Letty Strong (Loretta Young) is a single mother, having given birth to her son, Mickey (Jackie Kelk), in the back room of a bookstore at the age of fifteen. She and her son were thereafter taken in by “Fuzzy” (Henry Travers), the owner of the store, who views the pair as his own. Letty has since moved out on her own with Mickey and supports them by working as a model–she is paid to wear beautiful gowns and go to glamorous nightclubs with various men.
One evening, Fuzzy confronts Letty about her son, who has been caught playing hooky one too many times. He accuses her of not raising the boy properly–not only does he skip school, but he smokes, steals, and carouses with older boys in the neighborhood. Letty scoffs at Fuzzy’s concerns, claiming that she merely preparing the boy for the tough reality of the “real world” in ways she herself never was.
While skating one day and hanging onto the back of a moving vehicle, Mickey lets go and is hit by a milk truck that is somewhat implausibly driven by the millionaire president of Amalgamated Dairy, Malcolm Trevor (Cary Grant), who is eager to do whatever he can to help the boy (Trevor later explains that he was driving because he was checking out the day-to-day operations of his business). Letty, seeing dollar signs, takes full advantage of the situation, encouraging Mickey to exaggerate his injuries (which only really amount to a bumped head) in order to get as much money as she can out of the dairy. During the ensuing trial, however, evidence is presented showing that Mickey is perfectly healthy, and the judge, infuriated by Letty’s blatant attempt at fraud, tells her that he will do whatever it takes to have her son removed from her custody. Mickey is taken away soon after.
Letty sneaks into Trevor’s office one night and halfheartedly pulls a gun on him to try to convince him to help her get Mickey back. After disarming her easily (and warding off her advances), Trevor agrees to do what he can to help. Trevor ends up taking Mickey to live on his estate with his wife, Alice (Marion Burns), and the two of them quickly grow fond of the boy. Trevor allows Letty to come as frequently as she’d like to see Mickey, but when she discovers how much her son has grown to like this new lifestyle, she hatches a plan to run away with him.
With the encouragement of her sleazy lawyer, Adolph (Harry Green–playing the offensively stereotypical “Jew” stock character, focused solely on how much money Letty can get out of the Trevors), Letty tries to seduce Trevor into cheating on his wife. Though Trevor is repulsed by her behavior at first, calling her “cheap” and “dishonest,” he cannot resist the alluring young woman, and he professes his love for her–a sentiment that Letty manages to capture on a record. Though Letty now has plenty of ammunition with which to blackmail Trevor, he surprises her by stating that he’s already confessed to his wife that he intends to leave her for Letty. Letty’s emotions are thrown into turmoil, and though she thinks she might finally be in the position to have everything she’s ever wanted, something just doesn’t feel right …
Born to Be Bad (1934) was released less than two months before strict enforcement of the Production Code began in July 1934, but even though that technically classifies the film as a “pre-Code” (as does its racy tone), some heavy edits were made to Ralph Graves’ screenplay. The movie was rejected by the PCA office twice before it was finally deemed satisfactory–something that created quite a bit of conflict between PCA head Joseph Breen producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who felt that Breen was using a harsh evaluation of the film to make “an example” out of 20th Century Fox. Still, in the end, Zanuck agreed to removing several shots of Young in her underwear (but still managed to keep the scene above) and cutting some scenes in which she showed too much skin, and the film was finally released with PCA approval.
Even with the cuts, the film gleefully and luridly plays with the loose morality of its lead character–she is, to borrow a phrase, little more than sex on heels. Still, Letty sees herself as pragmatic and honest; when Fuzzy questions her ability to raise Mickey properly, she launches into a counter-attack to defend herself:
“All right. You’ve made your little speech. Now I’ll make mine. Everything you’ve said about Mickey is absolutely true. Sure, he has no honor, no sense of ethics. Furthermore, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and he knows that storks don’t bring babies. I’ve told him the truth, Fuzzy. I’ve told him everything is a fake. He knows all the questions and all the answers. And when he grows up to be a man, if anybody puts over on him, it won’t be because I didn’t tell him! Honor and decency? That’s a lot of hash. What’d it ever get me?”
To Letty, the only way to get by is to use what you know. Sex is all that she knows, and she has no problem using it, because to her, at least it’s forthright: men want her, they pay her in various ways (through money and clothing), and they get her. She uses sex as a tool and a bargaining chip; she makes her living with her body, and her first instinct in any situation is to entice with sexuality–first seen when she flirtatiously convinces the truant officer to let Mickey off the hook, and again when she seduces Trevor. Even though Letty denies it, the film indicates that Letty’s job as a model is not merely decorative; she is, for all intents and purposes, an escort, with her company paid for by the hour by the men whom she accompanies night after night. And it is strongly hinted that on the night Trevor finally capitulates to Letty’s charms, the two of them sleep together; the following morning, Letty–suggestively stroking a finger up and down the top of her cleavage–purrs, “After last night, you and I are just the same. There’s no difference at all. Get it?”
Though the film was originally intended as a vehicle for Jean Harlow (and then Joan Crawford), Young turns in a fascinating performance as Letty. She walks a delicate line between the over-sexed and maternal halves of Letty’s personality, and there’s a ferocious, fiery appeal to many of her scenes. If you’re only familiar with Young from her roles in the 1940s and beyond, you’re in for a treat; the general sweetness that marks her performances in films like The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) is here replaced with passionate, sexy verve as Young brings glorious life to the scheming and determined Letty. The strength of her performance here is encapsulated by the fact that she makes the ending scenes seem somewhat believable: while there is a distinct moralizing tone to the film and to Letty’s eventual reformation (the transition to which is rather abrupt), Young still manages to sell it to the audience.
Grant is not as strong a presence in the film–he’s overshadowed by Young in many of their scenes, and that remarkably suave, alluring “Cary Grant” persona is not fully in place here. Nonetheless, I make no complaints about his performance, for Grant is always a joy to watch even at his most pallid (yes, I am just that much in love with the man). There are also some nice supporting turns by the fatherly Travers and young Kelk as the mischievous and sometimes whiny Mickey. A real-life Mickey (Rooney, in this case) auditioned for the role before Kelk was cast, and though Rooney went on to have a much more illustrious career, Kelk later found his own measure of fame on television and particularly on radio, where he played the first Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman beginning in 1940.
Born to Be Bad is making its premiere on TCM on Wednesday night (July 25th) at 8PM (along with a full prime-time lineup of Loretta Young-helmed classics, including the aforementioned Daughter). If you’ve never seen this film, I can say without hesitation that it’s well worth your time.