FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION - DVD review

Forbidden Hollywood provides a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood's past, the way things were and the way they might have been.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

According to Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell in "Film History: An Introduction" (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994, pg. 160), "Partly in an effort to avoid censorship and clean up Hollywood's image, the main studios banded together to form a trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). To head it, in early 1922 they hired Will Hays, then postmaster general under Warren Harding. Hays's strategy was to pressure the producers to eliminate the offensive content of their films and to include morals clauses in studio contracts. By 1924, the MPPDA had formulated a set of guidelines on subject matter that would render censorship laws unnecessary. These guidelines proved ineffectual, and Hays stiffened them in 1927 and 1930, finally cracking down with a strict Production Code in 1934." That Production Code would last for decades.

Warner Bros. have collected together three of their early classics in the boxed set called "Forbidden Hollywood," Volume I. Presumably, there will be more such movies to come. The three movies included here are "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), "Red-Headed Woman" (1932), and "Baby Face" (1933). Since "Baby Face" is probably the most-celebrated of them all, I'll concentrate my review on that one film.

"Baby Face"
When Warner Bros. screened the movie for censors in 1933 (Code or no Code, there were always local community censors), they rejected it for its sexual content, so WB trimmed out about five minutes of the film's more explicit scenes and dialogue. In 2004, the studio located a dupe negative of the original print as it appeared before the studio took the scissors to it, and now Warner Bros. are good enough to give us not only the version they've shown theatrically and on television all these years but the uncensored version as well, with all of its naughty bits restored. It was, of course, the uncensored, pre-release version that I watched, although I did go back and watch some of the theatrical version for comparison.

"Baby Face" is an amazing film for any age because it is purely about sex. Not X-rated, pornographic sex, but raw, sensual, unequivocal, unmitigated sex, nevertheless. The story, written by Darryl F. Zanuck under the pseudonym Mark Canfield, is about a woman who beds her way to the top of the business world. Understand, this was 1933, the time of the Great Depression. A third of the country's work force was out of a job, and a woman's place was in the home. The trouble is, the main character, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman in her early twenties or so, has no real home. Her father, the owner of a speakeasy in a rough industrial town, raised her alone, and, as she says, he sold her to any man who came along since she was fourteen years old.

A well-meaning older man, Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), a much more stable father figure than Lily's real father, with a penchant for spouting the "will to power" philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, encourages Lily to get out her miserable existence and make a better life for herself someplace else. Cragg tells her she has power, especially power over men, but she must use men, not let them use her. While I am sure he didn't mean for her to use her body to get ahead, when Lily's old man dies in the explosion of a liquor still, she takes Cragg's counsel, packs up, and heads for the big city, determined that she'll use every means at her disposal to get everything she has ever wanted--namely, money, power, and position. From that point on, she sleeps her way to the top.

And I mean that literally. When she reaches New York, she finds the biggest, tallest bank building in town, starts at the ground floor seducing the personnel director and works her way floor by floor up to the president of the bank. She makes it with every influential man she meets, the movie never displaying any direct sex (and hardly even a discreet kiss) but strongly showing us through innuendo each time she beds a fellow down. That would be almost every scene.

Let's see: Among the men she ensnares, there's a railroad inspector, the bank's assistant personnel director, the head of the filing department, the head of the mortgage department, the head of the accounting office, the bank's vice president, and then the bank's president. Along the way she even has time for a dalliance with a young chap played by John Wayne!

The film's director, Alfred E. Green, uses Stanwyck's youthful innocence (and attractive face and body) to good advantage. But more important, Stanwyck's character shows not a trace of remorse about any of the men but one she uses. She never shows a trace of emotion when her father dies; never shows a trace of feeling when confronted by murder and suicide. Old Cragg quotes Nietzsche to her in a letter: "Face life as you find it--defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out sentimentality." She obviously takes the advice to heart because she is one conniving, coldhearted woman on a mission.

The five minutes Warner Bros. removed to make the movie more acceptable to local censors may not seem like a lot, but it means everything to the tone of the film. The edits come in numerous small cuts, which, nonetheless, build a much stronger case for the pre-release rendition. For instance, there's a scene early on in the prerelease version where Lily is hopping a freight to New York and told by a railroad agent to get out of the boxcar or else; instead, she whispers in his ear, pulls him into a corner of the car, and their activities fade to black. WB cut the whole scene. Additionally, there are sexual innuendoes in speech and shots of a murder that WB edited. Probably the most important change in the theatrical version, though, is the ending, where the studio eliminated the original sentimental but wholly plausible conclusion and substituted a typically corny Hollywood finish where sinners are forever repentant and pay for their transgressions. Yeah, well, go with the pre-release account.

Video:
You'll notice a little grain in most scenes, day and nighttime shots both--more grain that you would see in a modern movie--but it is never too serious, and it is inherent to the print; meaning that that is the way people watched it in the 1930s, so that's the way we can see it today. The print itself is in quite good shape, considering its age and considering that Warner Bros. did not do a full-fledged restoration of it. The uncut version of "Baby Face" found in the Library of Congress is the best of the four prints in the set. There are very few flecks or lines, and a fairly high bit rate ensures deep blacks, good object delineation, and strong B&W contrasts. Some stock footage looks ugly, but most of the film is more than respectable.

Audio:
There's not much going on in the sound department. When WB first released the film, it was only a handful of years after the introduction of sound to motion pictures, so it's not exactly current state-of-the-art. Still, for its vintage, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is surprisingly quiet, with only a small amount of hiss during the softest passages; and the midrange is clear and sharp. Don't expect much in the way of dynamic range or frequency response, though. Just enjoy the spicy dialogue.

Extras:
Understandably, there isn't a lot beyond the three (four, actually) movies. It's a two-disc set with "Waterloo Bridge" and "Red-Headed Woman" on one disc and the two versions of "Baby Face"--theatrical and uncut--on the other. However, be aware that if your edition is like mine you'll find the contents of the discs reversed. No big deal, but it is an odd mistake from a studio as meticulous as Warner Bros. Anyway, in addition to the movies, there is a two-minute introduction by Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne; a theatrical trailer for "Baby Face"; twenty to twenty-two scene selections for each movie; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
"Forbidden Hollywood" provides a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood's past, the way things were and the way they might have been. The two versions of "Baby Face" are particularly enlightening, as they give us some idea of the direction movies were going in the early thirties and the ultimate direction they did take. From there, you can argue whether censorship, self-imposed or government mandated, is a good thing or bad. "Forbidden Hollywood" is a piece of history that helps shed new light on an old controversy.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
2
Film Value
7