Barbara Stanwyck’s role as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933) was a great opportunity for the actress to show her range. The story begins with Lily living with her father in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father hires her out as a prostitute to the steel workers who use the bar, and the politician who keeps his bar open. Lily’s fate changes after her father is killed when his distillery catches fire and blows up. She moves to New York, keen to get what she wants out of life by using men as they have used her. Her vibrant face, fantastic figure and shrewd capacity to seduce men assist her as she exchanges sex for breaks at the Gotham Trust bank. She moves swiftly from barroom sass to jewel-dripping prowess as she rises up the social ladder of 1930s Manhattan. She finally falls in love for real and marries the director of the bank, Courtland Trenholm. In the final scenes, she realises just how much her husband means to her and her own capacity for love.
The film Baby Face itself has had more than one incarnation. In 2004, the original pre-release version was discovered by archivist Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress in the US, complete with five extra minutes of material. It was notorious at the time of release, presumably for its languorous shots of Stanwyck’s body and the supposedly loose morals of Lily Powers. The New York Board of Censors were disgusted and demanded that parts of the film were cut, not only the naughty bits, but some complex moments that give depth to Lily’s character and offer a social critique of the times.
The film existed in a climate of righteous reform for Hollywood cinema. Since 1930, Will Hays, the current head of Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), had been under pressure from a group of Catholic clergy and their supporters to ‘save’ the American people from the celluloid ‘muck merchants’, as Gregory D. Black writes in his article ‘Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Industry, 1930-1940’ (Film History Vol 3, No.3, 1989, p. 167-189). Hays had been attempting to enforce a moralistic Production Code but his actions were not seen as firm enough by this religious faction. In league with lay Catholic Joseph I. Breen, Hays set up the Production Code Administration, so that by 1934 no script was sanctioned and no film could be released unless it had PCA approval. Heavy fines of up to $25,000 swayed many writers and directors to fall in with the Code’s criteria. To briefly summarise, the Production Code included the banning of any nudity, explicit sexuality, any social mixing or marriage of people of different races. If any criminal or ‘immoral’ behaviour such as infidelity was seen, then it had to punished within the narrative. Another part of the stricture was that the industry permanently withdrew any films already distributed that were deemed immoral according to the code. Baby Face was one of many films to be extracted from circulation.
Thus came to an end what is known as the Pre-Code era in Hollywood. Since 1927, the industry had enjoyed relative freedom and had played up to the audience’s love for sauce and tempestuous violence. They also relished the space to present a commentary on American society, especially with regard to injustice because of class and race. Women were portrayed as having a will of their own and often sizzling sexuality, without necessarily being punished for it. Arguably, the religious fervour irrupted due to the new use of sound, which literally meant that the movies could capture the essence of the people’s voice. Black writes that the producers of the early 1930s rejected the idea that the American people needed to be sheltered and guided by film: ‘the American people were the real censors and the box office was their ballot box’ (p. 172). This was contrary to the desires of the church advocates, who wanted films to present the image of a model society that was pious, moderate and based on family values.
This self-governing enforcement of regulation is a key moment, not only in Hollywood’s history, but in the way that regulation has been used to create a standard of acceptance for the sexual mores and behaviour of women. This is illuminated by moving comparisons of the cut and uncut versions of Baby Face. In the uncut version, there is a sense of Lily’s strength and sexual power. Part of this is heralded by the music in the film, especially a key theme rendition of ‘St Louis Blues’, written by W.C. Handy in 1914. Here it is brassy, swinging and triumphant, played by the Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by Leo F. Forbstein. Every time Lily ‘engages the attentions’ of a manager higher up in the bank she gets a new job in their department. To signify this, with hilarious innuendo we hear the ‘St Louis Blues’ theme over a pan up the exterior of the art deco high rise. The department name is written in the windows: up, up we go, from filing to mortgages and mortgages to accounting. The music taps into Lily’s nonchalance and ambition as she gets one over the men she ensnares. She is also beautifully dressed and there is a pleasure to be derived from her Cinderella-like costume changes as she rises up, each move to a new department seeing her in newer and more lavish finery. Lily is upwardly mobile, not as a result of her commitment to the labour market, but to her own sexuality, and the shortcuts it allows. These I see as spectral clues to the light comic tone the filmmakers wanted to convey, and the titillation they did not want to hold back on.
As I watched the pre-release version, having just watched the censored version, I saw Lily Powers shift into a three-dimensional woman. I saw more of her reactions, wide shots of the places she is situated in and evidence of her being successful at her job. The paring down of Lily’s complexity and her social context in the cut version seemed lamentable, a kind of celluloid lobotomy. A comparison of the two endings is one way into these remarkable differences. In the censored theatrical release, right from the start Lily is warned that there is a ‘right way and a wrong way’ to make her way in the world, by her friend Adolf Cragg, an intellectual cobbler from home. [SPOILER] The ending, which was stitched on to please the censors, is depressing. It reminds us of the start of the film when we see Lily leaning out of the window of the speakeasy; dusting off factory smoke from her window box, she wants air, to escape the steel works and its men. A shot of the smoking factory chimneys lingers. Later, Lily’s biggest decision is whether to give up all her assets and money to Courtland when the bank starts to fail. Courtland attempts suicide and Lily saves him. The final scene of the theatrical release shows a company meeting of elderly men explaining that Lily and her husband have bailed out the bank and have returned to Erie and are ‘working out their happiness’. Courtland is now a labourer. We don’t see Lily; instead the film closes on the image of the chimneys. While it is allowed that Lily has finally found happiness and true love, she is back on the same treadmill, her father replaced by her husband, in a place she hates. The worthy message is clear: Lily has her punishment for cheating the system and doing so in sinful ways. [END OF SPOILER]
The uncut version offers an entirely different moral slant and an open ending. Restored is the extended exchange between Lily and Cragg early on in the film. The bit that was missing is Cragg’s elaboration of an extract from Nietzsche’s Will to Power (it should be noted that this is not a book actually written by Nietzsche, but a series of fragments from his notebooks edited together and published by his sister after his mental breakdown). Cragg suggests that ‘All life is exploitation’, and that Lily could ‘exploit herself’ and ‘use men to get the things [she] want[s]’. Presumably, this nihilistic philosophy and the exposure of the labour market system were too much for the censors, especially as they were used to rouse a woman to action. This exchange entirely shifts the emphasis, from ‘free yourself from systems of exploitation’ in the uncut version to ‘freedom can only exist in reference to pre-written moral codes’ in the cut.
The ending of the pre-release version is also much more interesting. [SPOILER] Lily and Courtland gaze into each other’s eyes as he comes round in the ambulance (this was cut: in the theatrical version, Lily just looks miserably at him), when the paramedic tells her to take care of her suitcase as half a million’s worth of stash is seen spilling out. She says, ‘it doesn’t matter now’, then the smouldering ‘St Louis Blues’ kicks in and the credits roll. To me, this open ending says that Lily now believes that real love overrides material wealth, but it also insinuates that the money might not matter right now, but it might in an hour or two when she wants to pay the medical bill and run away with her gorgeous husband.