The first time I saw Baby Face was back in the 1990’s when it was released on VHS as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood series.” The film had a well deserved reputation for being one of the racier films to be ever made with sex, prostitution and plenty of morally corrupt individuals. Now on DVD as part of volume one in the Forbidden Hollywood collection, I finally got around to watching the disreputable pre-released version. Discovered back in 2005 in the Library of Congress film archives, this version was unearthed when a request was made for a new print to be struck. Mike Mashon, curator at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, received a print that was struck from the original camera negative, however; he was told there was a dup negative that was about five minutes longer. Intrigued, Mashon requested a print from the dup negative. After viewing the five-minute longer version, he knew he had struck gold. Typical for the times, Baby Face prior to its release was submitted to various state censor boards; in this case the powerful New York State Board of Censors and was rejected. Without the approval of the State Board, Warner Brothers knew the film would never play in the major New York City market. Subsequently, the film was edited removing the Boards objectionable scenes. The recut film was released and opened at the Strand Theater in New York to mixed reviews.
In viewing both versions, the dramatic changes are significant enough to change the tone,. The pre-released version being darker and certainly more sordid. Barbara Stanwyck is Lily, a young woman who is pimped by her own father to the slimy characters who frequent his Erie, Pa. speakeasy. This is explicitly shown in the uncut version where a coarse local politician pays dear old Dad hard cash to spend some quality time with Lily. When the politician fondles Lily’s leg, she pours hot coffee on him. Next, he crudely grabs her breasts and Lily retaliates by grabbing a beer bottle hitting him squarely on the head. In the officially released version, this scene was cut dramatically. No cash exchanges hands between Dad and the politician; the fondling of Lily’s leg is shorter and there is no groping of her breasts. In other scenes, dialogue was changed or cut to meet the censors’ requirements. When her father tells her she can’t talk to him so rudely Lily goes on a tirade about “What a swell start you gave me….” She goes on about him being a lousy father and about all the rotten lousy men of which he was the lowest. What was cut from the released version of this rant is a line about Dad pimping her out at the age of 14!
Soon after, her father is killed when his still accidentally blows up. A local cobbler, who in the original version comes across as more of a father figure, tells her to seek her fortune by going to New York. He tells her a beautiful young woman like her can get anything she wants, but she must remember there is a right and wrong way to go about getting ahead in the world. In the pre-censored version, the cobbler’s advice is not as fatherly as he encourages her to read Nietzshe’s Thoughts out of Season and to “Crush out all sentiment.” He tells her, a beautiful young woman like her can get anything because she has the power over men. “Use men, don’t let them use you”, he advises her. He goes on to say that she must be the master and not the slave. Use men to get the things she wants. Like Lily, this version of the film follows Nietzsche’s advice and crushes out any and all sentiment.
. Lily puts the cobbler’s advice to quick use when she hops a freight train with her friend and helper, Chico (Theresa Harris). Caught by a railroad inspector, Lily using the new found power of her body, seduces him as they ride the rails. In New York, Lily, with no work skills nor any education, seeks to get a job at the Gotham Trust Co. A personnel clerk asks her if she has any experience to which she replies “Plenty” with a knowing smirk. Telling Lily there are no jobs available she proposes they could work something out as she makes her way into the bosses empty office. The clerk follows closing the door behind him. Lily climbs to the top as she sleeps her way from the filing room, to the Mortgage Department to Accounting. It’s in the Accounting Department where she meets Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) who is engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay) who is the daughter of bank head J.P. Carter or at least he is until Lily becomes responsible for breaking up the romance. Stevens is so hooked on Lily that when he finds his future-father-in-law Carter in Lily’s bedroom, he shoots him and commits suicide. Unperturbed by the violence, Lily nonchalantly calls the police telling them there has been an “accident.”
At this point, with all scandals Lily has caused she is sent off to the Paris branch of the Bank. This seems somewhat ludicrous. Why not just fire her? In Paris, she meets Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), who falls in love with Lily. They marry and Courtland showers Lily with jewelry, clothes and money. They eventually come back to New York when the Bank and Trenholm are having financial problems. He ask Lily to return some of the gifts and securities he has given her, so he can pay his debt, she refuses. Despondent Courtland attempts suicide. As Courtland is taken away in an ambulance with Lily as his side, the censors strike one more time. They did not like the idea in the original version that Lily is shown as not “paying” for her sins. Warner’s was forced to tack on an artificial ending instead of the pre-censored version, which is more ambiguous and yet hints at the chance that Lily and Courtland will live happily ever after.
