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

April 3, 2015

Three main scenes change between the two versions of the film. The first of these has to do with Kragg's Nietzschean advice to Lily after her father’s death. Below is the way the sequence appeared in the final script:

 

Kragg: What is going to become of you? It’s up to you to decide. If you stay in this town you are lost! (more angrily) That’s what makes me mad with you! You’re a coward! (she looks up at him, surprised! He nods fiercely) I mean it! You let life defeat you – you do not fight back!

Lily: (glancing away) What chance has a woman got?

Kragg: (shaking his finger at her excitedly) More chance than men! (she looks at him quickly) A woman – young, beautiful – like you – can get anything she wants in the world! Because you have a power over men! (more excitedly) But you must use men – not let them use you! You must be a master, not a slave! Look! Nietzsche says – All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more or less than exploitation. (He bangs the book shut, and scowls at her. Lily looks at him intently. She is beginning to realize what he means. He thumps the book with his finger.) That’s what I’m telling you. Exploit yourself! Go to a big city, where you will find opportunities…Be strong – defiant! (leaning toward her, vehemently) Use men – to get the things you want! (Lily stares at him, her eyes wide, thoughtful)

Lily: Yeh…[14]

Lily's getting an education from Kragg (Alphonse Ethier).

As the censors feared, Kragg stands as the film’s moral voice early on, and the framing emphasizes the powerful effect his words have on Lily: she sits at his feet as he towers over her, the camera perched on his shoulder, signifying the immense influence he holds over her. Kragg’s appearance and advice flows in the guise of a father, but Kragg turns out to be no better than her own father; while he doesn't pimp out Lily, he tells her, ironically, to have the strength to do it herself. His advice surely rung a chord with Depression-era audiences struggling to survive, most likely ringing true for women forced to turn to prostitution, which rose sharply during the early Depression years.

 

Kragg's sexually forceful monologue was probably pushed by Warners in an attempt to lure in audiences and explain Lily's subsequent domineering sexuality. However, that was the very trend censors worked to reverse, and their solution meant turning Kragg into a moral voice:

 

...A woman, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right and 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. Keep clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success…[15] (italics mine)

 

This version subtly adds a new tone as Kragg reminds Lily that there's a right and a wrong way to live her life. Lily still listens intently - in the shots very little changes between the two versions - but even with offering her two choices, Lily still takes the immoral road, a clear echo of the challenges faced by early 1930s audiences, women in particular.

 

The censors could have also been operating with a financial motive here: the retakes cost Warners valuable money, and the censors hoped this expenditure would influence studios to cease production on films that emphasized sexual themes. In the end, though, despite the cuts and money spent, Lily's actions speak louder than Kragg's words. Censors: 0, Studios: 1

This image isn't from this particular scene, but it hints at how the censors wanted to turn Kragg into a voice of morality. For some reason, this sounds like it was written by someone at the PCA...

The next scene to come under the censors’ blade occurs directly after Kragg’s speech. Lily and Chico hop a train to New York, but they've no money for the fare. A brakeman finds them and threatens to kick them off, but Lily knows what to do: she softens her voice, flutters her eyelashes, and places her hand on her hip as Chico walks away; she means business, and they both know it. Lily seduces her first victim as Chico hums “St. Louis Blues”: “St. Louis Woman / She got a diamond ring / Leads that man of mine / By the apron strings.”

Uh oh. It looks like Lily and Chico may be busted...

The final script describes how the scene should take place, emphasizing Lily’s sinful sexuality:

 

Suddenly she steels herself. She comes closer to the brakeman, pulling her shirt down...to show the curve of her breasts...she looks up at him with a smiling challenge...The brakeman stares at her...Then his glance strays down to her breasts…The brakeman’s lantern on the floor of the car. One of the brakeman’s rough canvas gloves falls on the floor beside it...The brakeman’s hand reaches in and extinguishes the light. [16]

This is after Lily shooed Chico away. Taking one for the team.

Just as was described...gloves and lantern on the ground.

Lily’s act, which we never see, mirrors her subsequent seductions, but this one stands out as the one she needs the most; without this rail passage she would not have gotten anywhere to begin with. Though necessary plot-wise, it's also the act that most closely resembles prostitution, and therefore it's deletion was requested. In the released film, we see Lily and Chico hide in a railcar, and Chico quietly sings “St. Louis Blues” before the screen fades to black. The brakeman character and Lily's first sexual conquest since leaving her home town do not exist at all, so other than not paying their fare, no harm is done. Censors: 1, Studios: 1

 

The final difference has to do with the ending. In the original script, Baby Face concludes with Trenholm dead and Lily free. However, this finale never made it to the censors, because one month after the original shoot wrapped, Stanwyck and Brent were called back to film the pre-release ending in an ambulance, where a medic tells Lily that they've done all they can do for Trenholm and he's got a good chance. At that moment, Lily's box of jewels falls, and when one of the paramedics informs her, she replies: “It doesn’t matter now.” Cue a fade to black.

