BABY FACE (1933) and Pre-Code Hollywood Morality

In a scene cut from the original theatrical release, Barbara Stanwyck breaks a beer bottle over the head of a man trying to assault her.

When discussing classic film with those who may have little knowledge of its history, a common grievance I hear is that people take issue with the contrived storylines and docile women that they perceive to make up the cinematic landscape of classic Hollywood. “The stories are all the same,” they often state, “and the women are so wholesome and pure. It’s not real.” When I hear statements like these, I try to give as much historical context as is appropriate for the conversation, and then…I almost always recommend a pre-Code.

Before the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood was the antithesis of what most people consider “old movies” to be. A far cry from the sweet, obedient women who always ended up married to the good guy at the end, women in this era of filmmaking were often driven, manhunting, sexual creatures who lived their own lives, their own way. They got divorces, slept their way to the top, and weren’t afraid of the power of men.

This was the world of pre-Code Hollywood.

Norma Shearer in THE DIVORCEE (1930), a story of a woman’s divorce and illicit affairs that won Norma Shearer an Oscar for Best Actress.

In 1922, following a series of Hollywood scandals that culminated in the accusation and ultimate acquittal of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 in the famous Virginia Rappe rape trial, Hollywood realized that its morals were coming into serious question by certain political factions. The studios hired Will Hays, Presbyterian clergyman and former head of the Republican National Committee, to try to tame what they perceived to be an industry spiraling out of control. He drafted a series of “Do’s, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls” that ultimately morphed into the first Hollywood Production Code, put into effect in 1930. Jason Joy was employed as the chief enforcer of the new mandate, holding the post until 1932.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose 1921 trial and acquittal for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe called into question the morality of Hollywood.

Though the code existed as a technicality, Jason Joy was not too keen on its enforcement and the first film that was reviewed under the new system, The Blue Angel (1930), was passed through with very few changes. The story of an elderly professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer is one that has become a classic of German cinema, but in 1930 it was branded as indecent by a California state censor. As there was poor communication between Joy’s office and the studios, and poor infrastructure regarding who had the power over what, there was not much  that Joy could do had he wanted to.

While the studios and the Production Code office fumbled with the cumbersome new laws, box-office sales skyrocketed. Out of this era of lack of code enforcement came films that were sexy, steamy, brutal, and raw. Women were loose and manipulative, men killed and massacred. There were overt references to sex, and near-nudity.

In Night Nurse (1931) Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck dress and undress 3 times in the first half hour.

Despite the Code’s ban on sexual suggestion and nudity in silhouette, this scene from Golddiggers of 1933 appeared, a clear slap in the face to the Production Code office and one of the raciest scenes to come out of the 1930s.

There was an air of lawlessness in the movies, and the public loved it. The studios were making movies that people wanted in spite of the powers-that-be, and they were doing it right under their noses.

And then came Baby Face (1933).

Film scholars often cite Baby Face as the film that served as the tipping point for all the changes that would take place the following year. At the TCM Festival a few weeks ago Bruce Goldstein, president of the New York Film Forum, described Baby Face as the Citizen Kane of pre-Codes, a film so good, so racy, and so much in defiance of everything the Code stood for that it singlehandedly rallied the office to action.

Baby Face is the story of a young woman who, tired of her life as a prostitute in the saloon owned by her father, decides to use her powers over men to get a job and rise to the upper echelons of New York society. Literally sleeping her way to the top, she is the epitome of the power pre-Code women had over their men. All the men in the movie simply crumble to her will, she uses them as rungs on the ladder to get to where she wants to be.

Even by today’s standards, Baby Face in its original form is a monument to feminism, a story of how a woman uses her wiles to outsmart all the men in her life. But upon its completion in mid-1933 the Production Code office, now headed by Joseph Breen, panicked. The film broke so many rules of the Code, it was essentially unfit for release and was banned by censors across the country. Serious cuts were made to Baby Face to make it palatable to censors, and less than 6 months after the release of Baby Face in December of 1933, an amendment was added to the Code to require all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before their release into theatres. An important shot of a muder/suicide scene in Baby Face was cut to comply with restrictions on murder. Scenes such as this one were cut to comply with the restriction on illicit sex being presented as attractive:

The original cut of Baby Face was tragically presumed lost, until 2004 when a print of the original negative was discovered at the Library of Congress. It premiered at the London Film Festival, and is now widely available via several DVD releases. The print is magnificent. The original theatrical release shows a movie that is nothing special, a run-of-the-mill production with few particularly memorable moments. But when one views the original, uncut version, it is magical. The movie comes to life, and it is a rich, complex story of a woman’s drive and motivation to better herself. Baby Face is the ultimate pre-Code, and the discovery of the uncut version in 2004 stands as one of the most important cinematic discoveries of the last 20 years.

As for the Code itself, it slowly chafed away until its replacement by the MPAA in 1968. It is a controversial subject among film scholars. In my personal view, though the Code severely restricted the freedom of artists to express themselves in Hollywood, its enforcement had its benefits to the progression of the movie industry. In order to make the films they wanted to make, filmmakers were forced to resort to subtlety and innuendo, clever and biting dialogue that went under the radar of the censors, and that audiences had to listen or watch for. Movies played to smarter audiences, because the Code forced them to.

The Women (1939)

But as the Code lasted for such a long span of film history, far too few people know about the rich history before its enforcement, when films were decidedly modern and extremely thrilling. For further reading on this subject, I would recommend Mick LaSalle’s 2000 book Complicated Women, all about the women of pre-Code Hollywood and the roles they played. A great read on an immensely fascinating subject.

See you next time!

