"Bad Girl" *** (out of ****)
Is it possible to make a bad girl a good girl in Frank Borzage's "Bad Girl" (1931)?
Despite its perhaps salacious title and accompanying movie poster "Bad Girl" is not a risque movie serving as a morality play concerning loose sexual morals of the time. Of course, I say that in 2015 but it is difficult to believe audiences in 1931 viewed this movie as scandalous.
Frank Borzage was a successful, though now sadly forgotten, filmmaker at Fox Studios (20th Century Fox) where his career peaked during the end of the silent film era and into the early sound pictures era. His movies focused on young lovers in love facing trails and tribulations.
I am perhaps not as familiar with Borzage's work as I ought to be but I have seen his adaptation of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" (1932) starring Gary Cooper, "Street Angel" (1928), for which its female lead, Janet Gaynor, won an Academy Award, the Will Rogers comedy "They Had To See Paris" (1929), a Joan Crawford vehicle "The Shining Hour" (1938) and Mary Pickford's final picture, "Secrets" (1933).
With the exception of "A Farewell to Arms" the work of Borzage has not impressed me much. Because of that, I haven't eagerly sought out his movies. However, "Bad Girl" is a picture I find to be an absolute delight.
The movie, based on a novel written by Vina Delmar, which was later adapted into a play, earned three Academy Award nominations; best picture, best writing and best director. Of the nominations it won one. Borzage was named best director of the year beating out King Vidor for "The Champ" (1931) and Josef von Sternberg for "Shanghai Express" (1932).
"Bad Girl", like any other Borzage movie, could easily be described as a story of young lovers facing difficulties, as they try to get ahead in life during 1930s Great Depression America. While that may not sound like an original idea it is the way the movie goes about showcasing this material which really makes it stand out. The two leads; James Dunn and Sally Eilers steal the picture. They give two of the most carefree, sweet, naturalistic performances I have seen.
Dunn plays Eddie and Eilers plays Dorothy two working class people who despite what they say are looking for love and marriage.
Dorothy has a bad idea about men. She believes all men think about one thing. Although she never says want that one thing is the audience gets the idea. Dorothy is used to men making passes at her, whistling, one character even mentions men on subways rubbing up against her. It is tame by today's standards but I wonder how much of this dialogue would have passed after the production code went into effect. In 1931 it hadn't yet.
Dorothy isn't seen as a bad girl but I thought because of the title Dorothy, in an attempt to get by, would soon lead a life of prostitution. Now, before anyone says "Alex, this was 1931! They weren't going to put that in a picture." Remember in Borzage's own "Street Angel" that is what happens. Also, don't forget "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), released the same year as this movie.
Eddie on the other hand is the exact opposite of what Dorothy expects from men. The first time they meet he doesn't make a pass for her. In fact, she annoys him. He wants some nice peace and quite. Eddie we leans is a shy guy and doesn't know how to speak to girls. He also has ambition and wants to run his own business. A radio repair shop.
When these two first meet Dorothy tells Eddie her ideas about men and Eddie tells her his ideas about women. Why does every women think she is so special and men are just dying to be with them? Why do women get mad when men stare at them or turn their heads when they are the ones wearing revealing outfits? This reminds me of a remark I have made among friends. A compliment is only a compliment when giving by a person you want it given from. Meaning if Brad Pitt tells a woman she is attractive she would like that remark and probably flirt back. If Quasimodo tells a woman the same thing she might tell him "get away from me you filthy pig"! And go into her "all men think about one thing" routine. Same compliment given by two different people. Only one is accepted.
After these beginning barbs by the characters I was expecting a "battle of the sexes" and even though this movie is classified as "drama" it didn't feel dramatic to me. It didn't have the tone of a comedy exactly and I wouldn't refer to it as romantic - comedy, but it does have a carefree tone. It kind of blends all of these genres. The dramatic moments aren't very dramatic to me and while it does make attempts to become melo-dramatic, the effort to make us feel a specific emotion feels forced.
The two finally get together and after spending an entire night together Dorothy must go home, where she lives only with her brother, since both of her parents have died. The problem is it is 4 a.m. decent girls aren't out with men until 4 a.m. what will her brother do to her? So Eddie proposes marriage. The brother can't get mad at Dorothy if she was out with her husband, can he?
And so we figure out the path "Bad Girl" is going to take. It wants to be a slice-of-life look into 1930s America. It addresses the difficulties working class people faced to start a family. Yes, the American dream was just that, a dream. Couples worried about where they are going to live, how will they pay for rent? Should they bring life into this cruel world? How will they afford a baby? If they do have a baby what about a doctor and hospital bills?
What was true in 1931 is true now. Audiences should be able to relate to the movie. Unfortunately there are some people that would never give the movie a chance. It is too old they will say. It is black&white. For some that is off-putting. They won't watch "old" movies, silent movies, b&w movies. Only what is "current". Too bad. It is a big movie world at there and you are missing out on so much. There are so many great movies you'll never see. So many great performances you will be deprived of seeing.
I do have issues with the tone of the picture and some of the situations which derive and this causes me to stop short of calling the movie a masterpiece and giving it a high star rating. The "drama" isn't dramatic. The conflict easily solved. But the performances could not have been better.
James Dunn won an Academy Award for his performance in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945) as an alcoholic father. Now there was a sad movie! Some audience members might recognize him for his role in a Shirley Temple vehicles; "Bright Eyes" (1934) and "Baby Take a Bow" (1934).
Sally Eilers was "discovered" by Mack Sennett, the famous comedy producer. Prior to this movie she appeared in two Buster Keaton comedies; "Doughboys" (1930) and "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (1931). She was also in the original version of "State Fair" (1933) starring Will Rogers, which would later become a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
These two have a great chemistry between them. They are giving a "movie performance" but at times it feels authentic. You can believe in them as people. They are very natural on camera. Both have a bit of a comedic aspect to their characters which I enjoyed watching.
"Bad Girl" was considered the first major novel written by Vina Delmar, who would go on to win an Academy Award nomination for her screenplay for "The Awful Truth" (1937). The novel was about the dangers of premarital sex and pregnancy. The movie deals with both issues but is not really a cautionary tale. Perhaps the novel was a bit more spicy. It was banned in some cities. As a result the title of the movie doesn't seem appropriate. We keep waiting for the "bad girl".
You won't find many movie historians or film fans consider this one of Frank Borzage's best movies. But, for me, this is a good movie which deserves an audience. For what I have seen directed by Borzage, it was one of the more pleasurable movies I have seen.