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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"Oh, you're bad. Bad all the way through. You're just a beautiful bad girl."
DVD ReviewWhen you think of Cary Grant, it's doubtful the 1934 quickie, Born to Be Bad, comes to mind. In fact, the title is so minor, it's hard to imagine why 20th Century Fox decided to release it at all, let alone feature it as one of the four films in its ballyhooed Cary Grant centennial collection (which also includes People Will Talk, Kiss Them for Me and I Was A Male War Bride). Yet after some digging, I discovered what I believe to be Fox's logical and admirable raison d'être. Born to Be Bad is the final piece of Grant's Fox puzzle, and its release means all of the star's work for the studio has now been preserved on DVD. It certainly would have been easy to keep such a trivial film buried in the vault—few would notice or care—but the decision to revive it proves how much Fox values Grant's talent and appreciates his contributions to the motion picture art form. Such commitment to classic film and Fox's completist perspective deserve to be noted and applauded.
Produced a year or so before Grant achieved superstardom, Born to Be Bad is far from a typical Cary Grant film. Yes, he plays the male lead, but the movie is really a vehicle for the lovely Loretta Young. Only the most obsessive Grant fanatic would associate the iconic actor with this trite moralistic tale of manipulation and redemption, and Grant's stiffly written role allows him little opportunity to flaunt his patented charm and charisma.
Efficient, well-acted (with a few exceptions), but utterly formulaic, Born to Be Bad is a blueprint of Depression-era studio filmmaking, focusing on the well-worn themes of social-climbing and mother-love, and exhibiting a crude form of feminism, in which women use their sex appeal and street smarts to snare wealth and happiness. Although reportedly hampered by censorship issues, the film tries its best to present a realistic portrait of its largely unlikable heroine, Letty Strong (Young), the irresponsible, grasping mother of Mickey (Jackie Kelk), her delinquent 7-year-old son. A mere baby herself (she gave birth at 15), Letty lacks the maturity to properly raise a child, and seems more interested in her job as a "model" (1930s euphemism for "call girl") than helping her boy fit into society.
Letty's thirst for cash influences her parenting decisions, and when a milk truck hits Mickey as he crosses a street, she tries to exaggerate his injuries to squeeze a hefty settlement from the dairy company. The fraudulent scheme fails and Letty loses her son to the state. Desperate to reclaim him, she pleads with the dairy's president, Malcolm Trevor (Grant), to intercede. Malcolm convinces the judge to let him adopt Mickey, and he generously grants Letty liberal visitation privileges. But when Mickey begins to bond with his new "parents" and settle into his cushy new digs, Letty plots to steal him back, along with Malcolm's fortune.
At a lean 61 minutes, the fast-paced Born to Be Bad wisely avoids over-the-top melodramatics. Its plot may be tough to swallow, but the natural acting of Young and Grant keep it within believable confines. Even the sentimental finale is admirably underplayed, avoiding the mawkish, hyper-dramatic malaise that usually afflicts similar stories. Although many might consider the outcome clichéd, the movie kept me guessing as to which predictable plot device it might ultimately employ. As a result, Born to Be Bad seems a bit less dated than many of its sister films.
Young obviously relishes playing against type, and she injects her bad-girl role with plenty of coarse attitude. Only 22 at the time, she gives a surprisingly mature, uncompromising performance, avoiding the temptation to soften Letty to engender audience sympathy. Ralph Graves' script, however, never permits Grant to rise above a cardboard leading man. As always, he's fun to watch, but the part possesses little depth, and forces him to acquiesce to arbitrary story demands. Henry Travers (best known as the celestial Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life) overacts badly as Letty's mentor, and although Jackie Kelk often mugs like a pint-sized Cagney, he's likable and endearing as the troublemaking ragamuffin.
Born to Be Bad was never meant to be viewed or critiqued 70 years after its initial release, but it holds up better than one might expect, if examined in its proper historical context. While it never rises above B picture status, the film remains an entertaining Hollywood artifact and a Cary Grant rarity the actor's fans should appreciate and support.
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: For a 70-year-old film, Born to Be Bad looks pretty good. Heavy grain is the transfer's most distracting element, but such noticeable texture is common in Depression-era films and one quickly adjusts to the look. Specks and grit occasionally intrude, but appear far less than expected. The print possesses nice clarity and acceptable gray level variance, and Loretta Young is seen to exceptionally good advantage, with her fresh-faced, wide-eyed glamour often achieving breathtaking heights.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The simulated stereo track sounds much cleaner than one might imagine. Pops, hiss, and static crop up frequently, but in brief doses, and some distortion occurs in the upper registers. Sporadic muffling of softly spoken dialogue can be attributed to the early recording equipment, but most conversations are clear and easily understandable. On the whole, the audio holds up well, especially considering the film's age. A mono track is also included for purists.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring An Affair to Remember, People Will Talk, Kiss Them for Me, I Was A Male War Bride, Monkey Business
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsAs a rare curio and an opportunity to see Cary Grant before he became "Cary Grant," Born to Be Bad succeeds. But the film is little more than a soapy trifle, made watchable only by the magnetism of its two stars. The audio and video transfers are remarkably clean for such an aged film, but can't salvage the weak material.
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