Pretty Baby (1978)

R | 109 mins | Drama | 5 April 1978

Director:

Louis Malle

Producer:

Louis Malle

Cinematographer:

Sven Nykvist

Editor:

Suzanne Fenn

Production Designer:

Trevor Williams
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HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Jeremy Carr, Visiting Research Fellow with the Arizona State University Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture.

The film includes a closing credit acknowledging the producers’ “gratitude for the priceless music of Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton.” End credits also contain the following statement: “The producers wish to acknowledge the invaluable research work Storyville by Al Rose.”
       A 3 Jun 1974 Publisher’s Weekly notice reported that Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District would provide the source material for a movie titled Storyville, New Orleans , “about early jazz and its roots in a milieu of politicians, prostitutes and pimps.” A 23 Aug 1976 Publisher’s Weekly notice later reported that Paramount had optioned the book, with plans to adapt it into “either a motion picture or a television feature.”
       A 9 Feb 1977 Var news item announced that French director Louis Malle had signed on to direct Pretty Baby , and the film would be his “American debut.” According to a 16 Mar 1977 DV news item, Brooke Shields, then 11 years old, had been cast in the lead role of Violet, “a child hooker,” in the film scheduled to roll 28 Mar 1977 in New Orleans. Shields, the article stated, “began modeling as an infant and [had] appeared in Ivory Snow ads, Breck commercials, and a Colgate toothpaste spot.” A 19 Apr 1977 LAHExam discussed concerns over Shields’ involvement ...

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The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Jeremy Carr, Visiting Research Fellow with the Arizona State University Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture.

