• James Kunovski

Pre-Code Hollywood and Baby Face

If I had to choose one film that represents an amalgamation of Pre-Code Hollywood morals, the resistance to those ideas and the implementation of the Hays Code, said film would be 1933s Baby Face, directed by Alfred E. Green and starring Barbara Stanwyck. It follows Lily Powers (Stanwyck) who has been prostituted her entire life by her scumbag speakeasy-owning father. Lily's attitude is set up in a scene where she interacts with a new customer. She stands up to his requests, pouring hot coffee on his hand and smashing a beer bottle over his head. She then proceeds to take a sip of the same beer.

The response provokes her father to label her a tramp, igniting on her part, one of the fiercest and most guttural monologues of its time. On the advice of her Nietzschean friend Cragg, and liberated by the death of her father, she moves to New York to pursue greater things. During the conversation that sparks the move, she relays “what chance a woman got?” He retorts, pushing her to, “go to some big city where you will find opportunities” and to “use men to get the things you want.” Once in New York, and employed at a large bank, she works her way up the ladder by sleeping with forlorn and often married men. In the beginning, her choices lead to financial and social gain. The men she meets fall apart; they lose their engagements, positions and dignity. The film is highly sexualised and treats Lily’s predicament with wavering levels of empathy.

Baby Face earned a healthy box office but received an unimpressed critical response. The New York Times would class it as “unsavoury” and took issue with the plot’s delivery while The New York Evening Post branded Lily as a “vixen of the lowest order” and the men she finds herself with as “doomed.” I came across a Variety clipping that marketed it as possessing “no merit for general or popular appeal” and the sort of film that is “liable to offend the family trade.” Don’t give Mr. Hays any ideas. Though some form of the production code had existed by 1930, Baby Face is considered one of the most notable films to fast-track the practice into existence. The New York Times would highlight that its release “aroused the ire of Will Hays.” Before we impart that history we should take a look at what Pre-Code entertainment was like and where Baby Face finds itself in that mix.

Pre-Code films lasted in their truest form for about half a decade (late 20s into the early 30s) and although not free of complete censorship, were more liberal in their depiction of innuendos and nefarious acts. Studios were testing talkies and investigating adult issues like sex, infidelity, gang violence and homosexuality. These investigations would pause for several decades. The scope of female desire and strong female characters were also present and Baby Face took great advantage of this.

The film outlines that life is all about exploitation and only by exploiting do you gain an upper hand. In addition to debauchery and its angle on the power of sex, there are plenty of shots of a scantily composed Lily. There’s some brutal violence that appears early on; her father is killed in a still explosion and an on-screen murder occurs. These themes may have still been explored up until the late 1960s but they were done in a more sedated and subtextual way.

Soon after its release, Baby Face found itself in the hands of the Hays Office and extensive discussions between Warner Bros. and the Association of Motion Picture Producers. This sequence of events allegedly led to Darryl F. Zanuck’s resignation at that studio. The film had to be extensively cut and re-shot to align with state and city censorship. The kernel behind Lily’s motive was heavily edited. An admiration for Nietzsche: “exploit yourself,” “use men to get the things you want” turned into a more grounded moral compass, “be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.” Also cut were scenes that revealed Lily’s upbringing as a prostitute and moments of implied sex. An ending of restored humanity was included: Lily returns home and lives simply instead of the original ending which states that love wins over materialism. Funny how they changed the original ending considering it mirrors what the production code would enforce in the years to come. Everybody reaps what they sow and we don’t endorse these acts. A year after Baby’s Face release would be shunned by state censorship boards and the MPAA, the Hays Code was rigorously imposed. The original release of the film was considered lost until 2004. In my opinion, its discovery in an Ohioan film vault makes it one of the great findings of lost media.

The implementation of the production code forced filmmakers to experiment with innuendo and explore similar themes in clever fashion. After all, some of Hollywood’s greatest films were made in that three-decade period. Though let’s not forget another period of Hollywood where creators could be as libertine as their imagination warranted. In that regard, Baby Face stands as a filmmaking triumph on another level.