In 1934, the Hays Code began to be strictly enforced in Hollywood to clean up alleged indecency in movies. All evil-doers had to meet their just rewards.
What spurred the prudish policing? Hardboiled flicks like Baby Face. This 1933 film had Barbara Stanwyck playing young Lily Powers whose bootlegger father hires out her favors to the local men. She fights off the men who want her, but we’re given to understand that doesn’t mean all of them.
After her father’s death, Lily heads to New York to make her way in the world. She and her African American co-worker/friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a freight train, but are discovered by a railroad worker who threatens to have them thrown in jail. Lily sidles over to him seductively saying, “Wait … can’t we talk this over?” The ensuing scene (below) was deleted by the censors. Scenes like this one were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Once in New York, Lily sees the soaring Gotham Trust tower and asks a security guard about jobs. He directs her to the personnel department, where an aide asks Lily, “Have you had any experience?”, to which Lily replies, “Plenty!”
Lily proceeds to climb a ladder of Gotham Trust executives. With each advance, she becomes colder, more ruthless, and wealthier.
The film’s original ending has Lily leaving her latest bank executive in the lurch and running away to Europe with her illicit gains. But that ending did not please the censors.
After the film was banned in several cities, a new conclusion was quickly filmed. Instead, Lily realizes the error of her ways and sells everything to rescue the young banker she loves from financial ruin.
Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face is typical of female leads before the Hays Code: strong, resourceful, and determined to succeed doing whatever it takes to get ahead.
To learn more about Barbara Stanwyck, take a look at her fascinating archive at the American Heritage Center.