Pre-Code American drama film Baby Face was released by Warner Bros in 1933 and became a pivotal movie in the cause for tightening up censorship within the industry, pushing the Hollywood Pre-Code era towards its inevitable conclusion. The central character, the flirtatious Lily, who is a typical spitfire female lead from the Pre-Code era, shocked the censors as she seduced her way out of poverty without showing empathy and consideration for most of her victims along the way.
Lily Powers works for her father in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania during the prohibition. Lily’s father has been forcing Lily to have sex with many of his customers since she was 14 years old and there is a suggestion that he also abused her.
Lily’s cobbler friend and confidant Cragg, who admires German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, encourages her to aspire to greater things. Lily stands up to her father, who gets killed in a still explosion moments later. Cragg advises Lily to travel to the city and use her power over men to get what she wants.
Lily and her best friend, an African American servant called Chico, board a freight train to New York City. They are discovered by a railroad worker and as he threatens to have them imprisoned, Lily seduces him.
When they reach New York City, Lily enters the Gotham Trust building and seduces an employee to give her a job. Lily swiftly becomes promoted due to her sexual dalliances with the right people on each floor. Her pursuit for success though seduction is mostly successful at the beginning but there will be very serious consequences to her manipulation including suicide and murder. Lily’s seduction comes with a very huge moral price, but is she prepared to ignore this?
With its sensational tagline of “she had it and she made it pay” and the sexually manipulative lead character, Baby Face was said to be one of the top ten films that brought in the new Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) to force the industry to maintain improved standards of onscreen behavior.
It was not long after its initial release that the Hays office pulled the film distribution because it breached the code. Changes had to be made Following conversations between production head Zanuck (who wrote the treatment for the story) and Jack. L. Warner from Warner Bros., and the AMPP (Association of Motion Picture Producers), changes and cuts had to be made, including altering the ending to show Lily losing everything, meaning that her serial seduction would not be rewarded.
The uncensored version remained lost until 2004 when it was discovered at a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio. The fully restored version premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in November 2004.
As well as being historically important as one of the last films of the Pre-Code era, Baby Face is full of exceptional performances, especially from the brilliant Barbara Stanwyck as Lily. Irish actor George Brent produces a sympathetic performance as Courtland Trenholm, the grandson of Gotham Trust’s founder, is soon able to affect Lily’s conscience. Donald Cook is convincingly tortured as rising executive Ned Stevens.
Another one of Lily’s brief conquests that help her climb the corporate ladder is a young John Wayne as filing department operative Jimmy McCoy. Actress, singer, and dancer Theresa Harris received her first ever film credit as Chico.
The music used in the opening credits and various parts of the film is the instrumental version of Harry Akst’s 1926 song Baby Face. However, W.C. Handy’s 1914 song Saint Louis Blues is the dominant music. The music was played by the Vitaphone Orchestra with Leo F. Forbstein conducting.
Baby Face is a fast-paced melodrama, which works well as entertainment and is ably directed by Alfred E. Green, with a sharp script by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, from a story by “Mark Canfield” (aka Darryl F. Zanuck). The seductions and promotions may be a tad too quick and unsubtle, and the film may feel loosely put together at times, but it is never boring.
The ending is particularly effective because Lily is treated with respect with a possibility of future happiness that had been sadly lacking in her life until then. The audience can sympathize with Lily because she is as much a victim as well as a person of strength. Her crime, it seems, is being a woman and having to fight to advance in a man’s world.
Baby Face was selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry in the United States in 2005 and regarded as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In less than a year of its release, films like Baby Face could never be made under the new Production Code and it would take at least three decades for the rules to be relaxed. We can count ourselves lucky that Baby Face was made at all, and that the uncensored version was found so that we now have the full uncut version of this remarkable film for future generations to treasure.