For those not familiar with the full range of what the term “old movies” actually encompasses, the early sound era can come as quite a shock. It was a time of bold technical experimentation, a time when a lot of new talent entered the movies by way of the stage, and it was also a time when movies were surprisingly unrestrained in the matter of censorship. Adult material, sin and crime that went unpunished, open sexuality, even glimpses of nudity (which wasn’t that uncommon in silents) and a certain amount of swearing were commonplace. (From 1929 through 1933 “hell” and “damn” were not as unusual as suggested by the 1939 fuss over allowing Gable to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” in Gone With the Wind.) This became known as the Pre-Code era — movies made before the Production Code laid down by the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1934.
One of the most surprising such films is Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933), which has become even more surprising with the arrival of a new print that contains restored footage and original dialogue that had to be overdubbed even in 1933. As drama, it’s no great shakes (there are many better Pre-Code films). It’s not a lot more than the story of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) who sleeps her way to the top. It’s pretty good filmmaking — the underrated Alfred E. Green keeps it and his camera moving. But its major fame is as one of the most outrageous Pre-Code films out there. It makes no bones about how Lily gets where she’s going, or that her father (Robert Barrat) has been pimping her out since she was 14. It’s also a bit silly — the interpretation of Nietzsche’s Will to Power that starts Lily on the path of using sex to get what she wants is something to behold — but it’s invariably engagingly shocking to audiences who think of old movies as quaint and innocent.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke