Two classics, 'Marked Woman' and 'Baby Face' to be shown tonight

by Tom Jawetz | 11/15/95 6:00am

Censored sex will be the theme of a double-feature to be shown tonight in Spaulding as part of the Dartmouth Film Society's "Sex in the Cinema" series.

The two films, both produced in the 1930s, depict two sides of the Hollywood Production Code, instituted in 1930. The Code dictated the proper treatment of such subjects as dancing, language, costume and the portrayal of the law. And, of course, sex.

"Baby Face," made in 1933, represents the early days of Production Code enforcement when studios, still not taking it seriously, used a variety of methods to skirt around the censors.

"Baby Face," starring Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, is the story of Lily, the daughter of a sleazy speak-easy owner, who decides to try her luck in the Big Apple. Cashing in on her sexual attractiveness, she sleeps her way to a top position in a New York bank.

The film is about sexual power, and the exploitation of that power to achieve one's own goals. "Evidently there is not a decent man in this bank--not one who scorns to have an affair with this tarnished Lily," wrote The New York Times .

Barbara Stanwyck manages to perfectly capture the essence of her character, turning simple gestures that seemed tame enough to the censors into actions that caused the film to be banned in Switzerland, Austria and parts of the United States and Canada. A then-unknown John Wayne makes an appearance as well, playing the bank's assistant manager.

"Marked Woman," an early Bette Davis vehicle, was released in 1937 after the enforcement of the Production Code was drastically increased. "Marked Woman" is based upon the real-life trial of Charles "Lucky" Luciano, a racketeer in New York City who was convicted primarily on the testimony of prostitutes he had "protected."

Due to the influence of the Code, the plot of "Marked Woman" had to be altered from the true story in order to maintain its level of decency. The prostitutes were turned into "hostesses" at an illegal gambling establishment, women whose job it was to get men to spend more money on liquor and games. There is no direct reference to their real profession as prostitutes because that would have, in the words of the Code, "[excited] an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth."

Humphrey Bogart plays David Graham, the District Attorney who eventually convicts Vanning. Davis is Mary Dwight, one of five hostesses who bravely testify against Vanning, compromising their own safety.

"Marked Woman," much like "Baby Face," deals with the power of women to rise above their current status. Less focused on sex, "Marked Woman" does a superb job of developing itself as a multi-dimensional film. The popular genre it falls under is that of the "gangster flick" and thereby gains a broader viewing audience than it might otherwise have.

Taken independently of each other, "Marked Woman" and "Baby Face" come off as two intelligent, well-made films. When contrasted, they clearly illustrate the effect that the Production Code had on the motion picture industry at its inception.

Additional reporting done by Amir Katz.