“Baby Face” is not a great film and is remembered today more for its place in film history as one of the most salacious films ever made. The discovery, in 2005 of the pre-released version only cemented its place in history. The first half of the film holds up well from a story point of view however, the second part of the film somewhat shaky. Still the film is a thrill to watch mainly due to Stanwyck who gives us an early version of one of her classic bold ice-cold characterizations that she would play to perfection later on in films like “Double Indemnity and even on TV in “The Big Valley.” Also a pleasure is Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s helper and friend who hums the bluesy “St. Louis Woman” throughout the film, subliminally reminding us of Lily’s immoral roots. Her role is a rare example of a non-stereotypical black character that is treated as an equal, especially by Lily. Harris appeared in many well known films, generally, as a maid or waitress. Her impressive list include Morocco, Horse Feathers, Gold Diggers of 1933, Hold Your Man, Jezebel”, The Women Phantom Lady, “Cat People, The Dolly Sisters” “iracle on 34 Street, The Big Clock, The File on Thelma Jordan and Angel Face among many others. In the Jack Benny starring “uck Benny Rides Again, Harris had the opportunity to show off her singing and dancing talent in a duet with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Unfortunately, because of the times, this talented lady was never given the opportunity to climb the ladder to stardom. Also, look for a young John Wayne is a minor role as one of Lily’s conquest and character actor Nat Pendleton in a small role as one of Lily’s Dad’s slimy speakeasy customers. Pendleton appeared in over 100 films including Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Buck Privates and Buck Privates Come Home.
The film was directed by Alfred E. Green, who started in the silent days and continued to work up until the late 1950’s. Baby Face is probably his most famous or more fittingly his most infamous film. Most of Green’s output consisted of fairly routine programmers. The screenplay was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck, writing as Mark Canfield. Zanuck’s career with Warner’s Brothers would end shortly thereafter, only partially due to his part in creating tawdry films, “straight from the newspaper headlines”, such as Baby Face and probably more to do with disputes with Jack Warner and his own desires to run a studio. He would soon be a co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and a few years later, they would buyout Fox Pictures forming Twentieth Century Fox.
An interesting aside I came across is from an article by Molly Haskell in the New York Times on how so many pre-code heroines were called Lily or Lil. Beside Stanwyck’s Lily Powers, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lil’ in Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Jean Harlow as the gold-digging secretary Lil’ Andrews in Red Headed Woman and Lily, alias Mlle. Vautier in Trouble in Paradise. The character called Lady Lou played by Mae West in She Done Him Wrong was based on the play “Diamond Lil written by West. Paramount changed the character’s name in hopes of reducing the notoriety that preceded the play.
John, this is a great post. You did an incredibly thorough job and covered all the bases with this movie. I saw it on TCM a couple of years ago after the “Complicated Women” documentary (based on the book by SF Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle–well worth reading his ideas on pre-code women). I’m not sure which version I saw, but all the scenes you mentioned seemed to be in it. I absolutely agree with your assessment of the movie, that it’s more important for its place in film history than as a great movie. I also agree that the first half, especially the very first few minutes, is far more interesting than the second half (from about the point where Brent enters). Theresa Harris was indeed a revelation, and the way she was treated by Stanwyck as a real equal was pretty daring and unusual for the time. And that ending is unfortunate. Why is it that even in the pre-code movies these independent women had to pay for, and give up, all the qualities that made them so fascinating in the first place? For me these cop-out endings always devalue what came before. And then there’s Stanwyck. She’s always good, but her strength and hostility in this movie just about jump off the screen. The movie is worth seeing for her alone.
Thanks much for the kind words. Stanwyck is always fancinating to watch. She is my favorite actress from this period, along with Joan Blondell.
I agree about “endings” and how an entire movie can be ruined by a phony ending. The pre-released ending is certainly more ambiguous leaving it open to the viewer to decide how they make out. I actually like ambiguous endings that make you leave the theater thinking as opposed to the filmmakers spelling everything out for you.
I need to check out LaSalle’s book. It is one I have been meaning to read. Thanks again for your input.
This is a fascinating film to compare the two versions. I watched the uncut version first and was, even today, shocked by some of the content.
Stanwyck is just amazing in this and have to agree, she and Blondell are two of cinemas greats.
Agree, it is fascinating to compare the two versions. Watching them you understand how the editing scenes not only changes the content but can change the perspective of the story.
