Home Video Reviews
"She used everything SHE had... to get everything MEN had," declared the posters, and the posters were right. Baby Face gives us Barbara Stanwyck as Lily, a barmaid in Erie, Penn., who's been pimped out by her father since she was a teenager. Finally leaving her putrid life, she lands in New York City, where she methodically and ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top of a banking empire - floor by floor, department by department, and man by man. That's the story in a nutshell, which incidentally was written by Warners' production head Darryl Zanuck (under the pseudonym Mark Canfield) with input from Stanwyck herself. What really pushed the limits of acceptability back in '33 was not just the manner of Lily's corporate ascent but the relish with which she undertakes it. In an early scene in Erie, she is encouraged by a Nietzsche-quoting local cobbler to "exploit" herself and "use men!" She sees this as the smart, right way for a woman to succeed, and we the audience are sympathetic to her because we can see that she's been raised by her own father to see men as nothing more than lowlife sex objects. Her plan for success seems sadly inevitable (not to mention deliciously entertaining!).
Baby Face was actually given a limited release in its original, longer form, in early April 1933. One theater's newspaper ad implored readers, "PARENTS: PLEASE DO NOT BRING YOUR CHILDREN!" The picture was banned outright by the New York state censorship board, and it proved so shocking elsewhere that it was quickly withdrawn altogether and ordered to be altered.
The stars were not available for retakes, however, so Warners carefully snipped out almost 30 separate bits of business or lines of dialogue, totaling about five minutes. Most of the changes merely toned down the explicitness or luridness of the given scenes. The implication of sex was still there; it had just been a little more obvious in the longer version. For example, in the uncensored version, Lily gets her first bank job by seducing a fat office boy, who follows her into a private room and closes the door. In the censored version, we fade out on the boy watching her go into the room, though the implication remains. In another example, an entire wordless sequence of a bank executive arriving at Lily's apartment one night and leaving the next morning was eliminated entirely, though the following scenes still make it clear they have been sleeping together. A scene of Lily's father accepting money from another man for Lily's services was removed, though it's still plain as day that the father is pimping her. Lily's dialogue that this has been happening "ever since I was fourteen" was also deleted.
The biggest problem, however, was the cobbler. His advice to Lily had to go. Production Code censor Joe Breen suggested changing him from an agent of encouragement to a "spokesman of morality" as a way of counterbalancing the otherwise sordid subject matter. Now, instead of quoting Nietzsche to push Lily towards success, he tells her, "There is a right way and a wrong way. Remember the price of the wrong way is too great." That's the version we've heard for the past 73 years, even though it has always been obvious that the dialogue was dubbed in. In a later scene, Lily was originally shown receiving a book by Nietzsche as a Christmas present from the cobbler, with underlined passages reminding her to press on with her ruthless ways. In the re-cut version, a new insert changes the book to Stanley's Christian Institutions with a letter inside, from the cobbler, telling her that she is on the wrong path and expressing utter disappointment in her sinfulness.
The only major scene to be shot anew for the censored version was the ending, wherein the bank's board of directors reveal what has become of Lily and her bank president husband. It's always seemed ridiculously absurd. The original ending, now restored, is still a bit of a cop-out but is certainly not as jarring or unbelievable.
Three months after the initial release, Baby Face went to theaters again. The reaction wasn't much better. "Unsavory," said The New York Times. "Blue and nothing else," declared Variety. "Anything hotter than this for public showing would call for an asbestos audience blanket." The new version was edited down even more by regional censorship boards and was banned outright in Virginia and Ohio, as well as in Quebec, Australia and Switzerland. Commenting on the new re-release in 2006, The New York Times said, "Baby Face remains one of the most stunningly sordid films ever made. With its five full minutes of sleaze restored, it has to be seen to be not quite believed."
That Baby Face survived at all is fortunate. Things could have been much worse. A film called Convention City (1933), starring Joan Blondell and Dick Powell, came out the same year and was deemed so offensive that Jack Warner eventually ordered all known prints and the negative to be destroyed. That picture is now considered lost. Films like these led to a much heavier enforcement of the Production Code, and by mid-1934, the party was basically over.
Aside from the two versions of Baby Face, Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 1 also includes Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Waterloo Bridge (1931). There are no major extras - just an introduction by TCM's Robert Osbourne and a trailer for Baby Face which, interestingly enough, includes a few lines from the uncensored version (most noticeably Stanwyck's "ever since I was fourteen"). Technically, the uncensored version looks better, probably because the negative was in better condition for not having had many prints struck from it. Both versions suffer from some scratches and blemishes, though nothing major. The discs are mislabeled, with the two versions of Baby Face on Disc 1, and the other titles on Disc 2.
In all, this is an excellent, entertaining movie, and comparing the two versions is tremendously interesting. This DVD is one of the most notable of 2006 and belongs on every collector's shelf.
For more information about Baby Face, visit Warner Video. To order Baby Face, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
(Special thanks to film historian Richard Bann for some of the factual information in this review.)