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Friday, May 20th, 2005


The era of Pre-Code films ran from 1930 to 1934.  During that time women portrayed in films were modern, defiant and complicated.  They ditched cheating husbands, had lovers, had careers and were independent and unapologetic.  Prior to this time, many women’s roles either depicted the woman as good or bad—the sinner or saint—the virgin or whore.  In other words, prior depictions of women were simple stereotypes that allowed no room for shades of gray.

I first discovered Pre-Code in college and I remember being shocked (yet thrilled) at how bold and brazen it was.  Until then I had only been exposed to Classic Hollywood films that were Westerns, Musicals, Comedies, Horror and pretty pure stuff overall.  Pre-Code was vastly different and proved to be a complete revelation.  These films tackled adult issues and really brought complex morality and mature thought to the screen. They also offered incredible roles for women that were sexually charged which was something I had never expected to see in an old movie.  When the Production Code came into effect and cracked down on Hollywood these films became extinct.  It is a shame…but at least for a brief few years these films got made and were able to create an impact that can still be seen and felt to this day.

BABY FACE (1933) I read the NY Times article a few months ago that some additional (and very racy) censored footage had been discovered for BABY FACE and it would be put back in the film!  I was thrilled!  UCLA showed BABY FACE-Uncensored to a sold out audience.  Before the film they explained to us where the additional footage was so we could look for it.  If you haven’t seen it….BABY FACE tales the gin soaked story of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) who is forced to work as a waitress and prostitute in her father’s grimy speakeasy.  After his sudden death in an explosion, Lily sets out for New York with her maid to seek a better life.  She gets a job in a New York bank where she literally sleeps her way to the top floor by floor.  Barbara Stanwyck is excellent!  She exudes more sexuality with a mere glance than most women do with their entire bodies.  She is fierce, tough and unstoppable.  It amazed me how much the uncensored footage changed the entire course of the film! 

Posted below is the NY Times article which can summarize far better than I could:


January 9, 2005

STARRING a slinky young Barbara Stanwyck as a bootlegger’s daughter who sleeps her way to the top of a New York financial empire, “Baby Face” is one of the most notorious films from the pre-Code era - that period of much relaxed censorship that Hollywood enjoyed from 1930 to 1934.

Last summer, Michael Mashon, a curator of the motion picture division at the Library of Congress, received a request for a print of “Baby Face” from the organizers of the London Film Festival, who wanted to show the film as part of its annual tribute to pre-Code rambunctiousness. The library’s collection, Mr. Mashon discovered, contained two negatives of “Baby Face.” One was the original camera negative; the other, identified as a duplicate negative, looked slightly longer.

What he saw was a revelation. “It was a moment that archivists live for,” Mr. Mashon recalled. “I knew in the first five minutes that this version was different. I can’t begin to describe the sheer joy of discovery, the feeling that I may have been the first person since 1933 to see ‘Baby Face’ uncut.”

What Mr. Mashon had unearthed was, indeed, “Baby Face” in its raw - very raw - state, much as it had been submitted to the Motion Picture Division of the State of New York Education Department, otherwise known as the New York State censorship board. The board’s decision, received by Warner Brothers on April 28, 1933, consisted of one word: REJECTED.

The board did not give any reasons, perhaps because they seemed obvious enough. “Baby Face,” directed by Alfred E. Green from an original story by Darryl F. Zanuck (who was then in charge of production at Warner), remains one of the most stunningly sordid films ever made, a standout even among the wave of risqu? entertainments that filled American screens in the early years of the Depression. Even the cut version is a jaw-dropper; with its five full minutes of sleaze restored, it has to be seen to be not quite believed.

The heroine of “Baby Face,” Lily Powers (Ms. Stanwyck), was raised in her father’s second-story speakeasy in a working-class neighborhood of Erie. Pa. Dad (Robert Barrat), apparently, has been offering her services to the local steelworkers (one describes her as “the sweetheart of the night shift”), but when he sells her in a whispered conversation with a corrupt politician (we see a greasy wad of bills passing between them), Lily has had enough. The pol tries to touch her thigh, and she dumps a cup of hot coffee on his hand; obviously a slow learner, he comes up from behind to grab her breasts, and Lily smashes a beer bottle against his forehead and knocks him cold.

