[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
As much as anything else, Pretty Baby is about the end of an eraâ€”the ragtime era. Music is so much a part of the film’s atmosphere and texture that it seems an aspect of the production design; and the music reflects that delicate transitional period in popular music when the formal, classical ragtime of Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin began to give way to the freer-flowing “walking” sound of New Orleans bluesâ€”a step in the long process whereby African tribal chant and slavery-days work songs developed into the liberated, improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. The pivotal figure in the transition from the Sedalia sound of Joplin to the New Orleans sound that became Dixieland was Jelly Roll Morton, who for all practical purposes appears in the film as “The Professor,” a lean cathouse piano player portrayed by Antonio Fargas, who even looks a little like the old Jelly Roll. Morton did much of his best work playing nights in Storyville; and the closing-down of New Orleans’s fabled red-light district by the U.S. Navy in 1917 was both the end of an era and the reason why many suddenly unemployed musiciansâ€”playing something they then called “jass”â€”fanned out across the country, bringing a new sound with them. In Pretty Baby, when Madame Nell’s closes up and the furniture is being carted off, the Professor still sits, playing a last few bars on his piano as the movers pick it up; he turns quickly away with a tossed-off “Lousy old piano anyway…” to cut the pain of being separated from a part of himself. Fargas has another great moment, earlier in the film, in the close, long take of the Professor’s face, with God-knows-what-all passing through his mind, as the brothel patrons bid for the privilege of taking the virginity of the girl Violet: fleshpeddling of two different kinds meet at that moment in the pained awareness of one face that has seen too much.
But for all that, Malle’s Pretty Baby is more tender than painful, its world more gentle than shocking. This is made clear at the outset, when whatever predispositions we may have about the film’s subject matter and tone are demolished with a neat one-two. First, the moans and groans we think are sexual prove insteadâ€”as the camera pulls back to show us what Violet is watchingâ€”to be the birth pains of her mother, Hattie. Then, when Violet runs away from the scene, we again make an assumption: that she retreats because she can’t bear the pain. The next cut turns back on us again, for Violet is in fact running into the sittingroom to announce excitedly the birth of her baby brother William. Malle makes us accept Violet’s acceptance of her worldâ€”in which a rat in the bedroom is a plaything, not an object of horrorâ€”and the most unlikely things in the film become gentle and pleasing. Malle’s, Platt’s, and Nykvist’s loving approach to the film’s characters mirrors the love that Bellocq, the photographer, has for his models as real people. The camera is for him, like the piano for the Professor, the true instrument of love. But the passing of time brings with it the cheapening of such instruments, and the loss of innocence altogether. The Professor’s piano is toted off like so much junk, and Bellocq’s genius is reduced to the box camera of Mr. Fuller, who comes to force the deliciously ambiguous childwoman of Bellocq’s art and dreams into the uncomfortable mold of child.
Violet (played with haunting beauty and precocious understanding by Brooke Shieldsâ€”and thank God for one worldly-wise child actress who doesn’t come off like a smartass!) goes willingly, seems to embrace the new role. Perhaps in a world where children play at being adults, an adolescent needs a chance to play at being a child. But she looks wrong to us with Mr. Fuller and her mother. Is her acceptance of the child role a knowing shrinking-away from adulthood, a desperate last grasp at already-lost innocence (just as Baby William, whose birth begins the film, is always seen cryingâ€”shouting, it seems, his reluctance to be in the world)? Whatever the feelings and thoughts of Violet may be as the film ends, she has seen and known too much. Her return to innocence is doomed to fail. The jazz age is about to begin.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction: Louis Malle. Screenplay: Polly Platt and Louis Malle, after a story by Platt. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Production design: Trevor Williams. Editing: Suzanne Baron (supervision), Suzanne Fenn. Music supervision: Jerome Wexler. Production: Malle.
The players: Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, Susan Sarandon, Frances Faye, Antonio Fargas, Diana Scarwid, Barbara Steele.