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Marianne falls in love with con man Valentine who uses their relation to get her father's endorsement on a money-raising scheme. He runs off with the money and Marianne, later dumping her. Her sister Laura loves Dr. Lindley although she knows he loves Marianne. Marianne returns and marries a wealthy young man, and Lindley turns his love toward Laura. Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
THE BAD SISTER (Universal, 1931), directed by Hobart Henley, is a simple story about a wholesome well-to-do family, The Madisons. The center of attention is not so much on the parents, but on their two daughters, Marianne and Laura, as performed by two newcomers to the screen, the dark-haired Sidney Fox and ash-blonde Bette Davis. Adapted from Booth Tarkington's story, "The Flirt" which had been filmed twice before in the silent era (1916, directed by Lois Weber) and (1923, also directed by Henley), this third retelling, with sound, is notable mainly for the early screen appearances of two future screen legends for Warner Brothers, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Though Conrad Nagel, a then popular leading man for MGM, shares star billing beneath the title opposite Sidney Fox, his role is basically a back-seat performance for Universal's testing ground for its two new stars.
Set in a small factory town of Council City, Ohio, where the early morning hours captures Freddie, the paper boy, delivering newspapers to individual residential homes down the block on bicycle and postman Mr, Riley, delivering the mail to the home of businessman John Madison (Charles Winninger), whose family consists of his wife (Emma Dunn), their children, Marianne (Sidney Fox), Laura (Bette Davis) and youngest son, Hedrick (David Durand). Also taking up residence is their flabbergasted housekeeper named Minnie (ZaSu Pitts). While Laura is quiet and refined, keeping her personal thoughts written inside her diary, Marianne is spoiled and bored with her daily routine and small town existence. Even more troublesome is Hedrick's mischievous ways of upsetting the household, as ordinary little boys do to acquire attention. Laura loves Doctor Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), but finds herself in competition with Marianne, even though she's been seeing Wade Trumball (Bert Roach, reprising his 1922 movie role), a local insurance agent. While outside a theater with Dick, Marianne soon encounters Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart) in his expensive car. She soon leaves the kind doctor behind to quickly accept this stranger's ride home. The following evening, Corliss, in town on business, becomes Marianne's dinner guest sharing the table with her visiting older sister, Amy (Helene Chadwick) and her husband, Sam (Slim Summerville), an unemployed plumber. After getting acquainted with the entire family and coping with Hedrick, Corliss, vice president of the Electro Household Corporation, offers Mr. Madison a position in his firm as secretary of the treasury. With Marianne finding Corliss her opportunity to leaving home for the big city, with intentions of becoming his wife, she's to soon expect the unexpected, as does the rest of the Madison family.
When Bette Davis became the surprised guest of honor on television's color episodes of "This is Your Life" (1971), hosted by Ralph Edwards, she was asked about her debut film appearance. Her reply was THE BAD SISTER was horrible and didn't want to be in the film at all. Regardless of how she felt forty years later, THE BAD SISTER is actually not that bad. Basically of the "soap opera" school that didn't become Academy Award material, Davis (the first sister presented) did show potential, even in one crucial scene where she sadly burns her diary in the fireplace after finding the man she loves has unwittingly read the one page he wasn't to see. David Durand's performance as the troublesome kid brother may lack sympathy for his annoying pranks, but does eventually honor sympathy when he realizes the wrong he has done.
As much as studio executives at Universal must have seen some great promise and potential in Sidney Fox, retaining her services for the studio while dismissing Davis shortly after-wards, it's a wonder how the movie might have turned out had Fox and Davis switched parts. Fox's role isn't really as bad as the title implies. She's just simply bored and downright frustrated with her daily routine. Even though she physically doesn't look the type, her Marianne uses men for her own personal gain, especially her father when forging his signature on a letter of endorsement, and during an outburst, tells him she's "the daughter of a failure." Davis, who would specialize in playing bad sisters in later years ("Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" (1962) comes to mind), might have handled such scenes with better conviction. Instead, Davis is portrayed as a sad looking good sister, right down to acting as surrogate mother to her late sister Amy's baby. As for Fox, she and Bogart do carry their extremely parts well. They would re-team again in MIDNIGHT (1934), Fox's final film for Universal and one of her last theatrical releases of her short-lived career.
To date, never distributed to television or home video, there were times back in the 1970s or 1980s when TV Guide listed BAD SISTER in its program section, only to disappoint Davis fans and film historians alike to have the 1947 British movie of that same title starring Margaret Lockwood instead. Regardless of its shortcomings, it good to know THE BAD SISTER still exists, even though availability over the years happens to be from a pirate copy downloaded to DVD. (**1/2)
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