And that’s only the first reel. Urged on by a not-so-kindly old cobbler (Alphonse Ethier), who recommends that Lily read Nietzsche - and “Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!” - Lily hops a freight train to New York. A favor performed behind closed doors for a tubby office boy at the Gotham Trust Company gets her a job as a file clerk; with similarly persuasive techniques, she wriggles her way up the corporate ladder, ducking through a door marked “Ladies Rest Room” for a squalid encounter with one supervisor (Douglas Dumbrille) and deliberately destroying the impending marriage of another (Donald Cook). Finally, she agrees to be kept in an uptown apartment by the bank’s elderly vice president (Henry Kolker). Lily musses his hair and calls him “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.”

These all can be seen in the new print of “Baby Face,” which Mr. Mashon showed at the London festival last month, and which will have its American premiere in New York at Film Forum on Jan. 24. (A DVD will be released next year.) But in the version of “Baby Face” that has been known for the last 71 years, most of those moments were either compromised or eliminated. In the censored version, the politician’s first look at Lily is no longer a leering panning shot that begins with Stanwyck’s legs and rises slowly, almost reluctantly, to her face; money no longer changes hands between her father and the politician; she’s now the “sweetheart of the night (blip!)”; and the incident with the beer bottle has been dropped entirely.

But still missing from the new print, unfortunately, is a scene in which Lily (accompanied by her best friend, a young black woman played by Theresa Harris) negotiates the fare to New York with a willing brakeman (James Murray). “Scene ends with brakeman’s glove falling beside lantern and his hand turning the lantern out,” reads the description in a Warner Brothers censorship file.

Warner Brothers voluntarily made these cuts, along with quite a few others, in response to the New York board’s blunt rejection. They worked: on June 17, 1933, the board passed the revised version, and the film opened soon after, to good reviews and good business.

Though many of the changes were crudely applied, others were more subtle and made with some skill. Instead of “Ed propositioned me at the funeral,” Lily says, “Ed made me a proposition at the funeral” - a shift in tone that made all the difference to the New York censors.

In an attempt to give the film a moral voice, the Nietzschean cobbler was transformed into Lily’s Jiminy Cricket. In the uncut film, he sends Lily a congratulatory copy of Nietzsche’s “Thoughts Out of Season,” urging her to: “Face life as you find it, defiantly and unafraid! Waste no energy yearning for the moon! Crush out all sentiment!”

In the revised scene, the title of the book has been obscured, and the cobbler writes to her: “You have chosen the wrong way. You are still a coward. I send you this book hoping that you will allow it to guide you right.” These “compensating moral values,” as the Production Code office called them, did much to make “Baby Face” acceptable.

“‘Baby Face’ was certainly one of the top 10 films that caused the Production Code to be enforced,” said Mark. A. Vieira, author of an illustrated study of the period, “Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood” (1999). “We all assumed that we would never see those scenes. Now, through an archival miracle, we have them.”

The next film in the Pre-Code double feature was TWO SECONDS (1932) starring Edward G. Robinson.  It is about an honest construction worker whose life is brought down by an evil scheming dance hall girl.  He is sitting in the electric chair and it told that it will take two seconds for him to die.  In those seconds, he flashes back to the circumstances that led to his ruin.  The final moments of the film are hair-raising.  Edward G. Robinson totally owns the screen.  He is riveting and unforgettable. 

The theatre at UCLA was packed and the audience seemed to LOVE the movies!  Thanks to the efforts of archivists and film preservationists, these Pre-Code gems will live forever and continue to shock and thrill audiences!

Written by Karie (site owner) on 05/20 at 05:34 AM


  1. I don’t think this film is available on DVD or VHS.  I was really fortunate to get to see it at the UCLA Film Archive here in Los Angeles.

    You might want to check TCM.  You also might want to see if there is a video store in your area that speicalizes in having super hard to find, rare stuff.  I think this film was made at Warner Bros. and it might be a good idea to write them and mention that you want to see this film on DVD!  Believe it not, the home video departments take the fans seriously.  I wrote in several times about NIGHTMARE ALLEY and I’m assuming many other people bugged Fox Home video because it is now out on DVD!

    In other words, don’t give up!  Crime and Noir films tend to be big sellers on DVD so I’m hoping it is just a matter of time until all of them are available.

    Posted by Karie (site owner)  on  09/16  at  12:01 AM






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