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In DC: I’m Co-Hosting a Series of Pre-Code Films at the Hill Center

posted by Nell Minow

I’m thrilled to announce that Margaret Talbot and I are co-hosting a steamy series of four films from the early 1930’s at Washington DC’s Hill Center, starting this Friday with Barbara Stanwyck’s “Baby Face.”

In a film and discussion series that will explore the history of sex and violence in the movies, censorship and the ratings system, we will present four gems of pre-Code cinema. For several years in the early 30s, producers, directors and screenwriters routinely flouted the moral guidelines known as the Hays Code. It wasn’t until July, 1934, when they were threatened with a nationwide boycott of the movies organized by the Catholic Church and its Legion of Decency, that the studios agreed to a stricter enforcement regime that would ensure they followed the rules. The movies that emerged from Hollywood in those first, “pre-Code” years of the 1930s are often racier, more cynical, darker and franker than movies would be for many years afterward.

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In Baby Face (1933), Barbara Stanwyck literally sleeps her way to the top in the film that critic Mick LaSalle calls “lurid and black comic” and “the ultimate pre-code for pure outrageousness.” Stanwyck plays a small-town girl whose father sells her sexual services until she decides to deploy them for her own benefit. In a stunning scene, we see her take the elevator higher and higher in a big office building, seducing a man on each floor with more money and power than the one below. Look quickly — one of those men is a very, very young John Wayne. We will be showing the rare uncensored version of the film, with a steamy extra five minutes and without a tacked-on final scene — more men and less redemption.

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