'Hidden Film History' Unearthed

WASHINGTON (THR) -- When Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress' moving image section, sent for a print of the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck movie "Baby Face" for an exhibition abroad, he was expecting the original release, kept at the library's Dayton, Ohio, facility.

The film has become famous in the past few years, with historians hailing it as a superior example of a studio movie made before the imposition of the Hays Code. It showed, it was argued, that before the code was established, Hollywood was making adult-themed movies with an edge. When the code was instituted in 1934 after a public outcry about the frank nature of many films, the studios turned to tamer fare.

"Baby Face" is about a woman who climbs to the top of the heap using her "womanly wiles."

"It was the sort of picture that pushes the envelope of proprieties," Mashon said. "People fight a film like 'Baby Face.' "

The movie was banned by New York state's censorship board. And if it wasn't going to be shown in the Big Apple, Warner Bros. had little hope of making any money. The studio recalled the film and, working with a precursor of the MPAA, cut a few minutes so that it would pass the censors.

"The uncut version was seen as a lost film," Mashon said.

That was about to change thanks to the sharp eyes of George Willeman, who oversees the nitrate vaults the library maintains on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. The library actually had two negatives, Willeman discovered. This was because "somebody, somewhere had kept a fine-grain, master positive," Mashon learned later.

"When I started watching it, I knew within five minutes we had the original, uncut version," he said. "Archivists live for that kind of a moment. I was giddy like a schoolgirl. I shared it with my colleagues quite loudly."

The film, which grew in length by five minutes, was the real deal. A record of deleted scenes was kept by the studio, and those deletions matched the footage that was in the library's "new" print, Mashon said.

Scenes dealing with the philosophy of Nietzsche, like the one where one of the characters tells Stanwyck to go the city and use what's she got to get what she wants, were among those cut. It was one of these scenes in the early minutes of the rediscovered film that tipped off Mashon.

"George really deserves a lot of the credit," Mashon said. "If George hadn't spotted the difference, who knows what we would have done."

The uncut version of "Baby Face" was one of 25 films selected Tuesday for inclusion into the new National Film Registry.

While the discovery is the stuff dreams are made of -- or at least the stuff a film archivist's dreams are made of -- another film that offended American sensibilities also was included in the registry. The 1910 film "Jeffries-Johnson World's Championship Boxing Contest" didn't offend Americans' prudish attitude about sex but rather their feelings about race.

The film is a recording of the July 4 heavyweight title fight between black champion Jack Johnson and white former champion James J. Jeffries. While the fight re-established the flamboyant Johnson as the premier fighter of the age, exhibition of the film was banned by Congress, according to Dan Streible, a University of South Carolina film professor and author of "Fight Pictures: A History of Prize Fighting and Film."

"On one hand, you had these outright calls by segregationists to ban the film because he was a black fighter," he said. "But there were also these calls to ban it because it was violent."

Many of those clamoring to prevent the film from being shown because of its violence were really doing so because they didn't want to be seen as overtly racist, Streible said.

"There was a lot of talk in the black press at the time about the injustice of banning the Johnson fight film while theaters were allowed to show the Klan-friendly "Birth of a Nation," he said.

Congress got into the act, banning the interstate distribution of prize-fight films, a law that wasn't repealed until the 1940s, Streible said.

The film still found distribution in Europe, where it wasn't illegal, and it popped up in theaters clandestinely across the country. Most recently, some of the footage appeared in Ken Burns' documentary about the fighter. Segments of it often appear in boxing films, usually from one of a half-dozen cameramen cranking away during the fight, Streible said. The film eventually was bought with many other boxing movies of the '10s and '20s by Big Fights Inc., which now is owned by ESPN/Disney.

"Arguably, Johnson was the first black movie star," Streible said.

Another film dealing with race relations that made the list is "A Time for Burning." The 1966 documentary was made by San Francisco-area filmmaker Bill Jersey.

"Burning" chronicles the attempts of a Nebraska Lutheran minister, the Rev. L. William Youngdahl, to improve race relations in Omaha. Youngdahl tried to get white Lutheran parishioners to visit black Lutheran parishioners. It was an unsuccessful attempt to ease race tensions that ultimately cost Youngdahl his job.

"When I talked to him, I told him he how he could end up," Jersey said. "I made a figure of the cross, and that's the way it happened."

The film was commissioned and paid for by the Lutheran Church, which never backed away from the film, Jersey said.

Jersey makes films in cinema verite. "Burning" uses no script. There is no narrator, and there are no tags identifying the participants.

"If you don't have a script, you don't cut yourself off from what happens," he said. "The risk is tremendous because nothing may happen."

Jersey didn't have that problem in "Burning" as he filmed a meeting between Youngdahl and an outspoken black barber with a law degree named Ernie Chambers who told the minister that his Jesus was "contaminated."

At one point, Jersey filmed another minister during a conference who expressed the kind of racism that covered the country at the time.

"One minister said I want them to have everything I have, but I don't want to sit next to them," he said. "That's the kind of racism that's expressed outside of barking dogs and fire hoses. We didn't want to do a film that was urban or Southern because people say that's not them."

While the Johnson fight film and "Burning" are documentaries, another picture examining U.S. social taboos was made strictly for the money. "Mom and Dad" is an example of an exploitation film, pictures that preyed on Americans' thirst for knowledge about sex.

Made by promoter extraordinaire Kroger Babb, the film is a B-movie about a girl who has sex once with her fiance. He is killed in an accident the day after, and she suddenly is a "girl in trouble." Although the film's story isn't particularly noteworthy, it was intercut with hygiene films about venereal disease and childbirth. These films-within-the-film were the reasons for its success.

"In some ways it was just your standard B-movie, but it was goosed up by the films-in-films and lobby displays," said Eric Schaefer, an Emory College film professor and the author of "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films 1919-1959."

The film, like others of its genre, would show up in independent theaters that weren't Hays Code certified and play anywhere from a couple of days to a week. There often would be displays in the lobby of biological parts and instructional manuals.

"There was always a lecturer during the shows named Elliott Forbes, but since there were 15-20 of these road shows going on, there were 15 or 20 Elliott Forbes," Schaefer said. "It was really a multimedia experience."

Kroger Babb wasn't afraid of controversy. He often stirred it up by planting letters to the editor and antagonizing the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. The films usually would have two show times: one in the afternoon for women and teenage girls and one at night for men and teenage boys.

"Independent theater owners would see these crowds, and it looked like the whole town had turned out," Schaefer said. "They would be happy to show it for a couple of days or weeks and cash in."

Highlighting a film like "Mom and Dad" is one of the reasons the National Film Registry is important, Schaefer said.

"Really, for me, getting it on the list is an acknowledgment of this hidden film history," he said. "It's not just Hollywood. There's this whole class of films that made an impression but are largely forgotten."

Brooks Boliek writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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