Friday, July 15, 2005

Baby Face (1933)

Dir: Alfred E. Green
Release: Limited release at the SFC July 16th (4:00 and 7:00) and 17th (2:00).

As the showcase film in the Starz Film Center’s Summer of Preservation series, Baby Face is a great American film from the “pre-code” era of filmmaking. In 1930 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) agreed on a production code that all films would have to adhere to. The code is known as the Hays Production code and it addressed how sex, violence, culture and purity should be portrayed in film. The introduction of sound meant that filmmakers could potentially create even more provocative or suggestive films and the MPAA wanted to censor what directors could and could not do.

The code was not really enforced until 1934 when the United States Government noted that the MPAA was not able to reign in out of control filmmakers and threatened to do it for them. It was then they decided that the MPAA began to strictly enforce the code. However, some films were allowed to get away with quite a bit in the four years that the code was only loosely enforced. Films such as: I’m A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Scarface: The Shame of A Nation (1932), and Baby Face (1933). These films were released with only a few changes that were required by the censor board, but may not have been released at all after 1934.

The code was strictly enforced from 1934 to the 1950’s when directors began to challenge it. Then in the 1960’s directors and studios began to fully challenge the idea of the production code (Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho) and by 1967 the code was abandoned and replaced with the modern MPAA Ratings Scale. The story of the Hays Production Code is full of examples of American culture and attempts at censorship.

Unfortunately, there are a significant number of films from this era that have been forever lost. It is quite an opportunity to be able to see a fully restored print of any film from the pre-code era, much less one that has been restored to its original version, without any changes required by the MPAA. Such is the case with Baby Face. When the Library of Congress restored this film, they found original sequences that were cut from the film and never before seen theatrically. Those scenes were restored and included in this print of the film.

The Story

The story of Baby Face is simple. Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) plays a down and out woman who upon the advice of the only man in the world she trusts, Alphonse Ethier (Adolf Cragg), moves to NYC to utilize her best asset to move ahead in the world, her body. She gets a job working for a bank and begins to sleep her way, quite literally, to the top of the bank. Ultimately, she must decide what she loves more, a man or her possessions.

The Film

The film overall while good, is not the best film I have seen from the pre-code era. The film is wonderfully shot, and well acted, it just falls a little short. It is however, wonderfully enjoyable and I must say I fell in love with Lily Powers. Anyone who is interested in the history of film, or who just likes to see a good film should not miss Baby Face this weekend at the Starz Film Center.

Also, the film curator for the Library of Congress and SFC Director of Education Howie Movshovitz will be present at the July 16th 7:00 PM screening for a Q&A session. I highly recommend coming to that screening early so you can get a chance to learn about film preservation from perhaps the Nation's most important preservationist.

Read the text of the Hays Code Here


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