#302) Baby Face (1933)

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#302) Baby Face (1933)

OR “Cracking the Pre-Code”

Directed by Alfred E. Green

Written by Gene Markey & Kathryn Scola. Story by Mark Canfield (aka Darryl F. Zanuck).

Class of 2005

The Plot: Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has been subjected to sex with strangers since the age of 14 in order to help out her father’s (Robert Barrat) speakeasy. After his death, Lily is encouraged by her friend Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) and his Nietzschean philosophy to go out and exploit herself in a big city to get what she wants. Lily arrives in New York City and gets a filing job at Gotham Trust, seducing and manipulating every man in the building as she climbs her way to…excuse me, I’ve just been handed something from the New York State Censorship Board. I’ll just read what it…oh dear. Um…forget all of that.

The Plot: Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has been subjected to very vague abuse from her father (Robert Barret). After his death, Lily is encouraged by her friend Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) to go out and get what she wants by using her strong…morality. Lily arrives in New York City and gets a filing job at Gotham Trust, still seducing and manipulating men, but now there are consequences. After she has met her match in newly elected bank president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), Lily must heed Cragg’s (recently overdubbed) words that “the price of the wrong way is too great.”

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[o]ne of the more notorious melodramas of the pre-Code era” and cites this film as one of the movies that gave us the Production Code. There’s also an informative essay by film professor Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

But Does It Really?: First off, the main reason this film was inducted was due to the discovery of an original negative of “Baby Face” before it was censored. While a very enjoyable movie, “Baby Face” is on the Registry for what it represents more than for what it actually is. The unaltered version is definitely the superior film, while the cuts and alterations made by Warner Bros. at the behest of the Production Code led to a muddled mess of a film. Luckily, the original cut of “Baby Face” is readily available, and is a hidden gem from the ‘30s whose taboo subject matter and strong lead performance by Barbara Stanwyck can be appreciated generations later. My lingering question: are both versions of this film on the Registry?

Wow, That’s Dated: Your usual ‘30s fare: newsies, telephone operators, the term “permanent” rather than “perm”. But there’s also your usual ‘30s sexism, plus a reference to Chico the maid as “that fantastic colored girl”. Eye-rolls all around.

Take a Shot: A few of Lily’s co-workers refer to her as “Baby Face”, and the 1926 song of the same name plays over the opening credits.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations for “Baby Face” (perhaps due to its censoring). Warner Bros.’ Best Picture contenders that year were fellow NFR entries “42nd Street” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”.

Other notes

  • The whole reason for the film’s editing was that the New York State Censorship Board rejected the film for distribution. Knowing that New York screenings brought in a huge portion of a film’s income, Warner Bros. agreed to alter “Baby Face” to appease the censors. Lily is still quite promiscuous, but now it’s implied she changes because of put-upon morals, rather than natural character development. Also deleted are implications of Lily’s prostitution, and all references to Friedrich Nietzsche. This was the only known version of “Baby Face” until a negative of the pre-release cut was discovered in 2004.
  • Lily sarcastically refers to herself as “a ball of fire”. Not yet, Stanwyck.
  • I’m glad Stanwyck’s performance here is being rediscovered; Lily is an unapologetically strong character (especially for a female lead in the ‘30s) and Stanwyck is clearly relishing the opportunity to hone her “tough-as-nails” screen persona.
  • If you don’t have the time to watch both cuts, all you really need is to watch the two versions of Cragg’s speech. The entire movie is changed in a matter of seconds. You can hear the audio from both in this NPR interview from 2005.
  • Holy crap this train ride scene is steamy. No wonder it got cut.
  • This whole movie has what I call “The GLOW Conundrum”: are Lily’s means for success empowering for women or degrading? A discussion for those far more qualified than I.
  • The other piece of Hollywood lore in this film: a brief appearance by a young John Wayne! It’s interesting to watch the Duke in a performance that’s a far cry from his later, iconic work. And if you ask me, they layered his makeup on pretty thick. He’s practically a ghost.
  • Lily’s rise up the corporate ladder is greatly aided by the fact that every man who works at the bank is an idiotic horndog.
  • Another movie for the “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list!
  • You cannot utter the phrase “a victim of circumstances” without making the Curly noises immediately afterwards.
  • And then Lily gets sent off to Paris and the movie takes a turn. It’s not a bad turn, I guess I just enjoyed Lily manipulating everyone around her so much.
  • A board of directors that take responsibility for their mistakes? Clearly this is a work of fiction.
  • Meanwhile, at a model of Lily’s apartment building…
  • The last bit of censorship comes from a tacked-on “happy” ending. It’s an epilogue from the board of directors (I guess Stanwyck and George Brent were unavailable) reading a telegram about Lily and Courtland starting their new penniless life together in Pittsburgh. Like everything else about “Baby Face”, stick with the original cut.

Legacy

  • While the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America had a code of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” at the time of “Baby Face”, films like this one prompted them to create the full Production Code, which would stay in effect until the mid-‘60s. The Code was employed across the country, eliminating the need of censorship on a state-by-state basis.
  • Barbara Stanwyck left Warner Bros. not too long after “Baby Face”, and kept plugging along in film after film until her breakthrough performance in 1937’s “Stella Dallas”.

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