Sex, Money and Morals in Pre-Code Hollywood: The Censorship Battle of Baby Face

April 3, 2015

This piece is my contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please visit either site for a great selection of articles on this fascinating era.

 

Another note: This post is a heavily edited chapter of my undergrad thesis, so it's quite long and there are footnotes. The focus is Baby Face's censorship battle and the differences between the two existing versions of the movie today. It includes research conducted at USC's Warner Brothers Archive, the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library in both the Barbara Stanwyck file and the Baby Face Production Code Administration (PCA) file, and the New York State Archives. Most of my background on the pre-code era itself was cut, but if you'd like to know more about period, Pre-Code.com and Shadows and Satin are good places to start.

A wonderful French poster for Baby Face.

“I’ve always taken the rap for the Code, but it was really those Barbara Stanwyck pictures that did it,” Mae West was quoted as saying in a 1988 Los Angeles Times article. [1] Indeed, one of Stanwyck's raciest pictures, Baby Face (1933), ranks among those that helped herald in the re-affirmation of the Production Code in 1934.

 

Hollywood in early 1933 stood at its lowest point financially. The industry was in no position to take chances with its profits, and after three years of non-cooperation with the 1930 code, several states still rejected films. Production Code Administration (PCA) head honcho Will Hays traveled to Hollywood to inform studio executives that the states had more than 1,000 bills ready to pass against the exhibition of films. If producers refused to abide by the code, he would support federal censorship himself, which would be a signal of internal failure. [2] That humiliation aside, censorship and/or rejecting films outright would cost the studios valuable money, not only in terms of profit but for reshoots as well.  

 

Through the film's heroine, Baby Face painted a scandalous portrait of Depression-era America and the desperate lengths some women would go (disguised as ‘work’) to attain a comfortable lifestyle. Of course, Baby Face's definition of 'work' isn’t quite the same as the average laborer, nor is the idea of a 'comfortable lifestyle,' which equates with luxury here, but that’s where Baby Face provided a diversion and pushed the limit in terms of its risqué themes and characterizations. The movie's suggestive sequences and the censorship troubles they caused make Baby Face a prime example of the struggles studios faced during the pre-code era, as executives amped up sin and sensation in hopes of luring in audiences, which gave headaches to the censors and moral reformers throughout the country. 

Chico (Theresa Harris) and Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) aren't too happy with their lot in life. Lily soon sets out to change that - and how!

The Movie

Men gather in a dingy steel town speakeasy playing cards, drinking beer, and pawing at Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck). Lily's father, taking government bribes with one hand and pimping her out with the other, simply looks on. After Lily refuses a patron's advances, her father calls her a tramp; she counters and remarks she’d be better off dead than with him. Well, a short while later her dream comes true: a still explodes and burns the place to the ground with Lily's father inside. 

Lily's getting violent with a pushy patron. Please see the greatest gif of this scene and its aftermath (Lily nonchalantly downing a beer) at the Black Maria, here. It's #10 near the top of the page.

Soon after, Lily visits a cobbler named Kragg (Alphonse Ethier), one of her father's rare decent patrons, who once gave her a Nietzsche book. The cobbler imparts Nietzsche’s advice, encouraging Lily to be strong to get what she wants since she now has no home or money.

 

With Kragg's words engrained in her mind, Lily and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop a train to New York City. Lily works her charm on the doorman outside the Gotham Trust Bank, and from there, she quickly seduces her way into a job as the secretary to Stevens (Donald Cook), the bank's Vice President.   

Lily stalks her prey: the Gotham Trust Bank.

Doorman is definitely going down with this look.

That's a whole lot of stories to go through, but rest assured, Baby Face will succeed.

Stevens, engaged to Ann (Margaret Lindsay), the daughter of bank President Carter (Henry Kolker), soon succumbs to Lily. When Ann walks in on them, Stevens fires Lily, but...he still asks to see her on the side. Lily coolly turns his proposition down.

 

The incident comes to the attention of Carter. Lily's deception works on him, and soon he surrenders to her charm and lavishes her with riches. Stevens, still distraught over losing Lily, shows up at her apartment one night to win her back. After finding Lily and Carter together, a distraught Stevens shoots Carter and then himself. 

This is not a good situation...

...Calmly, Lily actually (eventually) recognizes this.

The bank's Board of Directors elects a new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). Their first order of business is to deal with the murder-suicide scandal Lily created. Lily protests that the men used her, and she's ready to sell her story to a newspaper for $10,000. Trenholm sees through her facade and extends her another offer: if she wants to make an honest living, he'll give her a job in Paris where she can start over. Furious her plan backfired, Lily reluctantly accepts.

"Bank Tragedy Woman" would sound bad on a resume.

In Paris, Lily works hard and fends off any pesky men. When Trenholm visits the Paris branch, he's pleasantly surprised, and he too falls in love with Lily. Before he knows it, they're married, and the couple moves back to New York to settle into a more glamorous lifestyle.

 

One evening, Trenholm arrives home greatly distressed; he's been indicted and owes the bank one million dollars. He pleads with Lily to give up everything, but she refuses. Lily has a change of heart as she's about to leave on the next boat and runs to Trenholm’s office, but it's too late: he's shot himself.

