Directed by Alfred E. Green and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face is a pre-code drama following the misadventures of Lily Powers as she uses her feminine wiles to improve her social standing.
On June 25, 1932, MGM released Red-Headed Woman. Starring Jean Harlow – who was working from a joyously racy script by Anita Loos – the film was a monumental hit, despite the ire it drew from Will Hays and his Studio Relations Committee (SRC). Darryl F. Zanuck, production head at Warner Brothers, saw an opportunity for his own studio to have such a success, and a wrote a treatment which he sold to them for just one dollar.
By the time Baby Face was released in 1933, Barbara Stanwyck had been in show business for almost ten years. When she was fifteen years old she joined the Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, before moving into films with a minor part in Broadway Nights (1927). Her career really began to take off when she starred in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930); she also appeared with a pre-moustache Clark Gable the following year in Night Nurse (1931). In the early 1930s, Stanwyck was beginning to cement her reputation as an actress who excelled in portraying complex and world-weary women.
Such characters were causing her problems with fans, however; according to Ella Smith’s 1974 biography of Stanwyck, they “disapproved of all the ‘gingham’ and ‘flannel’ roles she had been playing, and wanted her to ‘go back to her evening gowns”. In a country struggling through the midst of the Great Depression, audiences wanted to escape through the screen into a world of excitement and, most importantly, glamour. In a 1933 interview with the New York Sun, Stanwyck said that “everyone else has glamour but me. So I played in Baby Face. Anything for glamour”.
Glamour was delivered in spades by Orry-Kelly, the chief costume designer at Warner Brothers. The magnificent outfits he designed for the film perfectly mirror Powers’ ascent of both the societal ladder and the skyscraper offices in which she works (and plots), increasing in their intricacy and lavishness as the film progresses. Orry-Kelly was a recent addition to the studio, having been hired by Warner Brothers in 1932, soon after moving to Hollywood. He remained with them until 1944, during which time he worked on enduring classics such as 42nd Street (1933), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), and became a frequent collaborator with Bette Davis. He would go on to win three Oscars for Best Costume Design after his time with Warner Brothers was concluded, for An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).
On edge from the scandal of Red-Headed Woman, the Hays Office was not impressed by Baby Face’s original cut. The censors found several things to object to, which is perhaps unsurprising given the frank depiction of female sexuality in the film. It was not only the sexually suggestive material which was under fire, however, but also the scenes in which she discusses Nietzschean philosophy with her friend Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), conversations which inspire her actions throughout the film. In the uncensored version, he tells her:
“Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find
opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get
the things you want!”
Cragg’s message to Lily became quite different in order to get past the censors. Instead he instructs her to “be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success”, a line which was personally rewritten by Joseph Breen, who worked closely with Will Hays at the SRC. In addition to these changes, a new ending was added, in which Lily has returned to a steel town much like the one in which she began, having gained nothing from her exploits, except a husband who is financially ruined.
In the censored version, Cragg’s character serves to compel Lily to action whilst simultaneously reminding her there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things, and a letter he writes to her halfway through the film admonishes her for choosing the ‘wrong’ path. The uncensored version of the film – long considered to be lost – resurfaced in 2004, when it was found by George Willeman at a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio. Regarding his discovery, he said that “when I started watching it, I knew within five minutes we had the original, uncut version. Archivists live for that kind of a moment”. WIlleman had good reason to be excited – the uncensored film has an additional five minutes run time, and is a revelation when compared to the film which made it to cinemas in 1933. Without the additional moralising Lily Powers is a powerhouse pre-code anti-heroine, and the removal of the SRC-approved ending allows for a more ambiguous conclusion to her story. Stanwyck is reliably excellent even at this early point in her on-screen career; Lily is outwardly a glamorous and confident seductress, but there is also a palpable sense of vulnerability and desperation always bubbling beneath the surface.
Even with the cuts, Baby Face caused widespread scandal upon its release, and is often cited as one of a handful of films most responsible for the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. The rediscovery of the uncensored film cemented it as a classic of pre-code cinema, and you can’t help but root for Lily as she climbs the tower, even when events take a dark turn.