Baby Face: from salacious pre-code Hollywood

In the years before Hollywood imposed the self-censoring Hays Code in order to avoid being subject to outside censorship, filmmakers enjoyed a fair amount of freedom in their on-screen portrayals of lust, obscenity, and vice. Some pictures from this era featured explicit violence, frank sexual content, and even nudity—which didn’t please the crusading moralizers of the day, who certainly would have pressured the government into making movie censorship the law if the studios hadn’t agreed to curtail themselves first.

Though the Hays Code was instituted in 1930, it was 1933’s Baby Face—the story of a woman who uses sex to secure herself a position of wealth and power—which forced Hollywood’s hand into establishing an administrative body with real censorship power. The film opens with a disturbing and surprisingly gritty sequence in which the beautiful young Lily (played by Barbara Stanwyck with convincing seductiveness and cunning) battles off the advances of a series of patrons at her father’s speakeasy, including a city inspector who dear old dad expects Lily to have sex with in order to prevent the place from being shut down. She confronts him angrily, and skips town on a freight train—though she can only avoid being tossed in jail for riding the rails by seducing a railyard employee. She goes to New York, and then plots her way into the bed of a playboy bank president by seducing and then destroying one man after another.

Watching the film, there’s not much doubt why it might have scandalized people: though there’s no nudity, and the camera always cuts away before Lily consummates one of her seductions, the film’s treatment of sexuality is all the same extremely frank. The movie makes it absolutely clear that Lily’s father was whoring her out for the sake of his business, and there’s no doubt about what’s happening when she leads her boss into the ladies’ restroom after work. Further, nearly all of the film’s sexual content all comes in the context of Lily humiliating and defeating men by using her sexuality to take advantage of their piggishness—my guess is this idea didn’t go down easily with people who would have preferred for all young women on screen to be portrayed as sexless virgins, or at worst, as victims of men’s aggressive, immoral lust. Lily isn’t the victim of a rake or a rapist; rather, she’s the victim of an environment that offers women very few choices in the realms of sex and power. By choosing to exploit the men who would exploit her (and would, in fact, be fully permitted, or even expected, to exploit her), Lily seizes whatever kind of power she can for herself. And—no doubt even more damning in the eyes of a moralist—she only begins to regret her course of action when she hurts someone she’s come to love. It hardly matters that she ruined several other men on the way up—none of them saw anything in her but a sexual object, and thus none of them were worthy of her love or her ethical consideration.

The film’s ending does strongly suggest that her ambition was misplaced—that her desire for wealth and position was bound to leave her feeling empty if she had to choose between her riches and love. But sitting there right under the surface is the fact that she simply didn’t have this choice until she and the bank president actually fell for each other—that the only way she’d previously been able to make herself valuable to anyone was by offering up her body. She had no reason to expect that she could earn anyone’s respect or love. The film judges Lily harshly not for her sexuality, and not even for the pain she causes, but instead for the fact that her first impulse is to reject love when she finally has a chance to seize it, and thereby experience a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

By contemporary standards, Baby Face feels very unsubtle and occasionally rather clumsy. There are some huge holes in the plot, and when it comes time for the film to offer judgments and conclusions, they’re delivered with a decidedly heavy-hand. Also, there’s an extremely awkward attempt to add an intellectual dimension to the film by means of the occasional appearance of a vaguely German fellow who gives Lily advice from the works of Nietzsche. Still, all of it is fascinating to watch—particularly with the knowledge that American filmmakers wouldn’t again have the freedom to deal with this kind of subject matter in such an open way for nearly forty years.


3 Responses to “Baby Face: from salacious pre-code Hollywood”

  1. 1 Rosie May 27, 2008 at 9:20 PM

    Which version did you watch? The cleaned-up version that was released in 1933? Or the version with the original ending?

  2. 2 goodreadings May 28, 2008 at 8:18 AM

    The version with the original ending restored. And I also understand that some other parts were trimmed in the 1933 theatrical release, to make them a bit less raw.

  3. 3 test March 17, 2013 at 4:25 PM

    Its excellent as your other articles , appreciate it for posting.

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