Baby Face (film)

Baby Face is a 1933 American drama film directed by Alfred E. Green for Warner Brothers, starring Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers, and featuring George Brent. Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck (under the pseudonym Mark Canfield), Baby Face is about an attractive young woman who uses sex to advance her social and financial status. Twenty-five-year-old John Wayne plays a supporting role as one of Powers' lovers.

Baby Face
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlfred E. Green
Produced byWilliam LeBaron
Raymond Griffith
Screenplay byGene Markey
Kathryn Scola
Story byDarryl F. Zanuck
Mark Canfield
StarringBarbara Stanwyck
George Brent
Music byHarry Akst
Ralph Erwin
Fritz Rotter
Beth Slater Whitson
CinematographyJames Van Trees
Edited byHoward Bretherton
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Release date
  • July 1, 1933 (1933-07-01) (United States)
Running time
71 mins.
75 mins. (restored version)
CountryUnited States
Box office$452,000[1]

Marketed with the salacious tagline "She had it and made it pay", the film's open discussion of sex made it one of the most notorious films of the Pre-Code Hollywood era[2] and helped bring the era to a close. Mark A. Vieira, author of Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood[3] has said, "Baby Face was certainly one of the top 10 films that caused the Production Code to be enforced."[4]


Lily Powers works for her father Nick in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania during Prohibition. Since the age of 14, her father has had her sleep with many of his customers. The only man she trusts is Cragg, a cobbler who admires Friedrich Nietzsche and advises her to aspire to greater things. Lily's father is killed when his still explodes. Cragg tells Lily to move to a big city and use her power over men. She and her African-American co-worker and best friend Chico hop a freight train to New York City, but are discovered by a railroad worker who threatens to have them thrown in jail. As she unbuttons her blouse she says, "Wait ... can't we talk this over?" It is strongly implied that she has sex with him to change his mind.

In New York, Lily goes inside the Gotham Trust building. She seduces the personnel worker to land a job. Her subsequent rise through the building symbolizes her progress in sleeping her way to the top.

In the filing department, Lily begins an affair with Jimmy McCoy Jr., who recommends her for promotion to his boss, Brody. She seduces Brody and is transferred to the mortgage department. Brody and Lily are caught in flagrante delicto by a rising young executive, Ned Stevens. Brody is fired, but Lily claims Brody forced himself on her. Ned believes her and gives her a position in his accounting department.

Although Ned is engaged to Ann Carter, the daughter of First Vice President J.P. Carter, Lily quickly seduces him. When Ann calls to say she will be visiting, Lily arranges to have Ann see her embracing Ned. Ann runs crying to her father, who tells Ned to fire Lily. He refuses, so J.P. calls Lily to his office to fire her himself. Lily claims she had no idea Ned was engaged and that he was her first boyfriend. She seduces J.P., and he installs her in a lavish apartment, with Chico as her maid. Ned tracks her down on Christmas Day, but she spurns him. He later returns to her apartment to ask her to marry him, but finds J.P. there. He shoots and kills J.P., then himself.

Courtland Trenholm, the grandson of Gotham Trust's founder (and a notorious playboy), is elected bank president to handle the resulting scandal. The board of directors, learning that Lily has agreed to sell her diary to the press for $10,000, summons her to a meeting. She tells them she is a victim of circumstance who merely wants to make an honest living. The board offers her $15,000 to withhold her diary, but Courtland, seeing through her and using her claim that she simply wants to restart her life, instead offers her a position at the bank's Paris office. She reluctantly accepts. She also changes her name.

When Courtland travels to Paris on business, he is surprised and impressed to find Lily not only still working there, but promoted to head of the travel bureau. He soon falls under her spell and marries her. Unlike her previous conquests, Courtland knows what she is, but admires her spirit nonetheless. While on their honeymoon, he is called back to New York. The bank has failed due to mismanagement, which the board unfairly pins on Courtland. He is indicted, and tells Lily he must raise a million dollars to finance his defense. He asks her to cash in the bonds, stocks and other valuables he gave her, but she refuses and books passage back to Paris.

