Baby Face, the notorious 1933 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the films that brought about the infamous “code years” – where filmmakers had to submit to self-censorship and censorship from studios. There were things you could and could not show. Seeing a movie like 1931’s The Public Enemy – which was so controversial (and Cagney so great) that it required a preface on the screen saying, “WE DON’T APPROVE OF ANY OF THIS” – makes you realize what a startling difference there is between pre-code and post-code. It’s obvious that sex is going on in the next room, you can hear the whoops and hollers. The violence of the grapefruit-in-face scene is shocking to this day. I mean, he’s just shoving a grapefruit in her face, and it’s become a big joke, ha ha, but seriously, watch it again. (Here’s the clip.) It’s a vicious moment. Not at all “stagey” violence – it’s real. It’s nasty. Anyway, films like The Public Enemy and Baby Face, with its frank brutal look at prostitution and – God, everything else – suicide, corruption, sex-before-marriage, women’s position in society – helped bring about the self-imposed Production Code.
Baby Face was edited drastically before it was allowed to hit the theatres. A moral was imposed (where none existed before). Scenes were cut. Implications were lessened. You know, it became less obvious that Lil had – well – been sold into prostitution by her terrible father by the time she was 14 years old.
Recently, as in 2003 recently, the pre-edited version of Baby Face was discovered. Read about it here. It was an exciting discovery and caused a ripple among film buffs. I’m not one of those people who glorify the Production Code, although my favorite films of all time come from those years. But they are good films despite the Production Code, not because of them. I will not concede to the nitwits who want to neaten up life for the American public who are supposed to not be able to handle it, who decide FOR me what I should and should not be allowed to hear. No. No. No. We do not live in Iran. It’s one of the reasons why I love films like The Circle (review here) – because just the act of making a film like that is dangerous. And naturally, it has been banned in Iran. But thanks to new technology and bootleg video tapes and DVDs, everyone has seen it. You can’t keep back progress. You really can’t. The censors tell you what is proper and what is not – and this is not just about cutting down on the swears and the sex. That’s a misnomer. They are telling you how to think. Watch the films being made in Iran right now to see all of that at work. If you just focus on the externals (swearing, sex), you miss the deeper instructions going on: This is the WRONG way to think, and this is the RIGHT way. And I do not concede ground to such people, even intellectually. UPDATE: I knew the Self-Styled Siren had addressed the nostalgia for the Code somewhere on her site – and here it is – Yes. Yes. Yes. Well worth reading the whole thing, but here is a relevant excerpt which reflects my feelings exactly:
Once more, with feeling. The Code was not merely some quaint artifact designed to scrub sex, bad language and strong violence from the screen. It was explicitly political, designed to uphold one view of American life and one view only. Miscegenation was forbidden. So was any mention of birth control. No abortion. No homosexuality. No venereal disease. No drugs. But these subjects were risky for a producer in any case, though certainly some of the topics were broached in Pre-Code movies. No, as noted in Hollywood Goes to War and elsewhere, by far the most onerous provisions for filmmakers were those bearing on political and social themes. Religion and religious figures had to be treated respectfully. Criminal behavior must be a character defect, not an endemic societal problem, much less could social institutions be shown or implied to be criminal or corrupt as a whole. Bad deeds must be punished, and we must never sympathize too much with the bad-deed-doer, no matter the motivation or circumstances. Not that the Code bothered to censor certain aspects of American mores that we find distasteful today. The authors acidly note that Howard Hawks’ Air Force depicted the intrinsic disloyalty of all Japanese Americans (or “stinkin’ Nips,” as the script puts it), and added a tasteful “Fried Jap going down!” when a plane is shot down. Breen passed all that, but carefully excised the forbidden word “lousy.”
What the magnificence of the films during that time show is how inventive and, yes, tricky artists had to get in order to tell their stories – without pissing off the prudes. Like the kiss in Notorious. The Code said that no kiss could last for more than 3 seconds. So Hitchcock had them break it up, they would kiss for 3 seconds, pull back, talk, whisper, nuzzle, kiss for 3 seconds again, walk across the room, kissing, pulling back, he talks on the phone, she kisses and nuzzles him, he hangs up, they embrace again – 3-second kiss, pull back, whisper … It is a cornucopia of neurotic desire. The fact that they do not kiss in a continuous manner adds to the sense of disconnect and also heat between these two characters. The censors couldn’t object – because Hitchcock HAD followed their ridiculous rules … but the end-effect is something far more sexual than any unbroken kiss could ever give. This is an example of Hitchcock getting around the censors … of making the scene he wanted to make despite the Code, not because of it. People who think sitting with a STOPWATCH timing kisses is a valid way to spend their mental energy are people you really don’t need to take seriously, but that you DO need to get around. Sure, make concessions, in order to get your movie made … but get around those people. That’s why films like Notorious or Only Angels Have Wings or The Big Sleep CRACKLE with erotic feeling that is even too hot to touch for 2008 audiences. You repress something, it gets stronger. I mean, the idiotic fights that directors got into with the Hays Office … sometimes it came down to: “I KNOW this is offensive … I just don’t know why!!!” Howard Hawks’ movies were all like that. He got away with murder. He was tricky, intelligent, and arrogant. You had to be.
So to see Baby Face in its pre-edited version (like I did last night) is something else indeed! You can’t believe some of it. It would be difficult to get away with this material now – let alone then.
Barbara Stanwyck, in all her sad-eyed trampy excellence (she’s so convincing, isn’t she??), puts up with being a prostitute (with her father as her pimp) because she can’t really see a way out. There’s a scene where a politician shows up at the speakeasy, and hands her father some money. Buying his daughter, basically. But Lil has had enough. She has also had a kind of conversion experience, through talking to Adolph Cragg, a customer … who seems to have a kind and unsexual fondness for Lily. He wants her to develop her brain, and it makes him angry to see her submit to the pawing gropes of the drunken brutes. He quotes Nietzsche to her – which … just tells you how weird this movie is, when you see it. Nietzsche is omnipresent. Lily ends up reading Nietzsche and realizes that she is a “slave” and she wants to become a master. But anyway, Adolph Cragg keeps trying to get her to read books, etc., and finally has given up in frustration. Lily is sad about this. So when the politician comes over and starts to feel up her thigh (again, much more explicit than any physical contact we would see even just a year later) – she has had it. They end up in a physical fight, and she smashes a bottle over his head.
Lily gets out, and starts on a course of Nietzschean self-discovery, which basically means sleeping her way to the top. She will no longer be victimized by men. She will take charge, and sleep with the ones who get in her way. It is surprisingly easy. She hides out in a boxcar and is discovered by a nightwatchman who wants to throw her off. She sleeps with him. It is made clear, when we see his gloves drop to the floor, and his dirty hand reach out and turn off the lantern. Lily no longer feels victimized – but there is something really disturbing about the WAY she has interpreted Nietzsche (and Adolph Clagg has a lot to do with it – he tells her to use men, not BE used BY them). Lily sleeps with the entire staff at a bank – going man to man – and the film shows how she climbs the floors, moving upwards in the departments through sexual conquests. Oh, and a young John Wayne is her first conquest in the bank. Poor sap, he actually liked the girl.
Stanwyck is something to see, as always. She is breathlessly modern.
And it’s amazing to see, even today, a film that refuses to have a moral. It’s shocking. It refuses to judge Lily for her actions. She says it clearly. She was turned into a tramp by her father at age 14 – and so she knows nothing else. It also refuses to judge the men who sleep with her – despite their wives, girlfriends, whatever. It’s just … what happens. No wonder the prudes freaked out. They cut up the film, they removed any suggestion of money changing hands, they tacked a moral onto the end (a sort of “happily ever after” type thing) … and the movie came out and still was shocking. It has no sentiment (there’s a close-up of a page of text from one of Nietzsche’s books, where he instructs to lose all sentimentality. The film itself has taken his advice). You yearn for sentiment, you yearn for Lily to soften up … but no. She can’t. Look at the life she has led. She is not evil. She is not a wanton femme fatale, or a man-eater. She is doing the best she can.
Amazing. You can rent the pre-release version of Baby Face now – it came out on DVD in 2006.
Well worth seeing. Not a great film, but a very important film in the history of American cinema. A real watershed moment.