, disturbing and hard to shake.

 

 

Moira Finney for Movie Morlocks:

My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër′) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.

 

For LeRoy remembered this creative period of work beginning with Little Caesar as a time that, “I’d like to be able to say that I realized I was blazing a trail, setting a precedent, revolutionizing an industry… In all honesty…All I wanted to do was make a movie with some meat to it, some substance, where before all had been froth.” In preparing Two Seconds, the director kept his customary rapid pace as one scene flowed sharply into another. The actors were photographed by cinematographer Sol Polito from above or extremely close up, with the cheap sets, the tawdry circumstances, a final courtroom scene that was an echo of the previous year’s M (1931-Fritz Lang) and the flashback technique (which had been used in a similar fashion by Dr. Paul Fejos in the film The Last Moment in 1928) building the film to an expressionistic crescendo using relatively simple elements and dynamic acting to create a style that someday might be called film noir.

 

Two Seconds (1932) may be the least known of the pair’s three films from this period. Based on a Broadway play by Elliot Lester, with a script by Harvey Thew (who was also credited for the screenplay of The Public Enemy), the expressionistic story of Two Seconds unfolds in the space of time between the throwing of the switch on the electric chair and the moment when Robinson’s character loses consciousness. I suspect that one reason it has not achieved greater fame among pre-code audiences who relish those films today may be due to the general humorlessness of the script, but Robinson’s acting in this fast paced 67 minute movie riveted my attention throughout the brief movie.

 


William K. Everson:

A raw little sex melodrama, told in flashback from the electric chair, Two Seconds runs for only a tight 68 minutes, but even so a goodly portion of the development is told in lengthy two-people conversations — Robinson and Foster in their apartment, Robinson and his girl in a dance hall, Robinson’s impassioned speech to the judge in the courtroom. The linking scenes of streets, dance floor, prison etc. provide enough variety and change of pace to prevent the film from seeming as talkative as it really is, but can’t entirely conceal the theatricality of it all.

 

The basic flaw of Two Seconds, and this isn’t really a sound criticism, is that it is strictly a film to be seen once only. The first time around, the shock effect of situations and dialogue, the ghoulish matter-of-factness of prison warden Berton Churchill, the zippy early 30’s wisecracks, the nostalgic theme tunes (“Too Many Tears” from “Blessed Event” are used quite a lot!) and the overall surface power and realism tend to grab ahold of one and make it seem like quite a picture. [Of Edward G. Robinson] The impression one gets is of a talented and promising but not yet really good actor having the time of his life with a tour-de-force scene, tossing all discipline out of the window.

 

C. Jerry Kutner for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Is Two Seconds the first American noir? I’ve read some historians who trace American film noir as far back as Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). But Underworld, with its light-hearted gangster protagonist, is a veritable romp compared to the unrelenting descent into darkness that is Two Seconds.

 

“Film noir,” I once wrote, “arose from the collision of German expressionism with documentary realism, paralleling the emergence of ‘the city’ as a character. Thus, the first true film noir is probably Fritz Lang’s M (1931).” Sordid Depression-era realism is Two Seconds’ predominant mode (see also, LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, released the same year), but the film has its share of expressionistic touches.  There is the stark, angular, execution chamber, designed by Warner Brothers art director, Anton Grot, which foreshadows his work on two Michael Curtiz horror films, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X. There is the shot of Shirley in a white slip towering triumphantly over her drunken husband in bed, both of them shot throughs the bars of the bedframe.  Finally, there is Robinson’s courtroom monologue, a scene that appears to deliberately emulate Peter Lorre’s climactic monologue in M.  Abandoning realism altogether, the courtroom goes dark except for a single spotlight focused on Robinson as he explains, “You’re killing me at the WRONG TIME.  If you’d killed me when I was a RAT, I’d a thanked you for it.  But now that I’ve squared everything off, you want to kill me.  It ain’t fair!  IT AIN’T FAIR TO LET A RAT LIVE AND KILL A MAN!”   Spiraling even further into insanity, he grasps his head in pain and seems to see his dead friend standing in front of him, “BUD, WAIT FOR ME!“   It’s completely over-the-top, like Emil Jannings’ expressionistic contortions at the conclusions of The Blue Angel or The Last Command, however, thanks to Robinson’s skill and conviction, it’s moving and it works.

 

But there’s more.  We cut to the electric chair’s thrown switch.  Two seconds have passed.  We dolly in to the aghast face of the young reporter who has seen his first execution, so close we can see the sickly beads of sweat forming on his brow.

 

It is one of the most harrowing endings in cinema.

 

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