Sure you don't want to pick that up, Lily?

No, she's finally concerned for another human being.

As the released ending shows, the studio was forced to take it one step further. The ambulance scene remains, though curiously, the line, "He's got a good chance," was deleted, so we're not sure if the medic thinks Trenholm will survive. After the jewels fall, the film cuts to the Board of Directors at the bank. One of the members pulls out a letter from Lily and Trenholm:

 

Jameson: (quietly but forcefully) Before you take all the credit, Gault, may I remind you that Trenholm and his wife sacrificed everything they had – for the bank.

Gault: (leaning back in his chair – his voice sarcastic) Oh yes. Whatever became of her – his wife?

Jameson: (with a warm smile) I had a letter from them last week (taking a letter from his pocket). They haven’t a cent. He’s working as a laborer in the steel mills in Pittsburgh – They are working out their happiness together. [17]

           

The film then cuts to a brief long shot of a steel mill before fading out.

Not even a shot of Lily and Trenholm, just the steel town. But you get it. Lily's back where she started.

Now we must deal with three different endings to Baby Face. The original scripted finale in which Trenholm died let Lily get away with her immoral actions, not to mention his money. The studio knew that if a film was going to exhibit immorality, it at least needed a morally compensating ending to satisfy censors, but even the uncensored version does not punish Lily as fully as it could; instead, her future stands open, letting the industry get away with their depravity while not actually chastising it in the end. However, with the released movie's conclusion, everything comes full circle, and Baby Face turns into the story of a woman’s rise by decadent means, her fall, and her ultimate redemption. Finally, Lily gets what is coming to her (and the almighty bank is saved!). She's poor and right back where she started, but this time she's respectable and happy. With this ending, the censors win; the point that immorality cannot pay is emphasized, and the reason she goes back to the steel town with her husband is “predicated upon the loss of her fortune; they affirm the familial norm and in so doing soften or attenuate the heroine’s deviance...”[18] In a clear appeal to Depression audiences, the censors proclaim that money is not everything, nor does it necessarily lead to happiness. Censors: 2, Studios: 1.

Note, bottom left: Do not bring your children! 

The Publicity

If the censors thought the studio's reliance on sex and sizzle during production was bad, I hope they somehow missed Baby Face's publicity campaign. At twelve pages, the merchandising packet provided exhibitors with accessories, publicity, ads, biographies, reviews, and stunts to attract audiences. Publicity tended to focus on sex and consumerism; for example, advance features promoted Stanwyck and Brent, focusing on her part as a “siren with a vengeance” and his “He-Man Role,” while columns sold the film with titles such as: “As Vamp in ‘Baby Face’ Miss Stanwyck Makes Love to 12 Sweethearts.” [19]

 

Warner Bros. produced several types of official ads for Baby Face, many of them showing either pictures of a scantily clad Stanwyck or the star dressed in high class clothes with her various conquered men surrounding her. Posters also emphasized Lily's sexual rise, with page five displaying a ladder with various conquered men between labeled wrungs: “Small Town Politician, Ass’t Bank Manager, Bank Cashier, Bank’s Vice-President, Bank President.” [20] This ad in particular, which mirrored the way the film showed Lily's rise through various tilts up the building, showed how the studio was consciously selling the film through images of sex and seduction. And if you need further proof, a note on top of the ladder read: “Though this publicity art is larger than the average scene cut, you should have little trouble planting it because of its novelty. It contains so much selling value, that it will be worth your while to plant it.” [21] (italics mine)

 

The packet also included stunts to further exploit the film. Spots focused on women, glamour, and sex with article titles such as, “Intimate Diary Leaflet Sells Strong Love Angle." Song parodies, cut out window hangers, and lobby cards sold teasers such as, “While you were out…‘Baby Face’ called and wants you to meet her at the Strand Theater.” [22]

"..more loves than a cat has lives!" That sounds accurate.

The Reception and Release

Despite the obvious lurid push by the studio to sell the movie, the reviews of Baby Face really depended on the moral attitude of the particular writer. One wrote: “Three cheers for Sin! If you don’t think it pays, get a load of Barbara Stanwyck as she sins her way to the top floor of Manhattan’s swellest bank… realizing that her body means power, she decides to enslave men rather than let them enslave her...” [23] As Rose Pelswick penned in her June 26, 1933 review in the New York Evening Journal, “‘Baby Face’ may not be what the censor boards recommend, but it’s amusingly rowdy…” [24] I'd say those are pretty accurate descriptions.