The film includes a closing credit acknowledging the producers’ “gratitude for the priceless music of Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton.” End credits also contain the following statement: “The producers wish to acknowledge the invaluable research work Storyville by Al Rose.”
       A 3 Jun 1974 Publisher’s Weekly notice reported that Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District would provide the source material for a movie titled Storyville, New Orleans , “about early jazz and its roots in a milieu of politicians, prostitutes and pimps.” A 23 Aug 1976 Publisher’s Weekly notice later reported that Paramount had optioned the book, with plans to adapt it into “either a motion picture or a television feature.”
       A 9 Feb 1977 Var news item announced that French director Louis Malle had signed on to direct Pretty Baby , and the film would be his “American debut.” According to a 16 Mar 1977 DV news item, Brooke Shields, then 11 years old, had been cast in the lead role of Violet, “a child hooker,” in the film scheduled to roll 28 Mar 1977 in New Orleans. Shields, the article stated, “began modeling as an infant and [had] appeared in Ivory Snow ads, Breck commercials, and a Colgate toothpaste spot.” A 19 Apr 1977 LAHExam discussed concerns over Shields’ involvement in the project, and stated that filmmakers were “being very cautious because of the nature of the material and…following all the rules aimed at safeguarding child performers: teachers, psychological testing, parental cooperation and so forth.”
       A 28 Mar 1977 DV news brief announced that Keith Carradine had joined the cast as Bellocq, and a 6 Apr 1977 DV news item added that Frances Faye had joined the production on location. Pretty Baby was Faye’s first film for Paramount since 1937’s Double Or Nothing (see entry). According to a 16 Apr 1978 NYT article, in reference to Faye’s casting, Malle said, “I saw her in a gay nightclub in Los Angeles and I fell in love with her.”
       Also in the NYT article, Malle discussed his preference for shooting a film in chronological order, saying “I try to shoot sequentially, especially when I’m dealing with a central character with no acting experience…And with a child, it is essential…In Pretty Baby , there’s an evolution in Brooke Shields’ appearance.” Malle referenced a film he previously directed, Zazie dans Le Metro (1961, see entry), which starred an 11-year-old girl, in which retakes became problematic because the girl’s looks had changed so much over a three month period.
       A 16 Apr 1978 NYT article by Leticia Kent drew real-life parallels between the character, “’Papa’ Bellocq” and E.J. Bellocq, a photographer who took pictures of New Orleans prostitutes during the early part of the 20th Century. Malle also stated that the main character, “Violet,” was based on a girl of the same name in Rose’s book. The girl was called a “trick baby … [she was] the daughter of a whore and a John and was born in the attic of Hilma Burt’s house on Basin Street. She married after the district closed down and had children.” Malle told Kent that if he were to give the film a subtitle, it would be “ Pretty Baby, or the Apprenticeship of Corruption ,” saying the film was about “entering the world of the adult, the world of corruption.”
       The film opened to mixed reviews. A 5 Apr 1978 Var review expressed concern over Pretty Baby ’s appeal, noting that while the film was “handsome” and “the players nearly all effective,” it was also “a tedious, overlong and eventually boring film which Paramount may experience difficulty in marketing.” In a 5 Apr 1978 HR review, critic Arthur Knight accused the filmmakers “exploiting a morbid interest in child prostitution, and asked, “Shouldn’t they have required us to feel some horror, or even pity, when a beautiful and spirited child becomes one of the younger members of the oldest profession…?” In a positive review, Vincent Canby of NYT noted some of the film’s flaws but stated, “in every other way [it is] the most imaginative, most intelligent, and most original film of the year to date.
       Pretty Baby grossed $2.2 million in box-office receipts in the first thirty-five days of its release on 130 screens throughout the U.S. and Canada, according to a 15 May 1978 HR news item.
       Throughout its release, Pretty Baby was surrounded by controversy. A 2 May 1978 DV article reported that the North Central National Association of Theatre Owners cautioned its Minnesota members to “take a close look at Pretty Baby before booking the Paramount film because of the state’s recently enacted law on pornography involving children.” As reported in a 26 Apr 1978 Var article, despite Malle’s attempt to reverse a ban placed on the film by the Ontario Censor Board, the ban was upheld. Board vice-chairman, George Belcher, termed the pic ‘distasteful.” Pretty Baby had been cleared without cuts in Quebec, British Columbia, and New Brunswick. A 31 May 1978 Var article reported that the film was further banned in Saskatchewan, “but [could] be seen by Ottawans who travel a few miles across the river to Hull, Quebec,” as long as they were 18 or over.
       The film was also banned in Queensland, Australia, according to a 28 Jul 1978 NYT article. Des Draydon, chairman of the Queensland Films Board of Review, stated, “We looked at the film notwithstanding the fact that there were famous names associated with it, that it had excellent photography and the performances were tremendous. We could not seriously hold to the view that here was a film about a 12-year-old in a brothel in an irrelevant period.”
       A 12 Jun 1978 DV article the British Board of Film Censors would not rate the film until Parliament decided the Protection of Children Bill, concerning pornographic traffic in relation to children, which eventually was enacted into law. A 24 Jul 1979 DV story predicted the British Board of Film Censors would give the film an “X” rating, even after Malle reluctantly made two cuts to the film for the British release. One of the edits was to a scene in which Violet poses nude for Bellocq. The Board’s secretary, James Ferman, believed the lighting was unacceptable, but, “after viewing some alternate takes, he okayed one with a more discreet shadow.”
       A 21 Apr 1978 HR article stated that ABC Records would release the soundtrack LP that day. The label pressed about 40,000 copies at a price of $7.98 for one-disc featuring 19 songs. However, a 28 Feb 1979 Var news item reported, “There must be some red faces over at ABC Records… Pretty Baby , which picked up an Oscar score nomination last week, has been cut from the catalog.”
       As reported in a 6 Jun 1978 HR article, Paramount Pictures and Tony Wade were sued for more than $2 million by a trio of plaintiffs, two of whom appeared in the film, who alleged they were defamed by Wade, a Paramount employee, while filming Pretty Baby . Allegedly, Wade wrote a letter on Paramount stationery, accusing the plaintiffs of criminal activity, but the exact nature of the defamation was not identified. Though plaintiffs claimed that, as a result of the letter, they had “suffered loss of employment,” Paramount considered the lawsuit “‘unfounded and without merit.’”
       Pretty Baby won the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music.

