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After years of watching films and studying their art for my own pleasure,
I've decided that some of the most interesting and least appreciated movies
are those released under the RKO logo. Born to be Bad is a prime example.
Made in 1948-49 (not released until '50) under the aegis of Howard Hughes
while he was alternately pursuing and manipulating Joan Fontaine, this movie
has a unique, non -studio look. Very little location work was done, but
doesn't it feel like San Francisco (more than Vertigo!). Literate script,
intelligent casting, stylish sets and costumes (New York designer Hattie
Carnegie for Fontaine, RKO in-house man Michael Woulfe for Joan Leslie) add
up to an engrossing, adult 90 minutes. Speaking of adult; there's been some
comments here about the Mel Ferrer character: "Is he or isn't he gay?" IS
THERE ANY DOUBT? And check out one scene, unbelievably adult for 1950
Hollywood: When Fontaine returns home after a torrid sexual encounter with
Robert Ryan, she quickly takes a hot bath before husband Zachary Scott
returns home. Scent of another man? Pretty hot stuff in retrospect. Check
this movie out when you get the opportunity!
`Born to be Bad' is a great melodrama from 1950 directed by Nicholas Ray and
starring the normally genteel Joan Fontaine. In this film however, Fontaine
plays Christabel, a young socialite who purports to be an earnest and
innocent woman, yet has a pretty insidious duplicitous nature. (Think a
slightly less deranged Eve Harrington) Throughout the course of the film,
Christabel connives her way into winning the heart of a wealthy man who was
previously betrothed to the woman who took her in to her home and introduced
her to society as well as love and throw away a famous writer who she seems
to actually have feelings for, yet cannot give up the allure of marrying for
The great thing about `Born to be Bad' is that no matter what happens to her, Christabel is pretty unrepentant, even up until the very end. This is somewhat varied from the great melodramas of the 30's-50's, where the `evil man/woman' sees the error in their ways, or gets their comeuppance. Nicholas Ray of course went on to direct the classics `Johnny Guitar' and `Rebel Without a Cause', the very model from which teen angst films stemmed, but `Born to be Bad' is a pretty simple film that has a lot of good scene-chewing scenes. I particularly enjoyed watching Fontaine practically get whiplash every time one of her men would grab her and kiss her with fervent passion; it's just that cheesy and good. `Born to be Bad' is another fine example of why the melodramas of this era play so much better than any of that genre today, and even in the last couple of decades it is intelligent, with a great script and even better acting, and is just simply fun to watch.
Nicholas Ray's career remains unique in its peaks and valleys, but his work has never been dull. Even A WOMAN'S SECRET stirs memories, notably from the performance of his then-wife Gloria Grahame. BORN TO BE BAD is an "almost" -- its depiction of the New York theatrical lifestyle on on-target, down to the living quarters. And its characters ring true. Still, the plot, if taken apart, is a muddle in the middle. Nonetheless, Ray has provided strong mise en scene, and offered an underrated star like JOAN LESLIE an opportunity to show how truthful and relaxed a performer she was. Her performance is almost equalled by that of MEL FERRER as the "probably-gay" character. In her role, JOAN FONTAINE, an excellent actress, is able to convey the seven-faced facets of a woman who misuses friendships, romance, and opportunity... all for her benefit. ROBERT RYAN, as ever, offers a solid performance though his character is far less defined. and ZACHARY SCOTT does well too. Ray's use of camera angles, lighting, etal. may seem commonplace, but there is careful use of everything involved. But what is remembered, when all is said and done, is the work of JOAN LESLIE as the put-upon fiance. It is performances like hers that are ignored... but that are enormously difficult to bring across accurately. Hers is the pilot light that keeps BORN TO BE BAD intriguing.
If you've enjoyed Joan Fontaine's endearing performances in REBECCA or
SUSPICION, check out this movie for an entirely different turn of
Joan plays Christabel, a woman with nice curves who's got all the angles, too. She's a classic manipulator, and the fun of the movie is watching her try to keep up her false appearances as she runs recklessly through the lives around her -- society friends, sick relatives, a thin-mustached rich playboy, and the rugged novelist guy who sees through her and loves her still.
The performance is one of shifting eyes, deceptive wheels turning inside the lovely Christabel's head, trying to recall which lie she told to whom. Fontaine retains a sense of mystery about her, because you keep wondering to what end is all this manipulation, anyway -- does Christabel even know? A consummate liar, she also remains a bit sympathetic through it all: you get the sense of someone who has played so many contradictory roles that she's kind of a lost soul.
As for the story itself, it's pretty good; and the supporting characters are merely okay. But really, they're just pins set up for Christabel to upset. Sit back and watch her go.
So, if you're like me and wanted to reach out and protect Joan in her Hitchcock movies, try BORN TO BE BAD. She's just as lovely (those doe-eyes will make you want to believe her) -- only hold onto your heart, and your wallet.
