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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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Scandal On Film: “Illicit” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and “Baby Face” (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck has an affair with married politician Adolphe Menjou, and subsequently has his baby, in “Forbidden” (1932).

From her first forays into sound film, Barbara Stanwyck was known for her portrayals of strong, gutsy, and independent women. In Illicit, she sleeps with her boyfriend without intent of marriage. In Forbidden, she carries out an affair with a married politician–then gives birth to his child. In Baby Face, she plays a fiery and motivated woman who works her way to the top of a company, entirely through sexual favors. Unapologetic about defending themselves and using guile and sensuality to their advantage, Stanwyck’s characters embodied the spirit of the pre-code era and threw the Catholic establishment into a rage.

Though studios were generally at liberty to film the content they wished (before 1934, censorship decisions were left to state boards), they were ultimately concerned about profit. The Great Depression was taking its toll on the movie business, and with budgets and salaries cut, no one could afford to take the chance of a movie bombing. Catholic groups, including the Catholic Legion of Decency, were handing out lists of films to boycott, and the films of Barbara Stanwyck often appeared at the top of the list. With everyone struggling to stay afloat, it was the moral crusaders threatening boycott who won out the vast majority of the time. When Illicit was released, some local censor boards barred any mention even of its title.

Two young lovers, happy simply living together without marriage, face the societal pressure to marry. Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) is reluctant to, as she thinks it will ruin their spark. Dick (James Rennie) is more inclined, but he respects Anne’s wishes. As the societal pressure begins to come from their own families, they finally do marry–but just as Anne had predicted, their marriage  renders them dull toward each other and their marriage begins to fail.

Local censor boards in New York required a good deal of cutting to appease the powerful Catholic moral forces in the state before the release of Illicit, and some cuts were so drastic that parts of the storyline were altered. Many censor boards cut overt references to the couple’s intimacy, and required less suggestive angles to hide any implied immorality on the part of Dick and Anne. The drinking in the movie was also of concern to the censors, who wanted it taken out as it did not “progress the story.” New York was also one of the censor boards objecting to the title of the film, but ultimately the title stayed.

On the heels of Illicit, which understandably sparked a major outcry among religious conservatives and moralists, came Forbidden, potentially an even more scandalous film than its predecessor.

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A young librarian, Lulu, meets and falls in love with Bob, a married politician. When she becomes pregnant with his child, she cuts contact with him so as not to burden him or ruin his rising career. But when he shows up at her house one day, her life unravels. For the sake of appearances, she and Bob devise a plan to pose the child as an orphan to be adopted by the Bob and his wife. His wife, none the wiser, gleefully adopts the baby and she is raised as her daughter. Lulu, initially posing as the governess of the child, is let go by the wife for lack of experience. The daughter grows up without ever knowing who her mother was. However, Lulu and the Bob never stopped loving each other, and due to circumstance, she ends up at his deathbed and he dies holding her hand.

Upon its release in 1932, Forbidden was hailed as a “screen masterpiece” by an Italian jury of film professionals and government officials at an international film screening in Milan. It features many of the hallmarks of Frank Capra’s later works, and is a superbly crafted melodrama. However, when Columbia asked for a re-issue in 1935, the request was denied. In “glorifying adultery,” the film was very much in violation of the code. The code further stipulated that any wayward woman was to be punished for her ways, and Forbidden did just the opposite–depicting Lulu as self-sacrificial and noble in her actions toward the politician and their daughter.

One of the last films to be made pre-code was also one of the most risqué. In fact, it is often said that Baby Face might have been the Catholic establishment’s last straw before the implementation of the Production Code, as the suggestions are so explicit that it leaves very little to the imagination.

Lily Powers is a working class girl who runs off to New York and progresses up the corporate ladder by sleeping with all the necessary men. She is involved with none of them, using them only as tools for her own success. She eventually marries a man for his money, but doesn’t realize the way she really feels about him until the end. She is portrayed as a smart, cunning, and resourceful woman, and her use of men to get what she wants is shown as a positive and almost necessary trait.

The original cut of Baby Face was deemed too inappropriate for state censorship boards in 1933, and failed to pass the New York board due to its unabashed sexual content. Changes were made to comply with the up-and-coming production code, including a modified ending with Lily losing everything and atoning for her sins, living a modest life in her hometown. But the censors could remove little without damaging the entire movie, as the sexual content is the very thing that drives the story forward.

Another unique factor in this movie is the relationship between Lily and her best friend Chico, an African American woman from her hometown. The two join forces and run away to New York, and are fiercely loyal to each other throughout the movie. Interracial relationships of any kind were extremely rare in any film prior to the lifting of the production code in 1968, and this relationship between Lily and Chico is a lovely note in the film that serves to soften the hardened character of Lily into an emotional, feeling human being with a treasured best friend.

See you next time!