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18 responses to “BABY FACE (1933) and Pre-Code Hollywood Morality

  1. Thanks for your timely article–I watched Baby Face for the first time just a few days ago! I was not aware of the Hays Code and pre-code films until quite recently, so this is a new and fascinating subject. My fingers are crossed that TCM gives many of us a chance to see these hidden gems.

  2. It was on TCM a few days ago because of John Wayne’s bit part in it! Is that where you saw it? Pre-Code Hollywood is incredibly fascinating. TCM is good about showing these movies, but I think a lot of people aren’t aware that it’s an entire era. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Baby Face is one of my favorite movies of all time. I *love* Barbara Stanwyck in every minute of it. Every time I watch it, though, it takes days for the “St. Louis Woman” tune to leave my head.

  4. I hear you on that one. And in the cut-up version, Chico (her friend on the train) starts singing that song in a place that doesn’t make any sense…so of course that sticks with you.

  5. Nice piece! I also find myself explaining the pre-code period to many people and recommending films. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this insanely fascinating, though short lived, era. I oftentimes wonder what the film industry today would be like if we tried to put the brakes on violence, sex, etc…no way would that fly (though there were several other pressures during the early 30s that contributed to the enforcement of the code that we don’t necessarily have today).

    I wrote my college thesis on BABY FACE right when the original, uncut version was found and then released on DVD. I was luckily enough to come to CA to research the topic, since little had been written about discovery at that time. Your mention of Stanwyck climbing the ladder in the business world reminded me of my research in the Warner Bros. Archive at USC, where I found original press materials for the movie, which was like striking gold, because I never expected to come across them. Some of the publicity materials feature Stanwyck ACTUALLY CLIMBING A LADDER OF MEN! Seriously. Other ads reminded me of the recent movie FOR A GOOD TIME CALL…in that the studio employed a ‘hotline’ type number where you could call up Baby Face for a date…or for showtimes to see the movie. (something like this…I’d have to look at my paper to see what the ad exactly stated). The publicity materials were almost as shocking as the uncut movie itself!

    I love LaSalle’s book (and its counterpart, DANGEROUS MEN), and I would also recommend Mark Vieira’s SIN IN SOFT FOCUS for newcomers to the genre, which is an easy read (but a large book) probably made up of half pictures, half writing. Doherty’s PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD: SEX, IMMORALITY, AND INSURRECTION IN AMERICAN CINEMA, 1930-1934 is also fantastic and more in depth.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, I just get fired up over pre-codes! Thanks for writing this, and I definitely enjoyed those clips! 🙂

  6. This is superb! Although I’m not the biggest fan of Baby Face, I love to watch pre-Codes. The Divorcee was quite good and I loved Red-Headed Woman.

  7. It in fact was a combination of things:. the murder of top director William Desmond Taylor, and the exposure that Mabel Norman was a drug addict, and also the destruction of Mary Miles Minter’s career, then Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle,s three trials The studios were afraid their world was about to blow up and rather than the government in charge, they decided to hire their own “Enforcer”.While i love the pre-code films, I also love the double-entendre movies. Making the mind work is always a joy.

  8. I really enjoyed this piece on the Pre-Code Era and BABY FACE, and I’m happy you included a William Wellman film (NIGHT NURSE) in the discussion. Wellman made about 20 films between 1931 and 1934, many of them fascinating explorations of the bleak choices that many women had at the time. Two Wellman favorites are SAFE IN HELL with the marvelous but totally forgotten Dorothy Mackaill and MIDNIGHT MARY with a much more daring Loretta Young than most of us are used to seeing. I also liked that you included “Pettin’ in the Park” from GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. Strange but charming!

  9. Oh sure, there were many things. The Fatty Arbuckle thing was probably the most scandalous and salacious, and that seemed to be the last straw. Pre-Codes are so glorious–and to think that they all came out of the fact that the new rules were so cumbersome that no one knew how to enforce them!

  10. I dvr Baby face on Monday night it still hold up and they still have those so called deleted scene I think that song that Barbara Stanwick African American friend was singing was old blue song made famous by Bessie Smith

    I THINK SO

  11. Yes, now that the original print has been found, no one EVER screens the old one. It’s kind of futile at this point. “St. Louis Woman,” the song you’re referring to, seems to pop up in every single pre-Code movie. It’s kind of the theme song of the era!

  12. Thank you! I also really enjoy William Wellman. Isn’t Pettin’ In the Park an unusual number? I love it though, and I show it to anyone who will watch. They invariably love it!

  13. Thank you, Vanessa! Pre-Codes are the best…one of the most fascinating times in film history.

  14. Oh I’m with you about getting fired up about pre-Codes! Love them. I feel like I write about them on the blog a lot–because I just can’t stop talking about them and their influence on how film evolved.

    Interesting idea about trying to enforce the Code today…it definitely wouldn’t fly. I think people would try to cry “freedom of speech.”

    I would love to see that ad of Stanwyck climbing a ladder of men! And oh boy…a Baby Face hotline. I can only imagine the types of calls that came through that line!

    Thanks so much for reading, and for your nice, long comment. I love it when people take the time to write out their thoughts! Long comments are my favorites 🙂

  15. Pre-code Hollywood for the win!

  16. Keep on writing about pre-codes, please! Such a fascinating time period that deserves all the recognition it can get.

    From what I recall from the BABY FACE materials, that ladder had a man (even John Wayne!) for each rung. I’ll have to dig the report out now and see what else it included!

  17. I think a lot of people recognize about pre code Hollywood some of these actresses I always thought Loretta Young, Barbara Standiwck Norma Shearer were goodiy too shoes until I saw their movie whoa it open my eyes LOL!

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