It is Thursday, so it is time for another breening article! My father, James Brannan, contributed last week’s Breening Thursday article by self-regulating an early Shurlock Era film, Artists and Models from 1955. By doing this, he showed how quickly film content changed after Geoffrey Shurlock’s succession as head of the PCA in October of 1954. Films released in 1955 departed from the standards of the Breen Era (1934-1954) dramatically. This week, we are comparing a film from the other side of the Breen Era, the Pre-Code Era. Today’s film choice is from 1933, the last fully pre-Code year, since the Breen Era began in July of 1934. Pre-Code films show us how risqué and questionable movies made before the Code were.
For over a year, I have been trying to start a guest series about the Code, What the Code Means to Me. Its purpose is to highlight other writers’ opinions about the Code and its impact on Hollywood, featuring one such article per month. On March 31, Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics graciously gave us the first article in the series, The Breen Code and its impact on Hollywood (originally published here). Each participant in this series gets to select the topic of the next convenient Breening Thursday article. Mr. Batters suggested Baby Face from 1933. Conveniently, I had already watched and breened this film in preparation for The Great Breening Blogathon in 2017. Thus, this gave me a great opportunity to write an article about this famous pre-Code movie.
Baby Face tells the story of Lily Powers, a woman embittered by her father’s exploitation of her as a young girl. To get what she wants out of life, Lily seduces her way to the top of a bank building, starting in the basement and literally climbing higher floor by floor. Starring Barbara Stanwyck and numerous actors as the men in Baby Face’s life, this film is famous as one of the movies which epitomizes the Pre-Code Era. This era was the short time between the widespread use of sound in motion pictures in the late 1920s and the formation of the Production Code Administration in 1934. This time contained the most controversial, suggestive, and morally compromising films made up to that point. Noteworthy in these films are female characters who are strong, manipulative, and very much in control of their lives and those of others around them. Most pre-Code women achieve this through scheming use of their muliebrity, employed in shameless seduction. This seduction got the women “ahead” financially in the forms of golddigging and vamping. When it comes to golddigging, vamping, and seduction, no pre-Code film is a better “how-to” guide than Baby Face.
It was no secret that this film was all about it. The trailer and promotional material for this film were heavily laden with amorous implication, risqueity, and sometimes downright obscenity. When I first watched this film almost a year and a half ago, I thought that it was unbreenable. My sister seconded this opinion. However, since Paul Batters suggested it, I have been giving it very serious consideration. It’s easy to say that films which seriously violate the Code are unbreenable. However, that is often the coward’s way out. The hardworking self-regulator will do everything possible to make a film Code-compliant. After careful thought, I decided that Baby Face could be breened successfully if made a cautionary moral tale instead of an instructional guide to women. Clearly, this would be a structural rebuilding job.
Most of the films which I have breened so far have merely required surface breening, even if a lot of that. I have only structurally breened two movies, Rasputin and the Empress from 1932 and American Gothic from 1987. Like Baby Face, both these films initially seemed unbreenable to me. However, careful consideration showed that both movies had acceptable elements which could be enlarged. If a film has some substance aside from its Code-violating material, it is usually breenable. Following that principle, Baby Face is breenable. After all, if I can breen an R-rated 1980s slasher film like American Gothic, surely I should be able to breen a pre-Code film from 1933. That isn’t always true, but it is in this case. Now, with no further ado, let the breening begin!
When the film begins, Lily Powers is a young woman who works in her father’s cheap apartment speakeasy. Her appearance, behavior, and treatment from the male customers make it clear that she is a loose woman. However, we soon realize that she has been exploited by her father since she was a young girl. The fact that she has had a tawdry life because of her father’s exploitation is much too clearly implied. This idea is emphasized by two situations, one with a drunken customer and the other with her father.
In the first scenario, the drunken Ed Sipple attempts to have an affair with Lily. Earlier, he was seen paying her father, and it isn’t a secret that he was paying for Lily’s services. He goes into Lily’s bedroom, but she tells him to leave. Sipple replies, “What’s the matter, you gettin’ particular?” Lily says, “Maybe I am. Did you ever take a good look at yourself.” Ed returns, “Yeah, you’re exclusive, you are. The sweetheart of the night shift. Come on, you’re wastin’ my time. Everybody knows about you.” She replies, “Yeah, well you ain’t going to.” When the belligerent cad tries to take advantage of her, she pours coffee on him and breaks things over his head. This is extremely suggestive in itself, and it emphasizes the fact that she is a woman of the oldest profession. Instead, Sipple should just drunkenly try to kiss her, saying, “Come on, sweetheart,” leading to the barrage from Lily. However, he must not be in her bedroom, and the other dialogue must be removed. He should be a drunken bum getting fresh, not a customer trying to claim what he bought.