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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
16 Mar 1977.
---
Daily Variety
28 Mar 1977.
---
Daily Variety
6 Apr 1977.
---
Daily Variety
2 May 1978.
---
Daily Variety
12 Jun 1978.
---
Daily Variety
28 Jul 1978
p. 1, 8.
Daily Variety
24 Jul 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Feb 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
5 Apr 1978
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Apr 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
21 Apr 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 May 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jun 1978.
---
LAHExam
19 Apr 1977.
---
Los Angeles Times
10 Apr 1978.
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Apr 1978
p. 1.
New York Times
5 Apr 1978
p. 21.
New York Times
16 Apr 1978
p. 15, 19.
Publisher's Weekly
3 Jun 1974.
---
Publisher's Weekly
23 Aug 1976.
---
Variety
9 Feb 1977.
---
Variety
5 Apr 1978
p. 23.
Variety
26 Apr 1978.
---
Variety
2 May 1978.
---
Variety
31 May 1978.
---
Variety
28 Feb 1979.
---
Variety
9 May 1979.
---
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT

PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Louis Malle Film
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Story
Story
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Spec photog
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Supv ed
Film ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
COSTUMES
Cost supv
MUSIC
Mus adpt and supv
Solo piano
Addl mus performed by
Trumpet
Clarinet
Clarinet
Vocal
With our gratitude for the priceless music of
Mus
SOUND
Sd mixer
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Makeup artist
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Casting
Casting
DETAILS
Release Date:
5 April 1978
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 5 Apr 1978, at the Coronet Theater; Los Angeles opening: 14 Apr 1978
Production Date:
began 28 Mar 1977
Copyright Info
Claimant
Date
Copyright Number
Paramount Pictures Corporation
15 September 1978
PA12562
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Metrocolor®
Lenses/Prints
Cameras - Arriflex®
Duration(in mins):
109
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

In a 1917 New Orleans brothel, 12-year-old Violet watches as her mother, Hattie, gives birth. Violet rushes to inform the working girls of the new arrival but everyone is occupied with their clients. One morning, restless Violet runs around the residence, helping the proprietor of the brothel, Madame Mosebery, and playing with other children. As the servants go about their business, preparing food and doing the laundry, Bellocq, a well-groomed photographer, arrives. The girls think he is a peddler, but he is there to take pictures. His first subject is Hattie and a day or so later Bellocq stops by to see Hattie with the developed picture. In the evening, violence breaks out during a card game when one player accuses another of cheating. As the accuser pulls his gun and starts shooting, one of the girls attacks him from behind, hitting him over the head. Madame Mosebery orders his pockets emptied and his body taken away. Hattie is upset by the incident and begins packing to leave, having had enough of this lifestyle. Violet, however, does not want to go; they argue and ultimately stay. Later, Bellocq watches the goings-on at the brothel, and focuses on Violet. She asks why, if he thinks the girls are pretty, does he not go upstairs with them. As Violet proceeds to walk around the room, a client accosts her and pulls her onto his lap. Madame Mosebery whispers in the client’s ear, apparently offering him young Violet, but he refuses. Later, Hattie introduces a client to Violet, and she follows them into a room and closes the door behind her. On another day, Bellocq takes pictures of Hattie and Violet. Bellocq ...

