In 1934, the “production code” went into strict effect. It’s what kept American films squeaky-clean until the mid-1960s. But before 1934 (“pre-code”), a few movies were released that were quite risqué. One of them is Baby Face from 1933 starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Sleeping Her Way to the Top
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Lily (Stanwyck) leaves home — home, for her, is her father’s speakeasy. Although none of this is explicitly spelled out, it’s clear that her dad has been pimping her out since she was 14 as part of the entertainment at the bar. Before she leaves town, she visits friend-of-the-family Mr. Cragg, who gives her a book by Nietzsche. His advice to her is to “use men. Use men to get things you want.”
It is advice that she follows closely. After trading rides with a railyard bull, she lands in Manhattan at the entrance to a bank building. A little smile gets her in the door. A little more gets her a job. From there, she sleeps her way to the top — literally. Each promotion lands her on a higher floor in the building. After only seven affairs (including one with a young-looking John Wayne), she is on the top floor with the president of the bank.
At the top, Lily is caught in a scandal involving the bank president and a jealous lover. She is ready to sell her story to the tabloids, and the bank is ready to pay her more to keep it to herself, but she opts instead for a quiet job in the Paris office. Maybe our nihilistic gold-digger has found a conscience that the Hays office could approve of.
New Old Print
The reason you can see Baby Face these days is that a rare print was found recently. It had different footage from that in every other print of the movie for the last 70 years.
As Film Buff Online reports, “The new version was discovered by Mike Mashon, curator at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress. [...] Upon screening this new version, Mashon realized that this longer version contained many racier scenes that were eventually toned down for release.”
You can see some of the scenes that were re-shot in the version now playing around the country (these scenes are included after the end of the film, so stick around). One shows Mr. Cragg softening his speech somewhat. In the reshoot, he counsels Lily to use men, but not to overdo it, and not to be evil. A later scene, where Cragg had sent her another Nietzsche book urging her to keep being ruthless, now shows a note inside the book urging her to be good. There is also a new ending, in which the bank’s board of directors explain that Lily learned her lesson, paid her debt to society, and is happily living a humble little life back at home.
Reason to See
If I were watching Baby Face on Turner Classic Movies, I would have guessed that it was a pre-code drama. I’d have liked the risks it took and Stanwyck’s grit, disliked the out-of-character ending, and possibly forgotten it. It’s a good movie with interesting characters, but it’s not one of the greats.
But seeing it at the theater is a real treat. First, it is projected, on film. That’s a quality you can’t match in your living room, even with a big screen and HDTV. And while the print isn’t pristine (there are some scratches and dirt), the tonal range is excellent. Second, this is the pre-release version of the film, the version that was too much for New York censors and that Warner’s had to re-edit. It will not be on DVD until next year; the only way to see it is by going to your local art house.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies