In the movie Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily, a young woman who is pimped out by her father to steel-mill workers and politicians is persuaded by a cobbler to leave Pittsburg and put her talents to use in a big city like New York. She does just that and rises to the top until she finally realizes that love is more important than wealth. Even though the movie was severely edited, it remained the most notorious movie of the Pre-Code era.
The first time I saw this movie, I saw the edited version that had been released theatrically, of course, because it was thought that the original version was lost forever. But what remained was enough for it to become one of my favorite movies. When a copy of the original version was found, the movie that I already thought was great became even better.
The original version was modified in three ways. The first form of editing is the sort we usually expect: scenes are cut out. In one scene, after Lily decides she is through turning tricks for her father/pimp, she wrestles with a politician who has paid for her services. In the original version, he refers to her as “the sweetheart of the nightshift,” but the part about the nightshift is snipped out for the theatrical version. In the original version, she thinks she is rid of him and pours herself a beer. When he grabs her from behind and puts his hand on one of her breasts, she hits him over the head with a beer bottle, and then nonchalantly returns to her beer. That was cut out for the theatrical version. And then there is the scene that takes place when Lily and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop a freight to get to New York. A guard threatens to throw them off, but Lily has sex with him in exchange for letting them stay aboard. That was eliminated in the theatrical version. There are many other bits and pieces edited out, too numerous to mention. In general, what we easily suspect or infer of a sexual nature in the theatrical version was made a little more explicit in the original.
The second form of editing consists of added scenes that were never filmed originally. In the original version, Lily rides in the ambulance with her husband after his attempted suicide. Even though they will have to spend all the money they have to keep him from being convicted for malversation, they look at each other fondly, knowing that even without that money they will live happily together, at which point the movie ends. In the theatrical version, the part where they look at each other with love in their eyes is edited out. What follows is a scene in which Lily is punished by having her return to Pittsburg where she started, with her husband going to work as a laborer in a steel mill, forcing her to live amongst the lowlifes she wanted to get away from.
The third form of editing was that of changing the words of Cragg, the German cobbler who is Lily’s mentor. In the first scene in which Cragg and Lily are together, in the speakeasy her father owns, he asks her if she read the book he lent her. In the original version, we find out that the book was written by Nietzsche, who Cragg says is the greatest philosopher that ever lived. In the theatrical version, that line is suppressed, so we don’t know who wrote the book.
After her father dies, she visits Cragg at his shop. He tells her she must leave the town they are in or she is lost, that with her youth and looks she has power over men, that she can be a master, not a slave. In the original version, he quotes from The Will to Power, in which Nietzsche says that no matter how we idealize it, life is nothing but exploitation.* He tells her to exploit herself, to use men to get the things she wants. In the theatrical version, however, we do not see the title of the book or get the quote from Nietzsche. Cragg’s remarks about Lily’s exploiting herself and using men are removed and are replaced by something quite different: he tells her to be clean and to remember the difference between right and wrong.
Along the lines of suppressing Nietzsche and modifying Cragg’s advice, the other forms of editing are also used. In the original version, Lily comes home to her swanky apartment in New York to find that Cragg has sent her another book by Nietzsche, Thoughts Out of Season. She turns to a passage emphasized by Cragg in which Nietzsche says that to get what you want, you must “crush all sentiment.”** In the theatrical version, we do not get to see the title of the book or its author. Inside the book is a letter from Cragg telling her she has picked the wrong way, that life will defeat her unless she regains her self-respect. And just to give Cragg’s advice the proper religious tone, the closing just above his name says, “Merry Christmas.”
As noted above, I saw the theatrical version first. I had read that a lot of the Nietzsche stuff had been suppressed. Nevertheless, I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. Apologists for Nietzsche are often at pains to say that he has been misunderstood. The movie Rope (1948) is a good example. In that movie, a college professor half-seriously talks about the superman who is so superior he has the right to eliminate those who are inferior. When a couple of his students decide to eliminate an inferior acquaintance by murdering him, the professor is appalled that they misunderstood what he was saying. So I figured Baby Face was in that tradition. The fact that in the original version Lily did not misunderstand Nietzsche as explained to her by Cragg makes this modification the most radical way in which the movie had been edited for theatrical release.
*Although this has the flavor of Nietzsche, I have not been able to find that quotation in The Will to Power.
**As with the other quotation, I have not been able to find this one in Thoughts Out of Season.