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Born to Be Bad

Born to Be Bad

1934 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 61 min. / Street Date 2003 /
Starring Loretta Young, Cary Grant, Jackie Kelk, Henry Travers, Marion Burns
Cinematography Barney McGill
Art Direction Richard Day, Joseph Wright
Film Editor Maurice E. Wright
Written by Ralph Graves and Harrison Jacobs
Produced by William Goetz, Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Lowell Sherman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This little-known melodrama is being given the big Fox promotion with other Cary Grant movies, even though Grant really just plays support for the glamorous Loretta Young star. Her name is not even on the box cover.

The absurd story is designed to circumvent the new Hays Code as best it can, and Born to be Bad ends up as a twisted jumble of unsavory elements held together by some really unlikely characters. It's only fun in a dated, campy sense and Miss Young is an arresting leading lady. Cary Grant is uncomfortable-looking in heavy makeup, but already has his standard charm act well established.


Teenaged mother Letty Strong (Loretta Young) now has a 7 year-old boy, Mickey (Jackie Kelk) and has left the honest employ of bookseller Fuzzy (Henry Travers) to become a consort for sharpies and crooks who buy her expensive clothes. But poverty is still a nagging concern, and when she realizes Mickey is already a streetwise hooligan, Letty engineers a scam to bilk a company out of thousands. A faked accident under a milk truck with MIckey feigning permanent injuries backfires when insurance detectives film the boy happily rollerskating; the court brands Letty an unfit mother. Mickey is adopted by Malcolm and Alice Trevor (Cary Grant and Marion Burns), and begins to change under the influence of loving parents with good values. But when simple tricks fail to get her son back, Letty tries to compromise Malcolm with sex.

The Hays code created new problems for Hollywood screenwriters - how to dish up the same old stew of sin and sex and still get a Production Seal. The answer was to twist their characters and plots into whatever form would support the story elements they were trying to sell.

Loretta Young's Letty Strong character is therefore a complete mystery: She's an abused and abandoned child tossed from the house at age 15. Check. Seduced and abandoned with child. Check. Taken in and nurtured by kindly older man Fuzzy, a samaritan with no ideas of his own about exploiting her. Check. When the show starts, Letty is destitute (check) but wears fabulous designer clothing (check) lamely explained by a phone call to a 'friendly' store owner. She might be part-time model for him - ? - it's unclear. Letty has a different date every night but her steady is a bootlegger named Steve. The film has behave like a hot playgirl, without explicitly stating that she sleeps around.

Letty's a tramp and an attempted insurance fraud swindler, helped by what to Savant looks like an intentional anti-Semitic shyster lawyer character. She's completely cynical on that level, but when it comes to her boy, she's as soft and big-hearted as Stella Dallas, desperately trying any means to get Mickey back. The hard/soft extremes in her character don't work for a minute, and the film keeps our interest for its short running time only through curiosity - how silly can this get?

To help balance the tale for the moral police over at the Hays Office, Cary Grant's Malcomb Trevor character is written as a complete saint. He adopts the bratty Mickey and ignores the kid's incipient delinquency. He stays pleasantly aloof from Letty's taunts and come-ons, like John the Baptist in a wool suit. The plot becomes completely absurd when Letty does finally seduce Malcomb. Letty's threat to reveal their affair comes to nothing when Malcomb immediately tells his wife about Letty and is forgiven by Malcomb's equally saintly wife Alice. Letty moves into the Trevor mansion, taking care of Mickey (who has turned into a virtuous little angel) and flaunting herself before Alice. Alice quietly accepts the new sleeping arrangement with the martyr's faith that whatever makes her husband happy is kopasetic with her. Letty begins to see the light, in preparation for a 3-hanky ending.

Born to Be Bad would be a dog if it weren't for its stars, something that the depression-era producers must have realized as well. Loretta Young is ravishingly beautiful, with luminous dark eyes. This show might have been concocted to compete with Joan Crawford's patented series of working-girl-goes-bad films, that were still popular. A popular Crawford vehicle had been called Letty Lynton1

Cary Grant fans will be amused by his makeup, which is heavier than that used for his earlier Paramount movies starring Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. He of course looks great anyway. Otherwise, it's not much of a Grant showcase. There aren't any convincing sparks between the leads, and Grant's character goes from goody two-shoes to a zombified adulterer. To appease the code, marital infidelity is made akin to demonic possession - Malcomb is no longer responsible for anything whilst under Letty's evil grasp.

Henry Travers (Clarence Oddbody from It's a Wonderful Life) looks remarkably young and wears a goatee beard. (spoiler) When Letty returns to him at the end, we can't help but have wicked thoughts about an illicit relationship between the characters. Big-eared Jackie Kelk plays Letty's son, who's supposed to be seven years old. The kid looks at least 14, but he was only 11 at the time.

Fox's DVD of Born to Be Bad looks fine. There's some grain in the film's B&W texture, and the titles are a trifle unsteady, but otherwise the image is intact and clean. The sound is unusually clear as well, reminding us that popular pictures were re-printed to death, while lesser titles were allowed to languish in the vaults undisturbed. Many favorite films from this period look like hell, precisely because they were so popular.

Fox's packaging ignores Loretta Young's star billing and predominance in the story. As I said up top, her name isn't even on the cover. The plot synopsis on the back re-writes the story from the POV of Cary Grant's character. I don't think Grant fans will be disappointed, exactly, but they're going to feel tricked.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Born to Be Bad rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: trailers for other Grant pictures
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2004


1. A key Joan Crawford story is that in the late 20s she kept an exclusive booth at a swank nightclub for her friends to look cool and dance with all the eligible, rich men. One day one of her girlfriends brought her 15 year-old sister Loretta, who was so drop-dead-gorgeous, the other women were ignored. Crawford demanded that 'little sister' be left at home from then on!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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