 

Other write-ups mirrored what the censors preached; mainly, that the film’s theme was an immoral one. Mae Tinee remarked:

 

Barbara Stanwyck handles her role of perpetual prostitute in a manner so astute and workmanlike as to make the picture a positive menace to silly or unreasoning young girls…If, after all these years, producers are to make pictures like ‘Baby Face’ because pictures like ‘Baby Face’ are what the public demands, then I throw up my hands. [Now I supposed you’ll all go and take a look at the film and thus encourage the industry to turn out some more like it]. [25]

 

The June 27, 1933 review in Variety also possessed a cautionary tone: “Where this one can get by its rough stuff may get some business...It possesses no merit for general or popular appeal...Anything hotter than this for public showing would call for an asbestos audience blanket.” [26] Colorful language such as this, as Mae Tinee observed above, served simply as another form of advertising.

So...would reviewers suggest taking out some of these tilt shots showing how Lily 'worked' her way up?

It was known throughout the industry that censorship stood as a large financial difficulty for the studios; if executives did not comply with requested deletions, as Warners did, they risked not being able to release a film if rejected. In the case of Baby Face, the Catholic Legion of Decency placed the film on its banned list in Chicago, while states such as Ohio and Virginia prohibited its screening on the basis that the picture exhibited objectionable morals. [27] Sex and censorship aside, Baby Face still earned a profit of $93,135, though its rejection in a handful of states surely cut into its returns. [28] 

 

The Conclusion

The two versions of Baby Face exemplify the dire straits the industry found itself in during the darkest Depression years. Studios pushed provocative, scandalous tales to attract audiences, many of whom could no longer afford a trip to the movies by 1932-1933, but the censors, in the forms of the PCA, SRC, the Catholic Legion of Decency, and others, saw the studio's move as a threat to the morals of a great nation. Of course, when faced with the very real possibility of not being able to release a fully finished film in vital areas due to censorship issues, as the case of Baby Face and New York state shows, studios were forced to make whatever changes necessary to at least obtain a majority of exhibition approvals.

 

It's quite rare that these original full length pre-release versions still exist today and weren't simply sliced, diced, and discarded when censorship changes were requested. Thus, the before and after versions of Baby Face provide a unique window into the visual repercussions of the moral battle between the studios and the various censor boards during pre-code Hollywood.   

 

Footnotes

[1] Quoted in Kevin Thomas, “Stanwyck Pre-Code Films Due at Melnitz,” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1988.

[2] Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 39.

[3] Memorandum from James Wingate to Darryl Zanuck, January 3, 1933, MPA Baby Face file.

[4] Original story, November 9, 1932, page 3, file #1745, Warner Bros. Archives.

[5] Memorandum from James Wingate to Will Hays, December 30, 1932, MPA Baby Face file.

[6] Suggestions for Changes in Baby Face, page 1, MPA Baby Face file.

[7] Suggestions for Changes in Baby Face, page 2, MPA Baby Face file.

[8] Memorandum from James Wingate to Darryl Zanuck, February 28, 1933, MPA Baby Face file.

[9] Memorandum from James Wingate to Darryl Zanuck, February 28, 1933, MPA Baby Face file.

[10] Memorandum from Darryl Zanuck to James Wingate, March 29, 1933, MPA Baby Face file.

[11] Letter from Joe Breen to Will Hays, June 8, 1933, MPA Baby Face file.

[12] Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, Turner Classic Movies (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, 2008).

[13] Letter from Irwin Esmond to Albert Howson, April 1, 1933, File #25491, New York State Archives.

[14] Final script for Baby Face, page 25-27, file #1745, Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

[15] Changes in Dialogue and Cuts on “Baby Face,” page 1, MPA Baby Face file, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library Special Collections, Beverly Hills, CA. 

[16] Final script for Baby Face, page 30, file #1745, Warner Bros. Archives.

[17] Changes in Dialogue and Cuts on “Baby Face,” page 4, MPA Baby Face file.

[18] Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 41. 

[19] Advance features and features, page 2-4, file #679 (special), Warner Bros. Archives. 

[20] Current features, page 5, file #679 (special), Warner Bros. Archives.

[21] Current features, pages 5, file# 679 (special), Warner Bros. Archives.

[22] Stunts and exploitation, pages 11, file #679 (special), Warner Bros. Archives.

[23] Liberty Magazine, quoted in Frank Miller, Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin, and Violence on Screen (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1994), 68.

[24] Rose Pelswick, New York Evening Journal, June 26, 1933.

[25] Mae Tinee.

[26] Variety, June 27, 1933. 

[27] Dawn B. Sova, Forbidden Films: Censorship Histories of 125 Motion Pictures (New York: Facts on File, 2001), 32.  

[28] Mark A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: Harry n. Abrams, Inc., 1999),  220.

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