Later in that same scene, Lily’s father nastily scolds her for her treatment of the customer, calling her a little tramp. She replies, “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame? My father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what’s it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you’re lower than any of them. I’ll hate you as long as I live!” This monologue was eliminated from the original release because of deletions demanded by censors, since it clearly implies that she has been a woman of ill repute since the age of fourteen. However, it was reinstated to modern versions of the film in 2004 after being found in the vaults. I think that part of the dialogue could remain. It should start with, “Yeah, and who’s to blame?” eliminating her confirmation that she’s a tramp. However, the part from “Ever since I was fourteen” to “And you’re lower than any of them” should be removed. With these deletions in the opening scenario, one can understand that Lily has been somewhat compromised by her horrible father, but perhaps it is just because of the way people think of a girl who works in an apartment speakeasy. It would not be unacceptably suggestive.
After her father’s death, Lily goes to see her friend, Adolf Cragg, the cobbler. Aside from Chico, the black girl who is her constant companion and unswerving friend, Cragg is the only person Lily trusts. The young woman says that she has already received two offers, a proposition from Ed Sipple and a job in the chorus at the burlesque theatre doing a strip act. Cragg tells her that she has to go to some big city and make something of herself, but Lily thinks that a woman has little chance for success. Cragg is a devoted student of Nietzsche, and he tells her that she must study his philosophy. He says, “A woman, young, beautiful, like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men! But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look, here, Nietzsche says, ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.’ That’s what I’m telling you! 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.” Nietzschean philosophy is very humanistic, anti-Christian, and controversial. However, far more troublesome is the fact that an old man advises a young woman about whom he is supposedly concerned to sell her soul and exploit herself to get ahead. What sort of advice is that for an elderly man to give to a young girl who trusts him?
When first contemplating this film’s breening, I thought that Cragg’s advice should be changed to make him a good mentor instead of a Nietzschean student who encourages immorality. I remembered reading that Joseph Breen, then working for the Studio Relations Committee, had suggested some edits in the cobbler’s dialogue to get the film past the New York State Censorship board. The dialogue which he rewrote and overdubbed is such as I might have suggested myself: “A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Remember, the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Don’t let people mislead you. You must be a master, not a slave. Be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.” That’s brilliant! It clearly shows why Joseph Breen was the master self-regulator. Since I am now hypothetically breening from before production, I can suggest going even further to revise the situation. All references to Nietzsche should be eliminated. The discussion of Sipple’s proposition and the strip job should be cut. Cragg should just ask her what she’s going to do now, telling her to leave town. Her sarcastic line about going to Paris with four bucks could remain. Then he could proceed to tell her she has power. When she asks what chance a woman has, he can go into the revised line of dialogue about how a woman can get things. Then, Lily could contemplatively reply, “A right way and a wrong way.” The rest of the film shows how she chooses the wrong way, proving the truth of Cragg’s statement that the price of the wrong way is too great. The afore-mentioned edited version replaced a Nietzsche book later sent by Cragg with a reproachful letter from him. I suggest the reinstatement of this change.
The biggest problem with this film is the all-too-clear implication that Lily has an illicit affair with almost every man in her life to advance herself. She is clearly following Cragg’s original advice to exploit herself. To remove the idea of her seducing her way to the top is to destroy the story. However, that doesn’t mean that the risqueity and blatantness of her immorality couldn’t be toned done. She should be more cunning than just to debase herself with every man she sees. Instead of plainly showing that she is definitely the mistress of every man she uses to climb the social latter, the extent of her seduction could be unstated. It should be subtle. If the audience wants to believe that she is engaging in amorous immorality with all these men, they may. However, great tact is necessary. While it is acceptable for the film to be a moral portrait showing the wrong which Lily Powers does because of her desire to make a better life for herself, it is unacceptable to imply that every man wants to commit such sin. To depict all males as depraved lechers is untrue and dangerous. It makes men think that it is acceptable for them to behave that way, and it makes women think that that is what all men expect.
Subtle things can make a huge difference. Much of the implication of affairs lies in the wordless communication between Lily and the various men. She lisps and mumbles suggestively when talking to them. She lowers her eyes, looks up and down, and invites men to sin with her glances. In turn, countless men shamelessly ogle her, looking her up and down very indecently. They often deliver otherwise harmless lines with suggestive tones and glances. If all this tone and glancing were eliminated, the film would be greatly improved. Of course, there are some situations which are less subtle. Let’s discuss some specifics of how her various affairs could be fixed.