Director Nicholas Ray managed to take his revenge on RKO's Howard
Hughes with this real life "Citizen Kane". Hughes was obsessively
pursuing Joan Fontaine whose post WWII career was going nowhere. Like
Hearst's intervention in Marion Davies' career, Hughes got Fontaine the
lead in Ray's "Born To Be Bad" and then meddled in the production to
insure that the film became a promotional vehicle for her.
Whatever Ray may have thought of this it was not a complete disaster. Although the 32 year- old Fontaine is not credible in the role of a young business school student, if you suspend disbelief about the age factor, her performance is the equal of Anne Baxter's in "All About Eve". The same thing could be said of Davies; while her career was mismanaged by Hearst's inappropriate casting, her talent was still able to shine through.
Although not given final cut, Ray somehow was able to turn "Born To Be Bad" into a self- parodying melodrama that reflected much of the Hughes-Fontaine relationship. Even making Fontaine's mark (wealthy Curtis Carey-played by Zachary Scott) into a Hughes look- alike, complete with pencil mustache and a passion for flying.
Unlike Orsen Welles, Ray made a lot of women's pictures, a quality "Citizen Kane" does not share with "Born To Be Bad". Fontaine plays master manipulator Christabel Caine (not Kane), not quite a sociopath but a woman with little sign of a conscience. Unlike most of these women's pictures, it is the men who she has trouble fooling with her innocent act. Cunning gay artist Gobby (Mel Ferrer)) finds her a kindred spirit and novelist Nick (Robert Ryan) is turned on by her greed and lack of moral/ethical boundaries.
Ray has Fontaine play the character in a nice self-parodying style that actually makes her somewhat sympathetic to the viewer, at least for those who can take a guilty pleasure watching her turn on the charm. Unlike her sister, the eternally earthy Olivia deHavilland, age made Fontaine brittle and well suited to villainess roles. With cute little smiles and feigned reaction shots Fontaine keeps the film vicious for its entire length.
Like Ray's "Johnny Guitar", this is a film about two women, one good and one bad (there is no subtlety), who vie for the same man. It is a battle of Joans, as Donna is played by gorgeous Joan Leslie ("Sgt. York"). Donna is a publishing house editor, postwar America was still adjusting to the vocational progress women had made during the war. But the evil Christabel explicitly rejects career opportunities (one can't imagine her contributing to the war effort) in favor of setting herself up for life by landing a rich husband she can set up for a lucrative divorce settlement.
Leslie and Ferrer are especially good in the film. Leslie gives the only restrained performance, which is more powerful because it contrasts so sharply with the overplayed performances Ray gets from the rest of his cast.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
Most people remember Nicholas Ray for his most famous films, Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar being the ones most talked about . Born To Be Bad is ensconced in the category reserved for ignored treasures and guilty pleasures, since Director Ray's characteristic "signature" as a director was just as canny in this film as in any of his lesser discussed works, On Dangerous Ground (which also featured Robert Ryan) being another example. This reviewer sees the same sophistication in Born To Be Bad as in another 50s Ray piece, In A Lonely Place; Born To Be Bad is just as cynical in its own way, guised as a superficially lighter "high society" melodrama. Although there are no dark staircases, ominous shadows or oblique camera angles here, Born To Be Bad has subterfuge and alienation at its core in Joan Fontaine's central character, Christabel Caine. The misery depicted here is the type that afflicts the rich and the venal, where wealth, not poverty, is the variable behind their alienation, and their betrayals are carried out in swank apartments and elite mansions instead of typical "noir" territory. The stylistic dimensions of the film aside, Born To Be Bad also features Robert Ryan and Joan Fontaine together romantically. For Ryan devotees searching for the few romantic roles that came his way, they should certainly see the film: the chemistry between Ryan and Fontaine simmers in furtive trysts that were somewhat risque for cinema of that era (a comparable romance between Ryan and a female lead can also be found in the 1952 "noir" masterpiece, Clash By Night). Still available on laserdisc, Born To Be Bad features a crystal clear video transfer worthy of any film buff.
Joan Fontaine plays a real conniver hiding beneath a soft exterior in
"Born to Be Bad," also starring Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Mel Ferrer,
and Joan Leslie. Fontaine is Christabel, a young woman from the poor
side of the family who comes to town to work for her Uncle John once
his assistant (Leslie) has married a wealthy, eligible bachelor Curtis
(Scott). Fontaine sets her sights on the big money right away but finds
herself in the heavy clinches with an author (Ryan) who's in love with
her. She's reminiscent in her way of a non-show biz Eve Harrington.
