SPOTLIGHT: Youthful Pre-Code Young (VI)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the beautiful Loretta Young (1913-2000), whose work we’ve never covered before here on Film Friday! In this series, we featured Loose Ankles (1930), Employees’ Entrance (1933), Grand Slam (1933), Midnight Mary (1933), and She Had To Say Yes (1933). Today…

 

Born To Be Bad (1934)

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An unmarried pregnant woman is determined that her child will not grow up to be mistreated. Starring Loretta Young, Cary Grant, Jackie Kelk, and Marion Burns. Story and screenplay by Ralph Graves. Continuity by Harrison Jacobs. Directed by Lowell Sherman.

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“Letty, a young woman who ended up pregnant, unmarried and on the streets at fifteen is bitter and determined that her child will not grow up to be taken advantage of. Letty teaches her child to lie, steal, cheat and anything else he’ll need to be street smart. We meet Letty when Mickey is 7-1/2. Mal enters the picture when his truck and Mickey, who is hanging on to the back of a delivery truck and being pulled along the streets on his roller skates, collide. Mickey is not injured badly, but when Letty discovers that Mal is rich, she concocts a scheme to take Mal to the cleaners. When her plot is uncovered, Letty is also discovered for the unfit parent that she is, and Mickey is taken away from her.

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“Mal and his wife Alice, unable to have children of their own, take Mickey in and give him a father’s love, a true mother’s love, and a home he can call his own. Letty is jealous of Mickey’s growing attachment to these two good people and she still sees Mal as a ticket to riches. Letty seduces Mal, records the seduction and then plans to blackmail Mal. Her plans are upset when Mal immediately tells his wife, and Alice accepts the relationship. Letty learns a painful lesson in selfless love and finally sees that what is best for Mickey is more important than her own plans.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)

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Not to be confused with the 1950 Joan Fontaine film of the same name, the 1934 Born To Be Bad rivals Midnight Mary as the most scandalously Pre-Code film of Loretta Young’s career. In fact, though released a few months before the strict enforcement of the Hays Code on July 1, 1934, the script was censored heavily by Breen and his minions both before and during production. The principal result is the ambiguity surrounding Young’s profession. She’s still a “bad” girl, but the details — the ways and the means — are not discussed. (But we seasoned Pre-Code lovers know what that means: HOOKER!) Yet, Young is harder and more jaded than we’ve ever seen her, and Letty is probably her best performance from this entire blog series. Not surprisingly, the strength of her performance — nuanced, believable, and fascinating — is what makes this film as entertaining as it ends up being.

Young’s brilliance is unable to detract, however, from some of the film’s more obvious flaws. The most notable is the sheer ridiculousness of the plot. The machinations that allow Mickey to go from Young’s house to Grant’s house are hard to swallow, as is the relationship between Young and Grant, which although delicious for the narrative (and enjoyable because of the stars’ undeniable chemistry), comes across as far-fetched. The film’s twists and turns are simply too much to accept in a 62-minute time frame — even for this liberal suspender of his disbelief.

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However, the sheer “naughtiness” of the story and the BAD woman that Loretta Young plays is enough to balance the story’s inexcusable shortcomings. And with a performance as exciting as hers (check out the remarkable moment where she decides to leave Mickey with Grant and his wife), the picture is consistently an entertaining watch. That’s really all that matters. Thus, I recommend this film to Pre-Code lovers everywhere!

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Come back next Friday for another Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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