It was known as the ‘pre-Code era’, though in actual fact, the Hays Code had been around since 1930. It’s only that, until 1934, Hollywood studios blithely ignored the censorial guidelines and made a bunch of films that revelled in sex, drugs and violence, perhaps in a way that is tame by today’s standards, but still sparkles with impudent rebellion in the context of black-and-white glamour that has become mostly synonymous with wide-eyed innocence. In the BFI’s current season Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censor, a collection of rarely-screened films from 1930 to 1934 are getting another roll in the hay, offering a window into a fascinating period in cinematic history.
Perhaps the star who has become most emblematic of this era is Barbara Stanwyck, whose continued fame into the following decades seems to have maintained an image of being a devilish, incandescent temptress, making her work in the early 1930s seem like the foundations of a long game. One of her earliest vehicles – having managed to transfer her stardom over from Broadway – was Night Nurse, the first of several collaborations with a director Stanwyck would later name as a favourite, William Wellman. Stanwyck plays Lora Hart, whose surname provides ample amusement for the libidinous doctors as she starts work at a hospital. After an initial stretch of bawdy comedy in the hospital, with new BFF Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell), Night Nurse makes a rather abrupt shift into mysterious drama when Lora is hired for private duty to care for two sick children.
Neglected by their alcoholic, partying mother (a zonked Charlotte Merriam) and watched over by her chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable, sans moustache), who Lora quickly comes to suspect is colluding with Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde) to starve the children to death in order to get their hands on the inheritance. Fired up with righteous indignation, Lora can’t help heedlessly confronting everyone, until the kindly Dr. Bell (Charles Winniger) advises her that working from the inside will be more effective. That means marching through a catcalling dance floor to vainly attempt stirring the soused mother and avoiding the menacing Nick, a satanic vision in a high-collar black uniform and dominating knee-length boots – Gable radiating sex even in an unforgivably evil role. Have mercy!
Mike Mashon from the US Library of Congress, who introduced the screening of the two films on Saturday 3rd May, was much more concerned with the second of them, Baby Face, which more than any other film might be the emblematic product of this brief cinematic era. He recounted the story of Warner Bros.’ battle with the New York censors over Baby Face and how the original full version of the film was only rediscovered back in 2004, as Mashon was assisting with the programming of the London Film Festival. Back on the same screen, Alfred E. Green’s original cut of Baby Face is presented in all its salacious glory, following Stanwyck’s Lily Powers as she sleeps her way up the career ladder inside a multinational bank.
Screening these two films back-to-back certainly emphasises the progression in what studios tried to get away with; while Night Nurse teasingly presents the ladies in their undergarments, it also makes evident the evils of alcohol, with Merriam perpetually in a completely different universe to her co-stars (it’s a highly effective performance) and Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Friderici) succumbing to booze to provide a necessary plot point. In Baby Face, a sentimental ending aside, there are few scruples in the presentation of Lily as a scheming, sultry manipulator, her eyes turning to the next man before the current one has even touched her lips. In scenes that were meaningful excised for the released version in the 1930s, Lily’s mentor Dr. Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) gives her Nietzschean philosophy and tells her that ‘you must use men, not let them use you’. What’s most striking and most wonderful about Baby Face is its defiant feminism, putting Stanwyck front and centre and presenting her sexual power as a given, but her mental power as the overwhelming factor. A flash of leg gets the attention, but Lily’s wordplay and tone of voice are what seal the deal. Initially, Lily’s only climbing the secretarial ladder, reflecting the limiting opportunities for women of the time, but later, she’s promoted to head of a division, an event which the film mentions so casually that its importance might be missed.
Both Night Nurse and Baby Face celebrate female sexuality and independence at the same time as exploiting it. Stanwyck’s star power, as was often the way in the Golden Age of Hollywood, does a lot of the work toward her characterisations, but both Lora and Lily are strong depictions of women, albeit of completely different attitudes. Lora burns incandescent with injustice, eager and ready to barge across the set rules of this hierarchical male society, and Wellman also demonstrates the consistent oppression of women through Nick’s maintenance of the girls’ mother’s alcoholic stupor. Lily, meanwhile, abused and sexualised since she was a teenager, takes Dr. Cragg’s (his thick European outsider aligns him with her and not the other male characters) advice and uses the talents she has fostered through her unfortunate upbringing to bring her the money and status she desires.
Hollywood cliché and the necessary inclusion of a happy, moral ending afflict both films, both finishing rather abruptly and Baby Face particularly suffering from a rather unbelievable character swerve. Yet both shine as examples of what Hollywood dared to get away with in this period, and as examples of mainstream films headlined by a woman – a rarer thing now than then. More than a taster; these are the rich centre of the Hollywood Babylon dessert, a delicious buffet waiting for you at the BFI for the next two months.
The Night Nurse + Baby Face double bill played at the BFI Southbank on Saturday 3 May, and screens again on Sunday 11 May. Tickets are still available for the entire Hollywood Babylon season, running into July.