Using her soft voice and all that gossamer femininity, Christabel manages, with an innuendo here, an innuendo there, a suggestion here, a hint there - to totally break up the engaged couple and drive Joan Leslie right out of town. Since Christabel has dropped out of business school, her uncle says she can't work for him and needs to return home. In a panic, she throws herself at Curtis at a ball and wins him. The question then is, what did she win? What did he lose? This potboiler was directed by Nicholas Ray, and I have to believe the man had a sense of humor. Otherwise, how do you account for those love scenes? Every time a man went to kiss Fontaine, he swept her around and dipped her, nearly breaking her neck as the music crescendos. Then there were the shots of Joan, her face in a state of rapture, as she realized she was getting what she wanted. Very campy.
Joan Fontaine is excellent in the role, very sweet in the beginning but becoming austere after she marries Curtis. It's a subtle change but definitely demonstrates her acting ability. She looks lovely in a variety of gowns and dresses. Robert Ryan is extremely handsome in this, as well as charming, funny, and a real catch. His character sees right through Christabel but wants her anyway. The acting is uniformly good. Mel Ferrer plays an artist who also has Christabel's number and paints her portrait.
"Born to Be Bad" is fun to watch though it's certainly not Ray's best work. I do think one has to allow for the fact that he saw this as a real potboiler and directed it the way he did on purpose. If you can't beat 'em - and with this script, how could he - join 'em.
By the way, there's a mistake in the letter that Christabel leaves for Curtis.
Made in 1950, this little gem was no doubt overshadowed by All About
Eve (1950), the movie that made Anne Baxter and which also won six
Academy Awards. The latter is, of course, a longer and more complex
narrative, but both are fine movies. This was Nicholas Ray's sixth
directorial effort, after Knock On Any Door (1949), In A Lonely Place
(1950) and a few others.
No awards for Born To Be Bad though, but both stories have essentially the same theme: how a scheming woman sets out to get what she wants, and at any cost. Well, that theme has been done many times of course, but this (and Eve) stand out.
The narrative is straightforward: Christabel (Joan Fontaine) arrives on the social scene in San Francisco to make a name for herself. She latches onto Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), the fiancée of her cousin Donna (Joan Leslie), succeeds in disrupting their marriage plans and then persuades Curtis to marry her. And, all the while she's in love with Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) who is, in one sense, just as ruthless as she: an ambitious author determined to get recognition. Nick -- poor fool -- loves Christabel but also sees her for what she is. But, as you know, you can't fool all the people all the time; so eventually, Christabel gets her comeuppance for stealing Curtis from Donna while playing around with Nick at the same time...
In and around all of this pot-boiling is Gobby (the always effective Mel Ferrer), the artist who watches the foibles of humankind with cynical, but not unkind, objectivity (the role is, of course, the one that puts the viewer...er...in the picture).
The cast is uniformly excellent, although I have rarely liked Joan Fontaine (her sister, Olivia de Havilland was the better of the two, I think) as an actress. Having said that, I must say, however, that she excels in the role of the scheming femme fatale she is truly hateful, and does it well. Robert Ryan is always good (at least in the movies of this era) and plays the hungry author like a wolf tearing at lambs; Zachary Scott is well cast as the duped husband. Joan Leslie is adequate but outshone by the duplicity of the role Joan Fontaine played to the hilt.
The most effective actor, however, is Mel Ferrer who verbally jousts with everybody, and delivers some of the most effective lines in the movie although Robert Ryan has his fair share of wicked one liners also (e.g. in reference to Christabel, Nick muses to himself, "If she played her cards right, she could win me!" Towards the finale, he says to her: "I love you so much I wish I liked you!"). See this movie for the dialog, if nothing else. You won't be disappointed... promise.
So, why didn't this film get the recognition it deserved? Well, it came from RKO studios, which, at that time, was owned by Howard Hughes, a multi-millionaire who wasn't much liked by any of the Hollywood moguls. Hence, at a guess, I'd say favorable distribution and advertising throughout USA was probably lacking...
This is a good, sexy movie because of Joan Fontaine and her two beaus, leading actors: Zachary Scott and Robert Ryan. Robert Ryan matches Joan Fontaine with zest and sexy talk. It's fun to watch! To make a sexy movie all you have to do is imply and not show anything. This movie delivers! Women will love this movie as a late Saturday night movie.
Nicholas Ray beautifully directs this well-cast drama of a scheming woman (Fontaine) hiding behind an innocent exterior. Fashionable Fontaine is savvy, well-versed, lovely and fascinating in the lead role, one of her best, in lust with the rugged Robert Ryan, but tempted by the millions of Howard Hughes-esquire Zachary Scott. Scott's engaged to Joan Leslie, while Mel Ferrer is amusing ("I have to convince husbands that I'm harmless to their wives") as a painter. Notice that when Fontaine begins to lie, she turns away from her "victim" while she states her untruths, nicely done. The jewelry shop scene is hilarious; musical score is also very effective. Great script: a woman party-goer says to Ferrer, "Do you think my husband would like to see a portrait of me hanging over the fireplace?" Ferrer: "I think your husband would like to see you hanging any place."
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