While waiting for the ship to leave, she changes her mind and rushes back to their apartment. When she arrives, she discovers Courtland has shot himself. She tearfully professes her love for him. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance attendant assures her that he has a good chance. Lily accidentally drops her jewelry case, spilling money and jewels on the floor. When the attendant points this out, she tearfully tells him they do not matter anymore. Courtland opens his eyes, sees Lily, and smiles at her.



This film was Warner Bros.' answer to MGM's Red-Headed Woman (1932), another pre-Code Hollywood film with a similar theme, starring Jean Harlow.[3] Production head Darryl F. Zanuck wrote the treatment for the film and sold it to Warner Bros. for a dollar. The Great Depression was having a devastating effect on the film industry at the time, and many studio personnel were voluntarily taking salary cuts to help. Zanuck did not need the money because he was drawing a weekly salary of $3,500.[3] He later left Warner Bros. and became the legendary head of 20th Century Fox.

Aside from its depiction of a seductress, the film is notable for the "comradely" relationship Lily has with African-American Chico.[6]

A publicity still from this film aptly shows Barbara Stanwyck posing next to a stepladder.[7]

An instrumental version of the 1926 hit song "Baby Face" is played over the opening credits and in later scenes. "Saint Louis Blues" is also used repeatedly. Theresa Harris ("Chico") sings it twice and an instrumental version is heard at the close of the final scene.


Box Office

According to Warner Bros the film earned $308,000 domestically and $144,000 foreign.[1]


The New York Times panned the film, calling it "an unsavory subject, with incidents set forth in an inexpert fashion."[8]


Sexual content

Because the New York State Censorship Board rejected the film's original version in April 1933, the film was softened by cutting out some material (such as Lily's study of Nietzschean philosophy as well as various sexually suggestive shots). The producers also inserted new footage and tacked on the ending in which Lily has changed and is content to live a modest lifestyle.[9] In June 1933 the New York Censorship Board passed the revised version, which then had a successful release.[4]

The uncensored version remained lost until 2004, when it resurfaced at a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio. George Willeman is credited with the discovery.[10] The restored version premiered at the London Film Festival in November 2004. In 2005 it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry[11] and also was named by as one of the 100 best movies of the last 80 years.[12] When this film is broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, it is the uncensored version.

Altered speech

Early in the film, Lily seeks the advice of the only man she trusts, a cobbler played by Alphonse Ethier. He reads a passage from a book by the philosopher Nietzsche. The first version of the cobbler's speech that did not pass New York State Censorship was as follows:[3]

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![3]

After much discussion with Zanuck, Joseph Breen of the Studio Relations Committee suggested that the film could pass by making the cobbler a spokesman for morality. Breen himself rewrote the scene as follows (the revised lines are italicized):

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.[3]

The new lines were dubbed onto an over-the-shoulder shot of the cobbler. This was one of several changes that allowed the film to pass the Censorship Board.[3]

See also


  1. Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  2. Turan, Kenneth. Never Coming to a Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie. Public Affairs 2004. ISBN 1-58648-231-9. Pg. 375
  3. Vieira, Mark A. (1999). Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. pp. 148–149. ISBN 0-8109-4475-8.
  4. "A Wanton Woman's Ways Revealed, 71 Years Later", Dave Kehr, New York Times, January 9, 2005
  5. Stafford, Jeff. "Spotlight: Baby Face". Turner Classic Movies. Time Warner Company. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 21 December 2006.
  6. "Baby Face (1933)".
  7. Sin in Soft Focus, p. 157
  8. M.H. (June 24, 1933). "A Woman's Wiles". The New York Times.
  9. Article by Betsy Sherman, April 7, 2006, WBUR radio
  10. Boliek, Brooks (December 28, 2005). "'Hidden film history' unearthed".
  11. Library of Congress press release, December 20, 2005, re films added to National Film Registry
  12. "Baby Face (1933)". Time magazine. February 12, 2005.


  • Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930–1934. New York: Columbia University Press 1999; ISBN 0-231-11094-4
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