Barbara Stanwyck was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).
For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”
However, in 1934, the studios lost the war when Breen replaced Hays. Joseph Breen was a constipated, Hollywood executive, in-house Keystone Kop type in cahoots with the Catholic League of Decency. Like that infamous organization, Breen saw the “big sin” as sex, and saw sex as undoubtedly on the mind and agenda of all those Christ-killing Hollywood Jews. Breen was a vile anti-Semite and saw Jewish-led celluloid muck merchants as being on a mission to open a Pandora’s box of sins on a gullible, innocent Christian public. The Hays Code was not only enforced, but now became even more rigid. The newly revised code composed an extensive lost of “dos” and “do nots.” Not surprisingly, over half of the do nots involved sex. The Code stayed in effect until the 1960s when it went the way of the dinosaur. (As we are apt to do in America, when freed to discuss sex, Hollywood then went from one extreme end of the pendulum to the opposite extreme end). Regardless, among the original do nots were: sex, sinners going unpunished, sex, profanity (which included taking the divine name in vain), sex, any mention of virginity, sex, actual scenes of child birth, sex, use of drugs, sex, nudity, sex, interracial relationships, sex, lack of patriotism, sex, sedition, disrespect of flag, sex, sympathy for criminals, sex, disrespect for institutions, and sex.
A number of film historians have written volumes on the pre-Code era and, understandably, take delight in finding how many Code conventions were broken in that period. Night Nurse and Baby Face are two of the most infamous examples.
Night Nurse is directed by William A. Wellman, and co-stars Joan Blondell with a young Clark Gable. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) is trying to get a job as a night nurse in the big city, despite having no high school education. She got the taste for nursing in the country while caring for her dying mother. The bitchy head nurse seems to think the lack of education is a big deal and sends our heroine packing, but not for long. Lora literally runs into well-heeled Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), bats an eyelash, shows off her gams, and soon this tomato has been accepted into the trainee program.
Lora’s new roommate is Maloney (the vivacious Joan Blondell). Maloney is the smarty pants trainee and the two hit it off so well that they spend an awful lot of peek-a-boo time undressing one another down to their lingerie and climbing into bed together. On her way to sainthood, the nurturing Lora actually cares about the patients. One of those is a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) who is really a good egg (sort of), though he gets fresh with our night nurse while she tends his bullet wound. When asked about his injury, Mortie concocts a story and vows: “Nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it!”
When Lora inherits charge of two young girls, she runs into Nick (Clark Gable), a sexy, black silk robe wearing, gigolo chauffeur who tends to the girls’ dipsomaniac mama, the widowed Mrs. Ritchie (Charlotte Merriam). Nick is slowly starving the two whelps to order get their inheritance for Ritchie’s mobster boyfriend. In one jaw-dropping, memorable scene, Ritche is passed out on her bear skin rug, champagne glass empty, with the disgusted Lora standing over her, yelling: “You mother!” Things get even hairier when Lora threatens to call the kops and Nick socks her in the jaw! Lora, with hands on hips and darts for eyes, lives up to her moniker “Miss Iodine.” She whips the entire apathetic hospital into action, socks a phony in the mug, and solicits Mortie’s help to rid her of Nick. This beautifully lurid, period melodrama is blessed with Wellman’s visual panache and a shockingly nonchalant, amoral finale.
Baby Face is among the most notorious pre-Coders. Aiding its legendary status was its racier, pre-release edit (it was released just as the Production Code began to be enforced). The uncut version was believed lost until discovered at the Library of Congress in 2004. The Turner Classic Movies DVD release has both edits. Stick with the restored cut. Predictably, it’s more fun.
Babs is the aptly named Lily Powers, whose widowed, alcoholic father has been pimping her out to the mangy crowd that populates his speakeasy. One of Lily’s regular johns points her towards Nietzsche: “Be a master, not a slave, and use men to get the things you want,” he tells her. “Yeah.” Lily’s brain lights up together with her nihilistic cigarette. Lily becomes convinced of her feminine power when a convenient boiler explosion sends daddy to a much deserved hell.
With four bucks, Lily and her dad’s servant, Chico (Theresa Harris) hop aboard a train car. When the railman discovers them and threatens to kick them off, Chico suggests a romp in the hay. New York, here we come! Lily becomes “Baby Face” and spreads for anyone who can advance her career at the bank, including a young, curly topped John Wayne.
Lily gives Lulu a run for the money and similar consequences await, including a murder-suicide scandal. Enter Tranholm (George Brent), Paris, marriage, eventual true love and realization that Nietzsche was clueless. Although director Alfred E. Green lacks Wellman’s directorial flair, he wisely defers to Stanwyck’s star power. Baby Face is not as outlandishly plotted as Night Nurse, lacks that earlier film’s idiosyncratic period zingers, and is bogged down with an unconvincing conversion at the finale. Still, for most of its ride, we are right there in the sack with Baby Face.