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It seems hard to believe that the lauded film director Nicholas Ray worked in Hollywood for only twelve years, during which time he signed his name to seventeen feature films. Ray became a film director by a roundabout route, largely through the auspices of Elia Kazan, John Houseman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, a trio of serious talents. His first film They Live By Night was almost scuttled by a regime change at RKO, but Ray signed on as a studio director early in 1947 under Dore Schary. The movie garnered good notices in previews but when Howard Hughes took over the studio it was held up for two full years. After claiming that he'd be a hands-off guy, Hughes immediately began 'tinkering' with every project on the books. In the meantime Ray was put to work directing bits of films for others (Roseanna McCoy) and loaned out to direct Humphrey Bogart. Had Night been an instant flop Ray's film directing career might have vanished without a trace. From the beginning the tyro director reportedly took a passive attitude toward Hollywood. As it turned out his second RKO film A Woman's Secret was in theaters seven months before his first.
Ray was assigned to A Woman's Secret after Jacques Tourneur bowed out. Pretty much tossed together by writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane), the film is a murder mystery with a music business background, told with the aid of a number of flashbacks. Former popular singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O'Hara) is arrested for shooting Susan Caldwell, a younger singer with the stage name Estrellita (Gloria Grahame). While Marian's sweetheart and business partner Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) struggles to figure out why Marian doesn't want to defend herself, the back story is revealed in sections. Marian's lucrative singing career came to an end when she lost her voice, so she helped Luke find and nurture new talent. They discovered Susan, a naïve young woman with a sensuous voice, and Marian devoted herself to "Estrellita's" career. The shooting took place during an argument, according to Marian, when Susan decided to quit singing. Now Susan seems to be pulling through, and all await her side of the story...
A Woman's Secret certainly shows Nicholas Ray's skill with actors; Maureen O'Hara gets a break from one-dimensional adventure characters, while Gloria Grahame contributes an interesting performance as a shallow and emotional young singer who spends all of her money on phony fortune tellers. After foolishly failing to pry Luke from Marian, she self-destructs. Melvyn Douglas is a solid romantic backstop, if not as vital as he seemed in comedies made ten years before. Nobody behind the camera seems to have much respect for the story by Vicki Baum, the playwright of Grand Hotel. The latter part of the film loses focus, introducing cute but irrelevant scenes of a detective (J. C Flippen) allowing his amateur sleuth housewife (Mary Philips) to more or less take charge of the investigation. By the time the final scenes arrive the flashbacks and contradictory testimony have us confused about what exactly happened. At least one of Mankiewicz's flashbacks is a trick, in the same way a flashback in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright presents a false version of what happened. A hospital scene was reshot after the film was finished.
Billy Wilder considered Nicholas Ray too passive on the set, but Ray could be counted on to pull refreshingly interesting performances from his actors, no matter what the movie subject. Ray's interesting early career seems an accident of being in the right studio at the right time. He was loaned out for Bogart's first personal production Knock on Any Door, which became a hit and helped his standing with Howard Hughes. Ray dodged the blacklist, a neat trick considering his Roosevelt-era liberal background. He deftly avoided being assigned to Hughes' notorious I Married a Communist project. The eccentric studio head used the propaganda movie as a litmus test to determine which of his house directors were "loyal" Americans.
Nicholas Ray met Gloria Grahame on this film and married her two months after the cameras stopped; theirs is one of the strangest Hollywood marriages on record.
Made a couple of years later, Born to Be Bad was another production designed to keep the factory wheels grinding on the insecure RKO lot. Known during production as All Kneeling and Bed of Roses, it's an extremely well directed drama about a selfish and destructive social climber. Publishing house reader Donna Foster (Joan Leslie, excellent) is preparing a party for her fiancée, the wealthy Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) when her boss's niece Christabel Caine Carey (Joan Fontaine) shows up for a visit a day ahead of schedule. The outwardly charming Christabel almost immediately attaches herself to Donna's intended, as well as Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), a promising writer. Also part of the group is 'Gobby' Broome, a gay artist who eagerly paints Christabel's portrait as a way of attracting more business through her uncle, John Caine (Harold Vermilyea). Christabel quite insidious in her methods, as she carefully suggests to the susceptible Curtis that Donna might really be after his money. Christabel intends to steal Curtis away, marry him, and yet continue her romance with the more attractive Nick. When will all concerned get wise to Christabel's campaign of deceit?
Born to Be Bad shows Nicholas Ray at his best as a director. The opening scenes prowl around Donna's narrow two-level apartment, introducing characters as they enter and making us discover their relationships on our own. Christabel is surprised by the masculine Nick, and clearly attracted to him. She has also obviously come a day early with the aim of catching the eye of her hostess's rich boyfriend. The show amounts to 85 minutes of Christabel's strategizing and scheming. She's determined to 'win' the battle of womanhood, emerging at the end filthy rich and with a hunky boyfriend on the side.
I'd never really warmed up to Joan Fontaine in her Hitchcock pictures for David O. Selznick; I just didn't buy her virtuous innocent act in the otherwise polished Rebecca and Suspicion. In Born to Be Bad Fontaine's same 'sensitive' gestures and expressions are weapons of deceit. 1
The film's characterizations are absorbing, with the exception of Zachary Scott's millionaire, who seems too much of a simp to have retained his money this long. Born to Be Bad may contain Joan Leslie's best acting work, liberated from her earlier 'be cute' Warners roles. Her Donna radiates integrity and reserve, and the verbal chastising she unleashes on Christabel must have elicited applause in theaters. Robert Ryan for once gets to play a fairly normal character, not a bitter racist or obsessed vigilante. He turns on the macho charm (it exists) to get Christabel's attention, softens his approach, and then shows different levels of disappointment at Christabel's attempts to string him along.
All of these complexities are in the screenplay by Edith R. Sommer and Charles Schnee but Nicholas Ray's subtle direction is what delivrs them to the audience (with the aid of Nicholas Musuraca's expressive camera). Yes, Billy Wilder could sneer at Nick Ray's lack of full control over his actors. Wilder once told Humphrey Bogart that if he wanted to push his director around, he should work solely with Ray. But Ray brought out impressive and frequently touching performances from bit players and big stars. Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart all give unique performances for Ray. Actor Mel Ferrer is often singled out as a weak link in his movies but his excellent supporting work in Born to Be Bad is an early, respectful portrait of a gay character. 'Gobby' maneuvers to score commissions for his paintings yet can be trusted in Donna's group of friends. He sees through Christabel right from the start but wisely stays neutral to protect his own interests. When he sends her off at the end, Gobby is nobody's fool ... he alone seems to understand her predatory nature.
The Warner Archive Collection's separate releases of A Woman's Secret and Born to Be Bad are good transfers of titles that clearly got a lot of play; both are in better than acceptable shape and most of Bad looks excellent. Born to Be Bad has a special treat that Nicholas Ray's fans will want to see, an alternate ending. The Production Code objected to a long kiss between Fontaine and Scott. The kiss appears to have been left intact but problems arose with an original, slightly longer ending that shows Christabel doing quite well seducing a wealthy doctor and lawyer. Each time her name hits the gossip headlines, Gobby raises the price on his now-valuable portrait of the notorious climber. Howard Hughes again delayed the release, so that Ray's next film In A Lonely Place came out first. Hughes saved the original ending of Born to Be Bad for use on foreign prints.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Woman's Secret & Born to Be Bad (separate releases) rate:
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T'was Ever Thus.