REVIEW: Born to be Bad (1934)

Lowell Sherman’s pre-Code drama Born to be Bad is a distinctive and unusual film. While in many ways it seems critically compromised, it also reveals a remarkable boldness and originality in its storyline and characters. I have written in the past about the so-called “Hays Code”, which censored mature content in American cinema between 1934 and 1968. Movies released prior to the Code had remarkable freedoms in featuring themes of sex and violence. Films released during its governance were surprising hobbled in what they could and could not portray or discuss on screen. Born to be Bad is a transitional picture: produced before the Code was implemented but released after its introduction, the film was gutted in the editing suite and condemned by critics and journalists on release. Thanks to the cuts, it is only 62 minutes long.

Letta Strong (Loretta Young) is a single mother paying her way by entertaining business clients of her friend and associate Fuzzy (Henry Travers). When her eight year-old son Mickey (Jackie Kelk) is hit by a milk truck while playing truant from school, Letta loses custody in court and Mickey winds up in the care of the truck’s owner: wealthy businessman Mal Trevor (Cary Grant). Letty refuses to give up her son so easily, developing a plan to seduce Mal into an affair and blackmail him.

Letta is simply a wonderful character. Bold, opiniated, and hardened by the injustices of life, she engages in sex work in all but name while allowing her young son the freedom to skip school and engage in petty crime. She is only in her 20s, having given birth to Mickey when she was 15 years old. The character is superbly played by Loretta Young, with plenty of confidence and a snarky edge. She is not some pre-noir femme fatale, however, and that is where I suspect a lot of Born to be Bad‘s problems with the censors lay. Given her circumstances and early life, it is difficult to fault many of Letta’s choices. She conducts her business because it is the most profitable option available (with obvious cuts, the film is excessively circumspect about her profession). She has a visibly fun and loving relationship with her son, and both Young and Kelk share a great chemistry. Letta is also genuinely funny. It creates a big problem, as far as the Hays Code goes, because she is sexually liberated, rebellious, and criminal – and the film positively loves her for it. It is, through and through, Loretta Young’s movie.

Cary Grant is captured her in a comparatively early role, and viewers anticipating the sort of sophisticated character that became his stock-and-trade may be surprised by Mal Trevor’s simplicity. He seems a simple character: polite and professional, but oddly reserved and crushingly ordinary. Marion Burns make a strong impression in the film’s second half as Mal’s wife Alyce. Initially May says he and his wife cannot have children, with the assumption that some sort of health or fertility problem is the cause. When Alyce speaks to Letta over the latter’s attempt to force an affair, it is not a confrontation but almost an acquiescence. Alyce notes she does not provide her husband with what he wants, and figures Letta may as well provide them instead. It is a wide open, tantalisingly vague insinuation that opens the film to interpretation. It must have had the Hays Office diving for the smelling salts.

This is, to be fair, a badly compromised film. The story runs too fast and slipshod over the characters to be fully effective. At the same time the potential behind the cuts is enormous. Whatever footage was shot and lost is unclear. As it stands this is a great showcase of where Hollywood drama might have gone, had the hand-wringing machinations of the moral minority not been so successful. If nothing else, watching Bord to be Bad only takes up an hour of your time.

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