Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anybody asking why the 1970s were so liberated should check out this film, a mainstream
studio release that not only couldn't get made today, its makers would be arrested if they even
tried to film it. I'm actually surprised by Paramount's release; if the bluenoses were properly
on guard this picture would have been labeled kiddie porn by now.
Louis Malle's (and Polly Platt's) ode to the old Storyville section of New Orleans is a
great movie about prostitution that addresses the fact that many children were brought up in and
within the world of brothels, madames, whores and johns. Child model turned actress Brooke Shields
became a household word with Pretty Baby and the show gained notoriety when a million
movie fans asked themselves, "What kind of stage mother would allow her daughter to perform
in such a thing?"
Nell's bawdy house in New Orleans is home to a dozen prostitutes, several employees and
various children. Hattie (Susan Sarandon) gives birth to a son while daughter Violet (Brooke Shields)
looks on; the business transacted in the house is part of Violet's normal childhood experience and
she can't wait until she's old enough to do what her mother does. Art photographer Bellocq (Keith
Carradine) starts taking pictures of the women, honest art studies, but avoids sexual contact with
them. He becomes part of the house's retinue along with the pianist called Professor (Antonio
Fargas) and the various important local men who can afford the house's wares. Hattie has plans to
somehow change her life. Although she's ready to pretend her past never existed, how
can Violet, who has known nothing else, be expected to change?
Pretty Baby is a vibrant picture of American life long ago swept under the carpet,
a time when communities tolerated red light districts where certain forms of vice prospered. Nell's
house is a going concern that serves fine meals and keeps (we're told) clean women. It's also a
community of sisters, not exactly sterling citizens but a group that coheres when it comes to
issues like taking care of little Violet and her brother.
Beautiful Violet is a whorehouse version of a battle boy - she simply knows no other form of
existence and defines her little life in terms of her future ability to be profitably seductive to
men. The whole point of the film is in the horrible rituals that were then an accepted part of
underworld living. Like a inverse debutante, Violet is displayed naked on a litter to a table of
men who will bid on the right to deflower her. Violet is no victim of white slavery, but was
simply born into prostitution, the same as her mother Hattie.
Hattie is an emotionally volatile woman coping with things as best she can; her occasional tantrums
make perfect sense as her world certainly doesn't. Beautiful enough to pass daughter Violet off
as a sister, she keeps the child at an arm's length. Both Violet and her baby brother are treated as
the communal children of the house. When Hattie is able to go away she leaves both behind,
with a promise to return for them. There are no complaints from Nell or the other women. The house
is like a lion's pride where the females are in control and everyone looks after the cubs.
Louis Malle was one of France's most prestigious
filmmakers. Pretty Baby is an excellent place to see the so-called European sensibility
at its best. By contrast, I can't think of an American director of the time who could approach
this subject unless it were a grindhouse sleaze feature. Most American studio pix with content
remotely approaching this were incredibly crass ... just think of the insulting, exploitative
Mandingo. Hollywood sex just had to be dirty.
Malle's film was written and co-produced with Peter Bogdanovich's former design partner Polly Platt,
and benefits from (shall I risk saying this?) a sensible female viewpoint. Shocking content is
presented in a matter-of-fact way. All kinds of female functions in bed are accepted as real and
morally neutral. What goes on in Storyville is presented as a social and economic reality, and
not a moral outrage. We're allowed to use our own intelligence to figure out that it's no place
for children, and that Violet and her brother are being given a warped outlook on life. There are
no regrets when the houses are closed, we're just concerned for the fate of the women and kids.
Malle gives us a very French picnic-on-the-river scene that presents a fleetingly idyllic view of
Storyville life. Unlike other movies that concentrate on the oppressive nature of prostitution, these
women all seem to be saving their money. When it comes time to get out of town, all have decent
clothes to wear and substantial piles of luggage.
The shocked types that condemned Brooke Shields' mother for allowing the girl to take part in the
movie are understandable, because as a father I'm sure I'd feel the same way. But I also acknowledge
that there lifestyles different than my own and situations where strict rules are a hindrance to
the truth. I've read interviews with Polly Platt, and she's no libertine. From the
later life of Brooke Shields it's apparent that no psychic damage was done. 1
In other words, I'm in no position to judge what I didn't see and am perhaps not ready to
understand. By present day definitions of child pornography, though, if I were Paramount Home
Entertainment I'd sure make certain that the act of releasing this DVD wasn't in violation of some
For curious types, the young Brooke Shields is seen naked in many scenes, several of them with men
in situations where there could be no question that she was fully involved acting as a child
prostitute. There are no sex scenes per se, but it comes real close. Brooke 'talks the talk' in
a number of scenes and is around plenty of suggestive adult sexual activity.
Shields is remarkable, Susan Sarandon is complex and Keith Carradine shines in his characterization
of an artist who slowly
becomes obsessed with a child. Diana Scarwid is among the other prostitutes, along
with the interesting casting of Barbara Steele. Both aquit themselves well. Also making a
strong showing is Antonio Fargas as Nell's sly but wise piano player.
Sven Nykvist's glowing warm photography matches Malle's artful camera placement and gentle
Seeing this lovely disc makes me want to read more about the production of the film; I wasn't aware
that this was a one-time Malle/Platt team-up.
Paramount's DVD of Pretty Baby is a beautiful transfer in a plain-wrap package. The only thing
resembling an extra is a French-language audio track.
Savant has his prudish side and Pretty Baby's willingness to present the world of old-fashioned
brothels using real children is shocking in a way that limp 'adult films' seldom are. But Louis Malle
and Polly Platt's film is historically valid and artistically-minded, allowing us little choice but
to give them the benefit of the doubt. Good movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pretty Baby rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2003
1. gee, contrast that with
the tawdry career of Linda Blair, after The Exorcist.
2. A learned response from Mark Forer, 11/21/03:
Pretty Baby is in fact a true story based on anecdotes brought
forward in a famous book on Storyville written by Al Rose back in 1974.
It's a word-of-mouth, no-holds barred chronicle by then-living denizens
of Storyville who were there to experience it first-hand. The pianist
in the movie is based on none other then the great Jelly Roll Morton,
who was not only a parlor house player, but a pimp in addition to
reinventing jazz piano.
The photographer Ernest Bellocq actually lived in the Storyville area
and captured for all time the look of these women on primitive glass
negative shots that have become world famous. Many of these girls are
coarse in his pictures. But many more are quite beautiful. Girls such
as the one Brooke Shields portrayed were common and matter-of-factly
went about the houses learning the trade from the moment they were
bid-up by wealthy patrons for the honor of deflowering their virginity.
The book, Storyville, New Orleans, Being An Authentic Illustrated
Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose, The University
Of Alabama Press, is still readily available and is such a fascinating read that you
literally will not be able to put it down. And you won't believe what
you read, about a part of Americana that is no more. I urge you to buy
it, to see where the plot of this movie has been cribbed.
That this pleasure zone existed at all shows us that there are two
Americas... the uptight, moralistic and politically correct America of
today, and the free-spirited, no-holds barred, anything goes America
of only 80-100 years ago that has been swept under the rug... for our protection.
As a jazz buff, record collector, piano roll collector and
nickel-in-the-slot coin piano roll enthusiast, I know precisely where
jazz was born. Right there in Storyville. From there it spread to
Kansas City, then northward, but the real beginnings of jazz were right
there in the fancy houses along with "Jelly Roll" (slang for penis back
then!), Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and young Louis Armstrong - who ran
coal from House to House while practising the cornet. -- Cheers, Mark Forer, Art Director
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson