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Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby
Paramount Home Entertainment
1978 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min. / Street Date November 18, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, Susan Sarandon, Frances Faye, Antonio Fargas, Matthew Anton, Diana Scarwid, Barbara Steele
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Production Designer Trevor Williams
Film Editor Suzanne Fenn
Original Music Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton, Scott Joplin
Written by Louis Malle and Polly Platt from her story
Directed by Louis Malle

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 legal statute!

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 storytelling. 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
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:

Hey, Glenn: 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

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