The first man Lily seduces is a railroad worker. She and Chico are going to ride to the big city in a boxcar, but he tries to stop them. She tries to convince him to change his mind, and we see her start to unbutton her blouse. Chico sings “St. Louis Blues,” the song which represents Lily’s manipulative escapades. A hand is seen dousing the lantern, and the screen goes dark. This is so pointed that it can’t even be called suggestive. It’s downright obscene! The whole situation with the railroad worker must be eliminated. Lily should go straight to New York.
Lily tries to get a job at the bottom of a huge banking building. She talks to the man in the personnel office, Mr. Pratt. He tells her that the boss won’t be back for an hour, and she asks him if they can’t go into the office and talk the job over. She walks in and looks at him very suggestively. Her lisping speech, come-hither eyes, and overly flirtatious manner drive home the point that she is a tramp beyond all hopes of acceptability. The look on Mr. Pratt’s face shows that he gets her meaning. When he asks if she’s had any experience, she says, “Plenty,” rolling her eyes suggestively. The situation of going into the office to “talk things over” is unacceptable, as is her line about experience and her statement that she hates crowds. She should smile at him and bat her eyelashes in a way which is more coquettish than trampy. Maybe she could even straighten his tie, and he could smile as though charmed. Thus, it seems she just flattered him into giving her a job.
The next major situation is with Brody, the boss of the filing department. He is a married man with children. When Lily seduces him, she is transferred to the mortgage department. One evening, after work, she goes into the bathroom, followed by Brody. We see them in a mirror, and then they move out of the reflection’s view. The telephone rings, but they ignore it. Little do they know that they are being observed by Ned Stevens, a young executive. He breaks up the situation and fires Brody in disgust. He is going to fire Lily, too, but she convinces him that the boss was trying to take advantage of her. He takes pity on her and brings her to his accounting department. The situation is alright, but it needs some alteration. Firstly, Brody shouldn’t be depicted as married. Secondly, Lily and Brody shouldn’t be in the bathroom. The mirror situation is very suggestive. Instead, we should see them kissing onscreen, but not too passionately. Then, Lily can still claim that her boss was forcing her to kiss him. As with every other situation, each encounter between Brody and Lily must not be too amorously-charged. Also, we should not hear Brody arrange the meeting by telling Lily to stay late. The meeting should seem more coincidental.
Ned Stevens is one of the only men with whom I didn’t infer that Lily was having an immoral affair. He seems to really be in love with her, since he eventually asks her to marry him. Unfortunately, he is engaged to another girl, his employer’s daughter, no less. When his fiancée finds him kissing Lily in his office, she tells her father. J. P. Carter instructs his future son-in-law to fire Lily, but the disturbed young man won’t. Mr. Carter calls Lily to his office to discharge her himself, but he himself falls under her spell. The next thing we know, she is in an apartment, nicely set up by Carter. Since Mr. Carter has a daughter but no wife in evidence, I assume that he is a widower. If I am mistaken and he is still married, he should be made a widower.
J. P. Carter sets Lily up in an expensive apartment with her own bank account and Chico as her maid. She clearly is his mistress. It’s difficult to remove this situation without altering the story line considerably. Perhaps it needn’t be removed if it is handled delicately. The dialogue should be toned down to lessen the implication that Carter is keeping her. There should be no kissing or embracing between them; all physical contact should be kept to a minimum. When he is at her apartment, it should not seem to be too late at night. He must not be shown leaving her apartment in the morning. He also should not be shown writing her a check. Obviously, it will be clear to most that he is paying for her apartment. The important thing is to lessen the implication of what she is giving him in return. She shouldn’t flirt as much with him, and she must not call him “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” The most pointed line of dialogue is when Carter asks Lily if he can give her something, and she girlishly replies that he could put a few more pennies in her bank account. He smiles and replies, “Ask me something difficult.” This is too clear a reference to the fact that Carter is giving Lily money in exchange for herself.
Ned Stevens arrives when Carter is at Lily’s apartment, and he is clearly disturbed. He insists that Lily must marry him; it is obvious that he is on the brink of desperation. He goes into the room where Carter is located and shoots first him and then himself. This occurs offscreen, which is good. The situation is acceptable, since it shows how a woman like Lily leaves a path of wreckage in her wake. Once the scandalous story breaks, the banking company is sent into a turmoil. Putting on a pathetic act, Lily asks for a cash settlement to keep her from “having” to sell her diary to the newspapers. The young president of the company, Courtland Trenholm, immediately sees through her act. Taking her up on her phony statement that she just wants to work, he offers her a job at a bank branch in France instead of a settlement. She is visibly displeased, but she takes the job.
