During Hollywood’s Pre-Code era (1930-34), women were way more than arm candy for the top male stars of the day. They were shamelessly ambitious and took no prisoners. Whether `playing loose dolls, gun molls, or fur-draped socialites, these dames were unapologetic about going after exactly what they wanted, prudes be damned. And no actress personified this brazen attitude better than Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, the so-called “Citizen Kane of Pre-Codes.”
For years, I’d read about this outrageous 1933 melodrama, but could never find a print of it. When I finally saw it, my jaw dropped open and stayed there. Baby Face tracks a speakeasy owner’s daughter who weaponizes her sexuality to (as one ad puts it) “Climb the ladder of success, wrong by wrong,” leaving a trail of smitten suitors and shattered lives in her wake. Stanwyck is riveting, at turns nasty, sexy, funny, and vulnerable. Just try and take your eyes off her.
The daring story was conceived by Warner Bros. production chief Darryl F. Zanuck under the pseudonym “Mark Canfield.” Knowing he could lure in audiences with salacious content, Zanuck tested Production Code rules like they’ve never been tested before. Determined to “go as far as the censors will allow,” Zanuck and Stanwyck worked closely on the plot. In fact, Stanwyck was the one who suggested that her character’s father pimps her out! Ads for the pic even compared Stanwyck’s character to the merciless mobsters played by Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) and James Cagney (The Public Enemy).
For Stanwyck, biographer Victoria Wilson writes, “Baby Face was a daring role...From Madonna to deadly vamp in one quick elevator ride to the top. Lily Powers is ruthless, deliberate, cold-blooded, entrancing. She’s the way men have been for ages.” Critic Mick LaSalle echoes that take: “If you want to get somebody to like Pre-Code movies, you show them Baby Face...It’s completely, wonderfully sleazy...” Blogger Kate Vangen calls the flick “Bawdy, lusty, shrewd, lewd and hilarious.”
The Hays Office, whose job was to enforce the standards cited in the Production Code, but whose budget came from the producers it policed, had a terrible time delivering this Baby into theaters. Over several months, Hays minions sent dozens of memos to Zanuck and his team, citing lines that had to be rewritten or scenes that had to be eliminated. Zanuck may have played along, but he was constantly pushing back against the changes.
However, once Baby Face was released, the New York board of censors yanked it from theaters. Other states flat out rejected it, too. Zanuck was forced to remove five minutes from the film before it was allowed back on screens. What recourse did Zanuck have? None. Any movie that couldn’t be shown in New York City theaters would tank studio profits. So Zanuck reluctantly complied, and after its initial run, Baby Face was consigned to the Warner Bros. vault, where it languished for 71 years.
Lucky for us, Baby Face rose from the dead in 2004. That’s when Mike Mashon, the Head of the Library of Congress Moving Image Section, located the uncensored, original release print of the film – complete with every deliciously naughty frame intact. Die-hard Pre-Code fan Mashon admitted, “I literally was giddy like a schoolgirl” to discover the “long-lost” uncut version.
Ready to see this racy gem for yourself? (You’re welcome.)