I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.
A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.
Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.