This doesn't look like a good phone call for Lily's now-husband, Tremholm (George Brent).

Decisions, decisions...

It looks like leaving is the answer!

Never mind. Last minute change of heart. (But will he survive?!)

Censorship Worries in Pre and Post Production

Before filming began, those involved with the production of Baby Face knew they would encounter troubles from the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), an organization, along with the PCA, created under the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). James Wingate, former head of the New York State Censor Board and current head of the SRC as of October 1932, told Darryl Zanuck, the head of production at Warner Bros., to minimize the sex element and “show through Lily’s characterization that her sort of luxury and financial success does not bring any lasting happiness." [3] With lines in the original story that read, “[Lily realizes] that all men wanted was her body, so she had given it to the highest bidder," Warners certainly had their work cut out for them. [4]  

 

However, one of the first letters from Wingate to Will Hays, dated December 30, 1932, before production started, reported that the script did not directly violate anything in the code, even if the theme was “of a troublesome nature." [5] To that end, the PCA files reveal that they made suggestions in several scenes, particularly those involving Kragg, which would paint Lily in a more morally positive light, though these changes were never implemented. For example, one proposed line has Kragg telling Lily: “Money, you know, isn’t everything. There are other things in life that count for more than wealth. Self-respect and a good name…" [6] The PCA also suggested a scene in which Kragg adds goodness to Lily's character:

 

Some other girls, with all this success and glamour, might lose their heads and do things they’d be sorry for later. But not my Lilly [sic]...I hope you’ll be brave and strong and courageous no matter how much it costs you. Get hold of a good man – marry him – settle down – and have a whole houseful of babies. That’s what counts - a good man and babies galore. [7]

 

The subjects of dignity, family and children form the backbone of these ideas that never made it into the film - let's be serious, Baby Face has nothing at all to do with at least two of those, family or babies - but they say a lot about what the censors were aiming to turn the film into by trying to emphasize a return to a traditional way of life focusing on morality and the grounding of family.

Nope, no babies or family behind this door! Lily won't let former lover Stevens (Donald Cook) inside because his future father-in-law is in there. How's that for family?

After production wrapped, the film ran into the most trouble. Though Wingate praised Zanuck on February 28, 1933, saying the studio did a great job with the film and “handled it with good taste,” there was a catch: [8]

 

…because of the present state of mind of the critical portion of the public as well as the increased vigilance of the censor boards throughout the country, we believe that it would be very wise to give some further consideration to the following details, as, if these few things were modified, it is possible that the censors’ reaction throughout the country would be less severe. [9]

 

Those details alluded to had to do in part with some of the scenes I will discuss later. In this quote as well as the previous ones, Wingate’s correspondence shows how little power and authority the SRC actually had aside from making suggestions, even though, as the name suggestions, the SRC was created to work with the studios in adhering to the code.  

 

Warners didn't take all these ideas and changes lying down. Zanuck wrote to Wingate on March 29 to tell him of the changes made in the Nietzsche scene: “Although in BABY FACE it cost me a great value in an important situation, I deleted and altered the lines that you objected to…Elimination of…these lines weakened both situations." [10] (italics mine). In hindsight, I don't think Zanuck had to worry too much about these slight line alterations and deletions, because even without them the overall tone of the picture remained relatively intact.

With or without dialogue, I think we get the picture...

Joseph Breen, who worked under Hays for a few years and eventually took the reins of the PCA in 1934, wrote a letter to Hays on June 8 formally confirming that Baby Facenow conforms to our Production Code,” but he still wanted to discourage pictures of this sort from being made:

 

The Warner folks have done a splendid job with this picture…with a view to their public responsibilities in such undertakings. As you know, the original version of this film was unworthy of so fine a group...Of course, this picture, even as it now is, ought not to suggest any jubilation...Its theme is still a questionable one and suggests the kind, or type, of picture which ought not to be encouraged. [11] (italics mine)

 

Hmm. So, the censors clearly felt that the film industry had a moral obligation to the nation, but did anyone tell Hollywood about that? I'm guessing no. And what parts of the print originally submitted to the PCA were so depraved and evocative that their deletion tipped the scales as to what the PCA would (begrudgingly) allow? Read on and you'll find out!

 

Theatrical Release vs. Pre-Release

Viewing Baby Face today presents a rare, unique window into the pre-code period. Why? Well, one of the “most lurid and lascivious films of the pre-code era,” luckily exists today in two versions. [12] The New York State Censor Board was the first state board the film was shipped out to in late March 1933, and the film was rejected on the grounds that it was “‘IMMORAL’ & ‘WILL TEND TO CORRUPT MORALS,’” [13] Apparently, the censor board was so concerned with the effect Baby Face would have on the moral well-being of their fine citizens that they used the word twice! Consequently, Warners had to re-shoot and re-edit scenes, resulting in two slightly diverse versions: the pre-release print originally sent out to censor boards and the edited film shown to audiences when it was released in the summer of 1933. The original uncensored cut was thought lost until it turned up at the Library of Congress in 2004. The difference between the two films amounts to a mere five minutes; however, those few minutes provide a unique insight into the battle studios and censors faced over morals and money during the pre-code era.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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