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In a 1917 New Orleans brothel, 12-year-old Violet watches as her mother, Hattie, gives birth. Violet rushes to inform the working girls of the new arrival but everyone is occupied with their clients. One morning, restless Violet runs around the residence, helping the proprietor of the brothel, Madame Mosebery, and playing with other children. As the servants go about their business, preparing food and doing the laundry, Bellocq, a well-groomed photographer, arrives. The girls think he is a peddler, but he is there to take pictures. His first subject is Hattie and a day or so later Bellocq stops by to see Hattie with the developed picture. In the evening, violence breaks out during a card game when one player accuses another of cheating. As the accuser pulls his gun and starts shooting, one of the girls attacks him from behind, hitting him over the head. Madame Mosebery orders his pockets emptied and his body taken away. Hattie is upset by the incident and begins packing to leave, having had enough of this lifestyle. Violet, however, does not want to go; they argue and ultimately stay. Later, Bellocq watches the goings-on at the brothel, and focuses on Violet. She asks why, if he thinks the girls are pretty, does he not go upstairs with them. As Violet proceeds to walk around the room, a client accosts her and pulls her onto his lap. Madame Mosebery whispers in the client’s ear, apparently offering him young Violet, but he refuses. Later, Hattie introduces a client to Violet, and she follows them into a room and closes the door behind her. On another day, Bellocq takes pictures of Hattie and Violet. Bellocq asks Violet to leave as he begins taking nude photographs of Hattie. Bored, Violet handles Bellocq’s photographic gear and he scolds her and slaps her face. He tries to make up to her as she reveals her jealousy. One evening, Violet tries on a new dress as the girls make preparations for the impending loss of her virginity, which is being arranged by Madame Mosebery. The girls all debate the process and provide instruction. Later, Violet applies make up and rehearses flirtatious behavior with other kids at the brothel. Eventually, Violet is carried out on a platform as the men ogle her. Violet’s virginity is hailed as a selling point to the gentlemen. Settling on a $400 cash offer, Violet goes away with the winning bidder. Some time later, the man comes downstairs and hurries out. Some of the women, including Harriet, rush in to check on the girl. For a moment she plays dead, but aside from feeling a little pain, she jokes with them and seems good-humored. Not long after, Madame Mosebery again tries to sell Violet to another man, based on the pretense of her being a virgin. One rainy day when the girls have all restlessly gathered indoors, it is announced that Hattie is getting married to one of the frequent clients. Violet is not happy, but Hattie nevertheless leaves for St. Louis with her fiancé. Hattie takes the baby, Will, and promises to send for Violet. Some time later, Violet and the girls play a game with Bellocq called “Sardines,” a version of “Hide and Seek.” Eventually, Violet tracks down Bellocq and, alone in a closet together, she kisses him. One night, as Violet tends to another client, Bellocq expresses his concern for Violet to Madame Mosebery, who accuses him of being in love with the girl. Days later, Violet disrupts Bellocq’s picture taking and, frustrated and bored, runs off with some of the other children. Together, they talk about sex, and Violet accuses the boys of being inexperienced even though they claim they’ve had sex. Violet tackles an African American boy playfully, but when his mother catches them, she warns Violet about the rules of the segregated world. Frustrated with her life in the brothel, Violet packs her bags and goes to Bellocq’s house. She says she wants to stay with him and he agrees, but he notes that he does not want to sleep with her. After talking about their relationship they kiss, but when she addresses him as she would a client he becomes angry. They quickly make up and the next morning Violet wakes alone, naked in his bed. When Bellocq arrives home, he surprises the girl with a present, a doll. She is at first happy, but soon is offended when she takes the toy to be a suggestion that he still views her as a child. She later poses for a picture holding the doll and looking like a young girl. A few days later, Bellocq questions Violet about some of his supplies, which she admits to having thrown out. He becomes angry and leaves to replenish his photographic supplies. In the evening, Bellocq prepares to take a photograph of Violet, who is lying nude on a couch. Restless with the time it takes for him to adjust the camera, she sits up and they argue. He gets frustrated and walks away, while she, also now angry, begins to destroy his negatives. He stops her and hits her, and she runs off. Later in the evening, Violet walks along the streets of New Orleans and sees a group of people protesting the brothels and the moral degradation they bring to the city. Violet meets up with one of the boys from the brothel and the two of them go to Madame Mosebery’s, where everyone is in a state of despair. In the daytime, the girls have all packed and are preparing to leave town and the brothel is being emptied of its furniture. Outside, Bellocq appears and proposes marriage to Violet. Excited, Violet tells some of the women who accompany them to the church. After the wedding ceremony, the group heads to the country to celebrate. Days later, Hattie arrives at Bellocq’s home with her husband, to take Violet back to St. Louis. Bellocq and Hattie argue over his right to marry Violet, but the girl ultimately goes away with her mother and new stepfather. At the train station, as they prepare to leave, Hattie’s husband takes a picture of Hattie, Violet, and Will. Violet stares at the camera, unable to smile.


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Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
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