Today’s post is a tad late, I know. Blame it on the beautiful Idina Menzel who I saw in concert today (well technically Tuesday!). I’m gushing I know but enough about me let’s talk about Joan Fontaine. The amazing Dawn of Noir and Chick Flicks recently reviewed today’s film, the 1950 Nicholas Ray directed Born to Be Bad and I highly recommend reading that review as well as I think we have two divergent opinions on the film. This was on my TCM Top Twelve for May (one of the first so far). Born to Be Bad is my second Ray film after his iconic Rebel Without a Cause and this does feel like an earlier effort. It’s a B-movie melodrama with A-list stars and at times it’s just frustrating to watch. Not so much by the actions of the manipulative female lead, but the lazy way the other character react around her. In the end I didn’t feel bad that I had watched it, I just wanted it to be more memorable.
Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) goes to live with her sweet cousin Donna (Joan Leslie) and comes off as very sweet and pious. That sweetness soon turns sour as Christabel falls for Donna’s rich fiancée Curtis (Zachary Scott) and plans on getting him to leave Donna. The only one who sees past Christabel’s scheming is the writer Nick (Robert Ryan) who Christabel doesn’t want to give up, marriage be damned.
Christabel is the light by which all the other characters gravitate and with that Fontaine is worthy in the role. It’s shocking for me to see her as such a schemer considering I’ve seen her in more passive roles like Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Fontaine is good but her character, and the whole movie actually, feels like a B-movie version of All About Eve and with that, Fontaine is no Anne Baxter. At times Fontaine acts like a little girl trying to gain attention as opposed to being a true schemer. There was just something more malevolent in Baxter’s portrayal of Anne Harrington that I never saw with Fontaine. In many ways Christabel is like Typhoid Mary, infecting one person and causing it to spread to everyone else.
The rest of the actors come off more compelling than Christabel. I was particularly taken by Joan Leslie who plays her cousin Donna. First off, Leslie is gorgeous! I almost thought she was Anne Baxter on first glance. The actress and her character could have been single-note characters but in a particularly compelling confrontation Donna proves she’s not as stupid as Christabel thinks she is. When Christabel goes into her spiel about feeling so sad for Donna after her relationship with Curtis has ended (because of Christabel’s scheming) Donna coolly looks at her and says “Yes terrible. Terrible for everyone but you!” In this scene Leslie appears stronger than Fontaine and tells Chris exactly what she thinks about her. In the end I loved Donna way more than Christabel and while I know that’s the point…I don’t think you’re supposed to yearn for her character to come back. At times I found myself bored until Donna returned.
Zachary Scott continues to excel as the rich guy. In fact, this is his second appearance in the blog as he played Victor, Claudette Colbert‘s suitor in the Marilyn Monroe movie Let’s Make It Legal! He’s okay, nothing special. Then there’s Robert Ryan as Nick, the “macho” writer who is able to see Christabel for what she really is. I definitely loved him at some points and hated him in others merely because the script makes him come off so overbearing and aggressive because that seems to be the definition of “machismo” here. His one-liners seem to be ripped out of the Creepy Come-Ons handbook, case in point when he goes to look out the window with Christabel and says “Like the view? It’d be better with me in it.” He’s very forward and if he wasn’t meant to be the love interest he’d be playing the sexual villain of another movie. He does see Chris as manipulative but that seems to strengthen his view that he’s the only one who can “tame” her (I won’t even touch that statement). I will say I liked his acting style and his character would be a Marlon Brando/Robert Mitchum type in any other film but here it just comes off as a bit date-rapey.
I think that is what the major issue with Born to Be Bad is: the script. I know it’s meant to be a pot-boiler, a dime store novel condensed to film but it never really takes off. The script is just sickeningly soapy from the exaggerated embraces to the fact that Curtis is single for about 2 hours before he’s declaring his undying love for Christabel (and Fontaine plays the character so subdued it’s hard to believe she’s so sexually magnetizing that Curtis can’t resist). Sure Fontaine does well by saying all her insults with a smile but the melodrama becomes overbearing when the camera has to pan to Christabel to show her smirking or laughing. I almost expected a maniacal laugh to emanate from her as lightning struck, it’s that excessive. And a big question of mine was never answered; everyone says throughout that they knew Christabel was evil and yet they all still hang out with her? By the end everyone says “Oh I knew you were a bitch” okay well why didn’t you call her out sooner and save yourself the heartache? Is it a comment on the society or something? Even the title, Born to Be Bad, implies that evil nature is inherent and thus Christabel can’t be rehabilitated so what do we end up taking away from this film…avoid Joan Fontaine I guess.
I’m being a bit harsh I know but I wanted more salaciousness, a better script. Joan Leslie and Robert Ryan are great reasons to watch but I think I’d have enjoyed seeing the movie from their point of view, telling their story as opposed to Christabel’s. And one can’t ignore the fact that this came out a mere two months before All About Eve and they are incredibly similar. If you’ve seen Eve then you’re going to be comparing this to it endlessly. It’s a good waste of an hour and forty minutes, I just wish it was better.
The entire movie can be watched, compliments of YouTube, here:
**TO ALL MY FELLOW LAMMY MEMBERS: I’m a part of their new LAMMYs banner competition right now so if you happen to like my banner please vote for it! Voting closes Monday.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.