Pacific Film Archive’s “A Theater Near You” series is a showcase for films that don’t make it to your local megaplex. This week PFA is featuring an encore screening of Baby Face, the notorious 1933 Pre-Code film that for decades was only seen in a heavily censored version. A negative of the original version was discovered in 2004 and the restored film has been circulating for about a year in advance of its upcoming DVD release.
Seeing the complete version is a revelation, for not only is it just as salacious as it was long rumored to be, it is also a truly great film. It made the rounds of Bay Area theaters last year, playing at the Castro Theater and the Balboa Theater as well as PFA. But the seats filled up so quickly at the PFA screening that they’ve brought it back for another engagement.
The film shows at 7 p.m. Friday and again at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Though it will be available on home video soon enough, this funny, cynical melodrama deserves to be seen with an audience.
Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in early 1930s, establishing strict rules of morality on motion pictures in an attempt to put an end to the perceived hedonism that had run rampant during the silent era and during the first few years of talkies.
Pre-Code usually refers to films made and released before the enforcement of the Production Code, movies that generally contain a great deal more sex, crime and assorted vice than the censored films that followed. But Baby Face is among a rather unique class of Pre-Code films in that it was created before the Code, yet released during the Code’s enforcement. Therefore the film, made under the old rules, was subjected to the new rules before it could be released.
The result was that the censors took an uncompromising and sordid tale and sanitized it as much as possible. Shots were removed; scenes were toned down; new dialogue was recorded; a new ending was tacked on; and one character’s identity and purpose were entirely reconfigured.
The new print also features a coda in which the closing credits are followed by a few of the censors’ edits. Seen in context, these changes are particularly hilarious and poorly conceived, transforming a dark and interesting film into run-of-the-mill Hollywood tripe.
The story concerns one Lily Powers, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Her father runs a speakeasy that caters to steel workers and he makes a little extra money on the side as his daughter’s pimp. Previously excised shots from these early scenes show the father pocketing cash from a local politician in exchange for time alone with Lily, as well as a point-of-view shot as the politician ogles her, the camera moving slowly up the length of her body, lingering at particular points of interest before settling on her jaded and weary face.
Desperate to escape this bleak existence, Lily seeks guidance from a local cobbler who offers ruthless advice, quoting Nietzsche and encouraging her to use and exploit men in pursuit of her desires.
Eventually she makes her way to the big city and does just that, taking a job in the mail room of a bank. She starts on the first floor and begins methodically seducing and destroying men who can further her interests. Each conquest is followed by a pan up the side of the building, pulling back from a window on one floor and pushing toward a window on a higher floor, illustrating Lily’s rise up the corporate ladder. Nothing subtle here: Lily’s sleeping her way to the top.
These are just a few examples of the sort of gleeful frankness Baby Face evinces, treating shady topics with wry cynicism. The crucial ingredient is Stanwyck. Her Lily is smart, cynical and cruel, a hard-luck dame brimming with ambition and a smoldering and dangerous sexuality. The powerful men she sets her eyes on have no chance against her; her withering glances and callous manipulation leave them stammering and defenseless. A young John Wayne even makes an appearance—several years before cementing his reputation as a swaggering tough guy—as a diffident office boy who makes an inept attempt to get a second date with Lily after she has already exhausted his usefulness.
The irony of the film is that the censors really didn’t need to alter the ending. Though the movie is full of sex and cruelty, Lily Powers really does learn something at the end, demonstrating her humanity and compassion, even without the Code’s prodding.
But apparently that wasn’t enough; they added an extra scene to further delineate her fate, and the inclusion of this scene after the closing credits in the new print brings the misogyny of the Code quickly into focus for modern audiences: Stay home girls, or somebody’s gonna get hurt.
BABY FACE (1933)
Directed by Alfred E. Green.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Alfonse Ethier, Henry Kolker, Theresa Harris.
Playing at 7 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Pacific Film Archive, 2626 Bancroft Way. www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.
Photograph: The cobbler (Alfonse Ethier) treats Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) to a few passages from Nietzsche, “the greatest philosopher of all time!”