John, I beg to differ as to your stating that this is not a “great” film, I think it just depends on your definition. I got to see this at the Detroit Film Theatre a few years back and was knocked out, this film just blew me away, for so many reasons. There’s a briskness and vitality that hit me like a blast of fresh air, it was just plain fun in a knowing, adult way. Her avuncular friend touting Nietzsche at her father’s speakeasy, her encounter with the low-level politician, her ascent to the top in a blinding flash, the young Stanwyck was quite a revelation here. Having been primarily familiar with her from her roles from Double Indemnity on ( The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire being two notable exceptions), it’s fascinating to see her in her youth in this pre-code performance, God she was cute. She pulls her role off in this film with aplomb. I agree, you did a great job in laying it all out. Also, think of Lil or Lily as short for Lilith, and the name takes on an added resonance. I’m thinking of Helen Walker’s Lilith Ritter in Nightmare Alley, seemingly likable when first introduced, but anything but once we’ve gotten to know her. In the Old Testament she was Adam’s first love interest prior to Eve, but was too proud, whereas Eve was more submissive. And in Hebrew lore she was a demon, a haunter of desolate places. Yours is a thorough and informative appreciation of a noteworthy film.
Thanks for your comments. I do agree that “Baby Face” is “just plain fun” and while I say it is not a great movie, it is good film and as a historical artifact, an important one. All you mention; the encounter with the low-level politician, the friend preaching Nietzsche all happen in the first half of the film, which I feel is the best part and the most fascinating. Your right, that first half is like a breath of fresh air. It is the second half that for me is more of a problem, which is about the time George Brent enters the scene.
I totally agree Stanwyck was a doll and always a terrific actress. I actually just finished tonight watching “The Furies” with Stanwyck. Interesting connection you mention about the Lil’/Lilith connection.
I looked at your sight. Very nice work.
Thanks John. I first saw The Furies a number of years ago when I bought a bootleg VHS in Manhattan, at Kim’s Video I believe. I have yet to see Criterion’s release of it, but it’s something I do look forward to. I became aware of this film when I watched Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies, which showed a clip of Gilbert Roland being lynched. A powerful, wrenching scene, all the more so when directed by Anthony Mann. Again, there was a point in Stanwyck’s career when she became more piss and vinegar, less alluring and more brittle, caustic, yet she was never less than a great actress. My site will undergo some additions and a modification soon, no later than April.
“The Furies” is excellently photographed and complex. I need to watch it again. I thought her character here was a bit similar to her Victoria Barckley in “The Big Valley.”
BTW I will add a link on my blog to your website.
Have you seen her in The Violent Men with Glenn Ford and Edward G. Robinson? Another dark western, and though perhaps not quite as good as The Furies, it’s still worth catching. It may also remind you of The Big Valley. And my thanks for the link. I’ll be creating a blogroll for my site when I modify it in April, yours will be listed along with a number of others.
Yes, I saw “The Violent Men” a few years ago. Agree, a decent film though not in the same league as “The Furies.” As you mention Stanwyck characters later in her career were women with a tough veneer.
Thanks for the great collection of information and commentary. It really helps to be able to come here and find context on such a great film.
A question: moments before Stanwyck gives young John Wayne the brushoff in favor of her new boss, is that Gloria Grahame we see glaring at the young golddigger?
thanks for stopping by. Gald you enjoyed the article.
As for your question, the answer is no, Gloria would have only been around ten years old or so at the time this film was made.
I just watched this film for the first time on Turner Classic Movies. I don’t know which version I saw. The scenes in the bar left me puzzled about what was actually going on. From the scene where she gets on the train all the way to her marriage to Cortland, I got it. The fact that an experienced playboy like Cortland who knew exactly what Lily was, and still falls into her trap was puzzling, but I was still on board. What made me crazy was that after Lily and Cortland got married, the bank failed and Cortland was indicted. I am not familiar with the world of banking and as far as I could tell, Cortland was indicted for marrying Lily! That’s ridiculous. However, I like the film. Ms. Stanwyk was absolutely convincing in her role, and so stunning and sensuous. It showed me that our sexy beauties of today have nothing over the women of the past. The film title was poorly named. This was no baby face. (Your information about the name Lil etc. was fascinating. I believe it could only come from the name Lilith. She was a myth purported to be Adam’s first wife. She was tossed out of Eden, because she refused to be subservient to Adam. In that reference, Lil was the perfect name to be used in this film.)
Thanks Colleen for your thoughts. The version you most likely watched was probably the original censored version. I could be wrong here but I believe that is the version TCM shows. Either way, I agree with you on Stanwyck, she is “stunning and sensuous.” Also, your own background information on the name Lil’/Lilith is an interesting addition, thanks for that!