A while later, Trenholm visits Paris on business. He is surprised to see that Lily is still working the job, apparently without golddigging or vamping on the side. It seems that she has kept the job just to spite Courtland. He sees her while he is in France, and before long he too is under her spell. He says that he wants to buy her things and do things for her. Finally, they are on a yacht of some sort together. It seems that, for once, she has kept him behind the line of restraint. She clearly does this to attract him more and thus gain leverage. If she had attempted to quickly seduce him, he would have seen through her. He is being driven crazy by her barriers, as he plainly admits when he states that he hates saying goodnight to her from outside her stateroom. When Courtland makes his feelings thus plain, Lily says that she’s disappointed, adding, “I was hoping you wouldn’t be like everybody else.” She echoed my sentiments. I was disappointed that Courtland Trenholm, the first and only man to see through “Baby Face’s” facade, eventually falls prey to her cunning, immoral ways. That debases him, and he is the leading man. His behavior needs to be changed.
Courtland Trenholm must be depicted as a decent young man. He doesn’t just lust after Lily for her looseness, he didn’t fall for her flirtation and flattery, and he doesn’t just like her because of her looks. He really loves her. He knows what she has done, but he loves her in spite of that. That sort of love would elevate her to a new level, one which she doesn’t deserve. In the existing film, she tells Mr. Trenholm that there is one thing she wants, a Mrs. on her tombstone. She adds that he could divorce her in two weeks, just so that she could have the prefix. What she really wants is the alimony, if you ask me. It is always a little odd when a woman asks a man to marry her so abruptly, but this suggestion of marriage has to be the most unromantic situation I’ve ever seen between two people who are supposedly attracted to each other. Courtland reluctantly agrees, and they are wed. However, the fact that he has to be talked into marriage shows how few morals he has. He should offer Lily wedlock long before they are on a boat together and long before she asks him. He should offer her a wedding ring along with all the jewels at Cartier’s and expensive cars. Naturally, since marriage to a millionaire banker would secure her fortune, Lily would agree.
Lily and Courtland have a very frivolous life together. Lily stays with him, apparently content with the bonds, securities, jewels, and cash which she has accrued. The test of her commitment comes when financial ruin befalls her husband’s bank. Courtland has been wrongly accused of mismanaging the bank, and he needs a million dollars to finance his defense. He asks Lily for the valuables he has given her, which equal that value. Lily refuses to give up her fortune, since she has worked hard for it. She leaves him and books a boat to Paris with Chico. On the boat, she remembers her past and all that she has done. Right before it sails, Lily leaves the boat and flies to her husband. When she finds him, he has shot himself. Fortunately, in the ambulance, the attendant assures her that he will recover. As she leans over her husband, her box falls over, spilling jewels and money everywhere. When the ambulance worker points this out, she says, “It doesn’t matter.” It seems that Baby Face has finally realized that money isn’t everything.
It seems that censors changed the ending to make Courtland’s suicide attempt successful, leaving Lily alone after finally realizing how wrong she has been. This was a rather futile attempt to give a moral message to this corrupt film. However, if the suggested changes were made, I think that the original ending would be acceptable. Lily could live happily ever after with her husband now that she has realized that love and decency are more important than wealth.
Aside from these plot changes, there are some surface problems which should be changed. I may have missed a few things, but most other problems will automatically leave with the major changes.
- In the speakeasy, a ruffian played by Nat Pendleton is shirtless. This adds to the tawdry air of the establishment. He should be wearing a top.
- Referring to one of the customers, Lily says, “He’s a big something, but it ain’t a politician.” This line is suggestive and should be eliminated.
- The man in the personnel office of the New York bank is Mr. Pratt, a goofy, corpulent fellow. His surname is a crude word for the posterior. This vulgar Warner humor should be removed.
- Lily explains to Jimmy McCoy Jr, a bank employee beau, that she is too busy to see him, saying, “I’m working so hard I have to go to bed early every night.” This line is so suggestive that it doesn’t have a chance of being reformed.
- Lily just wears her robe when she is in her apartment with Ned Stevens. She should be wearing more.
- Lily wears a fancy dress with fur on it that is much too clingy.
- A later dress the heroine wears has a disgustingly open back. It should be filled in with material.
- Stevens is very disturbed when he no longer knows where Lily is. He confesses to his employer, Carter, that he knows she is being kept by some man, not knowing that Carter himself is the man. This knowledge and line should be removed.
- After Carter’s death, Lily makes her appeal to the bank board. After telling them what a simple life she used to live, she says, “And then Baby came,” explaining that that is what she called Mr. Carter. She should just say Mr. Carter.
- Later, someone notes that Lily has been working very hard. She replies, “Yeah, but not at the bank.” This is another unacceptably suggestive line which must be deleted.
- When Courtland meets Lily in Paris, he says that he expected that she would be having a somewhat gayer time. This line suggests too plainly just how loose Lily has been. Instead, he should say that he expected she would be having a somewhat less serious time.
- Courtland drives Lily home. When they arrive at her place, she says that it has Old World charm, complete with Old World plumbing. The reference to the plumbing is rather vulgar and should be eliminated.
- When Courtland and Lily go to a nightclub together, she wears a gown with a low neckline.
- After Courtland and Lily are married, they are shown in a double bed together. They should be in twin beds or not be in bed at the same time.
- In the penthouse, Lily wears a dress which is too revealing.
- A statue which is shown is too obviously naked.
- When Lily discovers that Courtland has shot himself, she says, “Oh, my God, don’t leave me.” This is a blasphemous use of the word God. She should just say, “Oh, no.”
- There is too much smoking among women. At this time, female smoking was very controversial. Excessive tobacco use by Lily adds to her reputation as a cheap woman.
- “St. Louis Blues” is the theme song for Lily’s immoral escapades. Every time she seduces a man, that song is played, making the tune an anthem for prurience. It was a very popular song in pre-Code films. From what I have read, it had a reputation of representing amorous sin because of use in many illicit pre-Code movies. Due to this, the song is too laden with immoral meaning to be used in this film. If Lily needs a theme song, it should be an original song or “Baby Face.”
- Some reviewers feel that the name Lily is suggestive, due to the notorious Mae West character Diamond Lil. Her surname, Powers, also carries meaning. It was the surname of the notorious Warner gangster in The Public Enemy. Also, Lily uses her powers over men. Since both names carry significant implications for some viewers, the heroine’s name should be changed to something less meaningful.
People refer to Lily Powers as an example of a strong woman, the likes of whom were not found in Code films. I am shocked that modern viewers look on this fallen woman as a positive female character. Yes, there were gender restrictions in the 1930s business world. However, Lily doesn’t even try to work her way up the right way. She eagerly sells her soul for a shortcut. Isn’t it better for a woman to get married right away and let her husband support her than to debase herself thus? If this is female strength, I think the screen and our country were well rid of it in 1934.
This film is extremely appropriate for the current climate of our country. Since October of 2017, the #MeToo movement has unearthed countless accusations of abuse, manipulation, and favors within the work place. Many women claim, as Lily did, that they had to submit to lecherous bosses’ advances for fear of losing employment. Others may have been completely forced by employers who, like some of the men in this pre-Code film, felt that it was their right. This movie enforces that dangerous reality in our culture.
Since the beginning of time, women have been able to use their very womanhood to get advancement in ways men can’t. For millennia, women would use their looseness to attain a comfortable lifestyle, usually in the capacity of a mistress. In the twentieth century, a new phenomenon developed, the working woman. Women like Lily Powers realized that they could advance in employment by taking advantage of their feminine powers. This created a horrible situation for the company as well as the women themselves. The employment of entire corporations could be thrown off by such favored hiring. Families were surely destroyed by such wandering of the husbands. However, most importantly, the lives of the women themselves couldn’t help but be marred by the sacrifices of decency which they had made for their careers. Like Baby Face, they were bound to discover that any success thus gained is empty. Movies like this encourage women to use men to their advantage as Nietzsche and Cragg so diabolically instructed. Worse than that, they reinforce the idea that being on the receiving end of such favors is acceptable and common behavior for men. They tell young women that they have to compromise themselves to get anywhere. With movies like this being made in 1933, it was a supreme blessing that the Code took over the next year. Such immoral propaganda was bound to ruin our society in a short amount of time.
I hope that you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this film. With these changes, I think that this movie could have been an excellent moral tale. It would show how dangerous and foolish it is for women to sell themselves. It only will corrupt them on the inside and make any gains feel ill-gotten. I think that the film has some excellent acting in it. It could have been a masterpiece which everyone could enjoy with proper self-regulation. I enjoyed making an attempt at reforming it. What do you think of my changes?
Thank you for the suggestion, Paul Batters! I hope that the breened version of this film would show that “making it pay never made any woman happy or powerful. It just made her cheap and miserable.”
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