Baby Face (1933)

In the movie Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily, a young woman who has been pimped out by her father to steel-mill workers and politicians since she was fourteen years old.  She is persuaded by Mr. Cragg, a German cobbler, to leave Pittsburg and put her talents to use in a big city like New York.   When she and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) get to New York, Lily decides to apply for a job with Gotham Trust, a bank that occupies every floor of a skyscraper.  As she rises figuratively by having sex with the men that work there, she also rises literally from floor to floor.  We expect executives in a movie to be reasonably attractive, as middle-class professionals.  But before she gets to them, she first has to land a job in the firm to get things started, which requires that she have sex with a funny-looking guy with a whiny voice in the personnel office.  That makes us a little queasy.

Furthermore, where she has sex with some of the men is pretty seedy as well.  When she has sex with that guy in personnel, they do it in the office of the head of that department, who is out to lunch.  From him she moves on to a junior executive played by John Wayne, whom she casts aside once she sets her sights on his boss, Mr. Brody.  She lures Brody into the ladies room after work, where they immediately start doing it. Unfortunately, in his haste to satisfy his lust, Brody leaves the door open, and Mr. Stevens, a higher-ranking executive, catches them in the act.  Brody loses his job as a result, which means Lily has no more use for him.  The hapless fellow is not only unemployed now, but desperately in love with Lily as well.  She brushes him off when he shows up at her apartment, telling him to go back to his wife and children.  Lily almost loses her job too, but she pretends that Brody followed her into the restroom and was able to take advantage of her because she couldn’t afford to lose her job.  Stevens understands her situation, and he gets to understand it even better when he starts having sex with her.  By that time, she has risen enough in the firm for her to afford a nice apartment where they can rendezvous.

But soon she figures that working as Stevens’ assistant is not good enough and that she needs a promotion.  So, she arranges to have his fiancée catch them embracing in his office.  Heartbroken, his fiancée tells her father, Mr. Carter, First Vice President of the firm, who decides Lily must be fired.  She is fired, after a fashion, as she transitions to being Mr. Carter’s kept woman in a swanky apartment with servants.  She and Chico are still friends, but as Chico is African American, she pretends to just be Lily’s maid when others are around.  We begin seeing Lily draped in diamonds and furs, while Carter also makes contributions to her bank account.

Just as Brody showed up at her place, pleading to see her again, so too does Stevens show up at her new place, also expressing his love for her.  When he discovers Carter in the bedroom, he shoots him.  Outside the bedroom, as she hears the shot, Lily stands there impassively.  Seconds later, while we are still looking at Lily, we hear the shot of Stevens shooting himself in the head.   With an almost imperceptible start at the sound of that second shot, she continues to have a blank expression on her face.  Then she walks into the bedroom and silently surveys the carnage.

This love-nest, murder-suicide causes a scandal for Gotham Trust.  Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the playboy grandson of the founder of the firm, is called in to straighten things out.  But it isn’t long before he falls under her spell and marries her.  When he finds himself being unfairly accused by the board of directors of causing the bank to fail through mismanagement on account of his relationship with Lily, he tells her they will need to raise a million dollars for his legal defense, that she will need to cash in all the stocks and bonds he has given her, along with all the other valuables she had accumulated previously.  But she isn’t having any of that, so she and Chico book passage for Paris.  On board the ship, however, she realizes she loves Courtland.  When she gets back to their penthouse, she finds that he has tried to commit suicide.  She has the elevator operator call a doctor.  She knows she will have to cash in all the loot she has accumulated over the years to pay his legal bills, but that’s all right, because they love each other.

Even though the movie was severely edited before it was released to the theaters, it remained the most notorious movie of the Pre-Code era.  The first time I watched this movie, what I saw was this edited version.  At that time, 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 greater.  Today, we would call it the director’s cut.  Both versions are available on DVD in Volume One of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection.

The original version was modified for theatrical release in three ways. The first form of editing is the sort we usually expect: stuff is 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 that line 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 breaks the beer bottle over his head, 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 Chico hop a freight to get to New York. A guard threatens to call the cops and have them put in jail, but Lily has sex with him in exchange for letting them stay on board. 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 footage that was never filmed originally. In the original version, Lily rides in the ambulance with her husband Courtland 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.  This added scene was required in order for it to pass muster with the censors.  We don’t see Barbara Stanwyck in this scene, because by that time she was already busy making another movie.  It is merely described by members of the board of directors.

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 Friedrich Nietzsche, who Cragg says is the greatest philosopher that ever lived. In the theatrical version, that line is suppressed, so we don’t know the name of the book or who wrote it.  As to the name of the book, I shall venture a guess.  Lily says she had a hard time understanding it, which suggests that it was Thus Spake Zarathustra.  Moreover, this was the work in which Nietzsche proclaimed the coming of the superman, which is what Cragg believes Lily can become.

After her father dies, when his bootleg still explodes, 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 instead of 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 replaced by something quite different: he tells her to be clean and to remember the difference between right and wrong.  This is quite the opposite from what we might expect from a student of Nietzsche, the philosopher that wrote Beyond Good and Evil.

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 plush 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 that quotation, the title of the book, or its author. Instead, we have footage added after the original version had been filmed in which she finds a letter from Cragg inside the book.  In that letter Cragg tells her she has picked the wrong way, that life will defeat her unless she regains her self-respect. Just to make sure we understand Cragg’s admonition as supposedly arising from his Christian faith, the closing just above his name says, “Merry Christmas.”  And this too is quite the opposite of what we might expect from a student of Nietzsche, the philosopher that wrote The Antichrist.

As noted above, I saw the theatrical version first. I had read that 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, played by Jimmy Stewart, talks about the superman, who is so superior he has the right to eliminate those who are inferior. When he finds out that a couple of his students decided to eliminate an inferior acquaintance by murdering him, the professor is appalled that they misunderstood what he was saying. And so, I figured Baby Face would have been in that vein even if some allusions to Nietzsche had been left in. But in the original version, Lily did not misunderstand Nietzsche, as explained to her by Cragg.  In fact, Cragg would have been disappointed to find out that Lily gave in to sentiment instead of crushing it.  This modification is the most radical way in which the movie was 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, neither in the Walter Kaufmann translation with which I am most familiar, nor in that of Anthony A. Ludovici, which was part of a project overseen by Oscar Levy, and which would have been available to those who wrote the screenplay for this movie.

**As with the other quotation, I have not been able to find this one in Thoughts Out of Season.  Furthermore, the paragraph just above the passage and the one just below it appear to be duplicates, suggesting that it was fabricated.

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