Tag Archives: Blonde Venus

Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
Baby Face
Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
Annex - Wayne, John (Baby Face)_01
Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #6 – Blonde Venus (1932)

MV5BNDMwYmZmZDYtMjA1NS00YzJkLWI2ODUtZTA2NTgwMGI3Mzc0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Blonde Venus (1932)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore

Being something of a self-professed film buff, I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in movie history, especially when it comes to Hollywood. I have to admit that the films of Josef von Sternberg are a massive blind spot of mine, and the director’s relatively small filmography is one of the more daunting things I’ve yet to tackle. Sternberg’s 1932 film Blonde Venus seemed like a perfect place to start off because of its pre-code nature, so naturally I took advantage of the pairing. While Blonde Venus is generally considered to be one of Sternberg’s least memorable directorial efforts, I had quite a strong initial reaction to it – it features a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich, another Hollywood legend I have little experience with, a compelling narrative with real stakes, and is at its core a rather complex morality tale. An impressive and emotional supporting turn from Herbert Marshall certainly helps keep the film together, and an early appearance from Cary Grant was a joy to see.

Blonde Venus follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) Faraday, a young married couple living together with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Ned had recently come down with a serious illness as a result of one of his experiments, and the Faraday’s do not have the money for treatment. Helen vows to return to the theatre in order to earn the funding needed to send Ned away to Germany for treatment. Helen’s work in the theatre quickly attracts the attention of Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), a cocksure young politician. With Ned leaving for Germany, Helen and Nick begin to have a love affair . Helen and Johnny move into an apartment owned by Nick, and Helen gradually falls in love with the young politician. When Ned returns home to find Helen and Johnny missing, things begin to fall apart. Ned eventually files for a divorce from Helen, causing her to flee with Johnny in order to keep her young son. What follows is an exciting, morally complex tale of a mother stopping at nothing to protect her young son, and the self-destruction she experiences when she loses him.
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The first act of Blonde Venus serves strictly to set up the private lives of Helen and Ned Faraday, delivering a great deal of character development and exposition in a short twenty minutes. While it certainly isn’t the most exciting or innovative part of the film, it’s important in setting context for the events to come. When Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage for her famous “Hot Voodoo” musical number, Blonde Venus truly picks up and becomes something truly memorable. The number reveals Helen’s nature as a living, breathing woman with sexual needs and desires – a truly modern woman in a world that isn’t yet ready for these things. In this scene, Helen is simultaneously a strong matriarchal figure and a free, modern woman with real power over an audience made up almost entirely of older men. From here, Blonde Venus reveals its true nature as something more than a typical “woman’s picture” – a complex morality tale tackling themes of sex, marriage, freedom, and one’s meaning in life.

The film’s middle act sees Helen running away with her young son Johnny, followed in hot pursuit by her ex-husband Ned and a seemingly endless amount of law enforcement and private investigators. This section of the film is easily the most exciting, though it is rather brief. We see Ned’s desperation to get his son back from the woman who betrayed him, and Helen’s willingness to do anything to survive. When Helen hits rock bottom, she opts to return her son to her ex-husband, later making a pledge to kill herself. Instead of traditional suicide, Helen chooses an unfulfilling life of solitude, taking to the stage and using the men around her to become more successful than ever before. It is here where both Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall shine – both of their characters have very real motivations for their actions, making it difficult to root for just one. The more radical pre-code elements of the film rear their heads during this act, where Helen is eventually forced to prostitute herself in order to feed Johnny. We also see a man threaten to punch his wife, and many subtle references to Helen’s sexuality in general. Hell, the entire first act of the film is about a married woman having an affair – if that doesn’t break the Code’s views of marriage, I don’t know what does.
blonde-venus-01-gJosef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is a very strong entry into our pre-code marathon. While it may not be his best regarded film, I struggle to find many problems with it outside of some minor pacing issues. The first act is rather slow and filled with exposition, but it’s all vital in the context of what comes later. The film’s ending is disappointing in its suddenness, but it’s too sweet and good-natured to flat out hate. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Helen Faraday is strong and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a modern, dignified woman who isn’t afraid to put her sexuality on display. Herbert Marshall’s turn as her spiteful, but well-meaning ex husband Ned is equally impressive. Blonde Venus tells a compelling rise and fall (and rise again) story of a truly compelling character, and is more than worth your time. Blonde Venus comes highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood – An Introduction

GirlMissing00011On July 1st, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) was officially implemented after four years of development. The Code set a list of precedents that all mainstream Hollywood sound films had to adhere to, focusing largely on censoring profanity, sexuality, organized crime and violence, and religious criticism. The Hays Code was made up of two sections – “Don’ts”, which outlined things that were strictly prohibited by the code, and “Be Carefuls”, which were subject to scrutiny by the Production Code Administration (PCA). The two lists featured the following rules and restrictions:

Don’ts:

  • Pointed Profanity
  • Suggestive Nudity
  • Illegal Drug Trafficking
  • Sex Perversion
  • White Slavery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Sex Hygiene
  • Scenes of Childbirth
  • Children’s Sex Organs
  • Ridicule of the Clergy
  • Offense to Any Nation, Race, or Creed

Be Careful’s:

  • Use of the Flag
  • International Relations
  • Arson
  • Firearms
  • Theft
  • Brutality/Gruesomeness
  • Murder
  • Smuggling
  • Torture
  • Executions
  • Sympathy for Criminals
  • Attitudes Towards Public Figures/Institutions
  • Sedition
  • Cruelty to Children/Animals
  • Branding of People/Animals
  • Sale of Women
  • Rape
  • Wedding Night Scenes
  • Men and Women Sharing a Bed
  • Deliberate Seduction of Women
  • Institution of Marriage
  • Surgery
  • Drug Use
  • Law Enforcement
  • Excessive/Lustful Kissing

As you can see, the Motion Picture Production Code set the groundwork for a great deal of censorship in American cinema. By limiting the content that writers and filmmakers were able to show on screen (or even allude to), the PCA was in turn stifling artistic freedom and creativity in general. Limiting the content allowed in Hollywood films would lead to Hollywood writers, directors, and actors coming up with more subtle, creative ways of getting past the Hays Code. In turn, it sparked a great deal of outrage in Hollywood upon its announcement in 1929, setting in motion a five-year period now known as Pre-Code Hollywood. This Pre-Code era saw the development of many boundary pushing films, featuring strong female protagonists, violent content focusing on gangsters and criminals, and sexual innuendo. The Hays Code was abandoned in the 1960’s when it became clear that studios were no longer willing to enforce the strict rules, and when American culture was in the midst of an undeniable revolution. The collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code would eventually lead to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose film rating system is still in use today.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club will be taking a look at fifteen of the most famous Pre-Code Hollywood films, examining their boundary pushing nature and shedding light on an era of filmmaking that has been sadly forgotten to history. The Pre-Code Hollywood films that will be covered include:

  1. In Old Arizona (1929) (dir. Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh)
  2. The Divorcee (1930) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
  4. Night Nurse (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  5. The Public Enemy (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  6. Blonde Venus (1932) (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
  8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  9. Red-Headed Woman (1932) (dir. Jack Conway)
  10. Scarface (1932) (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)
  11. The Sign of the Cross (1932) (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
  12. Baby Face (1933) (dir. Alfred E. Green)
  13. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) (dir. Frank Capra)
  14. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley)
  15. Of Human Bondage (1934) (dir. John Cromwell)

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