Friday, August 26, 2011

Baby Face

Baby Face (1933)
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has had a hard life. As a speakeasy server, she’s been used and abused by the roughnecks that show up every day to spend their pay on booze. She’s ashamed of what she’s become at the hands of her father, and longs for something more. Her opportunity to leave this filth behind her comes when her father, who runs the speakeasy, dies. She is inspired by her friend Cragg to make something of herself by using her womanly wiles.

With her maid and confidant, Chico, by her side, Lily takes Cragg’s words to heart, venturing to New York, determined to make something of herself. Without wasting any time, Lily finds her way into Gotham Trust, seducing her way into the company. When she inquires about a job, the soft-spoken Southerner who has fallen under her spell asks, “Have you had an experience?” In a purr that would give Mae West a run for her money, Lily answers, “Plenty,” leading him into his boss’ empty office.

In a series of affairs with increasingly more powerful men (including a young John Wayne!), Lily sleeps her way through the company, eventually finding herself in the arms of both the vice president of the company and his soon to be son in law. Lily’s rejection of the son in law drives him mad, and when he finds her in the arms of his father in law, he shoots him before turning the gun on himself.

The murder/suicide scandal comes to a boiling point for the trust, with the chairmen of the board  prepared to pay off Lily to make her go away and not take her story to the press. Lily is more than happy to make off with the $15,000 she manages to finagle from the gentlemen, when her bluff is called by Courtland Trenholm, the grandson of the company’s founder. He uses her words against her, saying that, if all she wants to do is start over in a new city, he can give her a position at the Paris branch instead of the $15,000. Lily is forced to take the position to keep up the facade of a victim and resents Courtland’s interference.

The surprise comes to Courtland when he visits the Paris branch and finds Lily still employed. She woos him and they are soon married. Although all is well at first, Courtland is indicted when the bank fails due to mismanagement.
He asks Lily to return all he has given her to help finance his defense when she refuses. “Face life as you find it defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment,” this lesson from Nietzsche she has taken to heart, and she leaves with Chico, preparing to sale for Europe with only her money and belongings to show for her marriage.

While waiting for her ship to sale, however, Lily has a change of heart and, for the first time since the beginning of the film, shows true emotion. She realizes how much she loves Courtland. She goes to reconcile and finds him lying on the floor, suffering from having attempted suicide. She cries, cradling his head in her arms and reassuring him that all she has is his. This is the polar opposite of how Lily reacted to the murder/suicide of her previous lovers, when she showed nothing by cool logic. Courtland is rushed to the hospital with Lily by his side, as the paramedic assures Lily that Courtland has a good chance. We fade out on Courtland opening his eyes and smiling up at Lily as she smiles back at him.

“Baby Face” and the Hays Code

“Baby Face” was Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s “Red-Headed Woman,” starring Jean Harlow. Both films showed women who were not afraid to use sex to advance themselves and neither film showed the beautiful lead having to pay for her bad behavior. The two films embody the period in which they were made -- the Pre-Code era, the time before the Hays Code was adopted and effectively enforced. A time when censorship was largely left up to individual cities and theaters and a time when nudity, sex, drug use, and homosexuality could be easily found on film. Once Will Hays’ list of “general principals” and “particular applications” was enforced, all of these would be forbidden from the screen.

Although “Baby Face” was released in 1933, a year before the Hays Code was officially put into use, it still faced censorship. It was rejected by the New York Censorship Board in its original state and was then censored, rather heavy-handedly, and given a different ending. Although censorship doesn’t always harm a film, in the case of “Baby Face,” it certainly made it a lesser, though more popular, film.
In the censored version, Cragg’s speech pulling from the philosophy of Nietzsche is altered into a combination of inspiration and foreboding. Overdubbing and clever editing have completely eliminated Cragg’s sentiment, turning this speech: 
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, "All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation." That's what I'm telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!

Into this speech:

A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Remember, the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Don't let people mislead you. You must be a master, not a slave. Be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.
Later in the film, Cragg’s Christmas gift to Lily has also been censored. The pre-release version shows Lily receiving a book of Nietzsche, with the passage “Face life as you find it defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment.” highlighted. The theatrical version has omitted this, replacing it instead with a letter from Cragg that reads, “Dear Lily, From your letters I can tell that my advice was for nothing. You have chosen the wrong way. You are still a coward. Life will defeat you unless you fight back and regain your self respect. I send you this book hoping that you will allow it to guide you right.” In addition to these changes, lingering, sexual shots of Lily have been removed and an ending has been attached, which, through the perspective of the Gotham Trust chairmen, tells us that the Trenholms have donated “their share in putting the bank back on its feet.” We then find out that they have “sacrificed everything they had -- for the bank” and that they “haven’t a cent. He’s working as a laborer in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. They are working out their happiness together.”

Just as the film ends, we quickly fade in and fade out on the same depressing landscape that Lily wanted to escape at the movie’s beginning.

You can read all of the censor’s notes on “Baby Face” here in their depressing entirety.

I enjoy films that were made under and in defiance of the Hays Code. But to know that such a fantastic film was done such a disservice by those who wanted to ensure “
[t]hat throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right” frustrates me beyond words. The honesty of the pre-release version was lost on the cutting room floor for 70 years. Thanks to TCM and a 2004 discovery by George Willeman, we are now able to view and appreciate the pre-release version in its entirety, especially in contrast to the didactically driven theatrical release. It is significant and telling that, only after the pre-release's recovery was the film chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

If you’re a fan of the incredible Barbara Stanwyck, do yourself a favor and check out “Baby Face.” You will certainly fall under the spell of Lily Powers.