Infamous Infanta

A film named Born To Be Bad is something that’s Got To Be Camp—who comes up with a moniker so obvious?  (Well, somebody obviously did.)  Carol Burnett once lampooned this 1950 film on her TV show (click here and start at the 26:15 mark), parodically titled Raised To Be Rotten, but it can’t top the parody of the movie itself (it even used some of the film’s lines).  Just starting with that title.  Seriously?  Born to be BAD?  I tried coming up with my own parodies—Commence To Be CravenEmerge To Be Exasperating?  But no, the original stands alone in its impact.  It’s not only the flagrant meaning; it’s the consonant alliteration, those matching hard Bs punching out one-syllable words, Born-To-Be-Bad, bim-boom-bah, that ping the mental eardrum.  The film is making a Statement, plain and clear.  Our Lead Lady (depicted in the poster above as if issuing, red-clad and recumbent, from some Great Amorphous Beyond into a State of Pure, Indulgent Infamy) is gonna be as Bad as Bad can Be.

How bad? Oh, VERY bad.

The story itself, following the pursuit of the Very Good Life by its Lady in Red, Christabel Caine—yes, that’s her name, straight out of Harlequin romance, don’t blame me—is a guiltily pleasurable stroll through the tropes of women’s melodrama (two women’s rivalry for a rich man’s love and money), and was directed, probably better than it should be, by noir meister Nicholas Ray.  Note how brilliantly Ray introduces his anti-heroine.  He opens in the apartment of the Nice Girl, Donna Foster (Joan Leslie), who’s engaged to super-scion-of-wealth Curtis Carey—no, I’m not making that name up, either—getting everything ready for a swank party.  Ray films several long takes of Donna walking, weaving, gliding up and down a long hallway flanked by rooms as she oversees preparations, when her seemingly assured back-and-forth momentum is abruptly cut off by her stumbling into Christabel’s strategically placed valise, right where Donna will take a flying tumble over it—

—and, on recovering, Donna glances up to see, on the cut, the agent of havoc herself, Christabel (Joan Fontaine), looking as if a whole dairyful of butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth:

It seems cousin Christabel was supposed to come the following day but instead has arrived (oh dear, my bad!) on the night of the party itself, which she was secretly longing to attend.  Thus we understand Christabel:  She’s a Cinderella who doesn’t need a fairy godmother to get to the ball.  Hell, no.  What with her innocent looks, a sweetly bland manner, and an underlying ballsiness Attila the Hun would admire, Christabel can get to any ritzy shindig on her own steam, no stinkin’ fairy godmother necessary.  Without even a glass slipper for aid, she ends up shoving Donna aside and snagging the prince (Zachary Scott), his fabulous mansion, and his even more fabulous bank account, along with the attentions of a hunky Hemingwayesque novelist (Robert Ryan) who fulfills all those wants that effete scions of wealth can’t.  As the joke goes, Christabel gets what every woman needs:  A mink in her closet, a jaguar in her garage, a tiger in her bed, and a jackass to pay for it all.  Ah, clever Christabel.  She’s what Sam Spade would call “good,” and he sure didn’t mean morally.

As a director, Ray may have been known for the tough-guy world of noir, but he was exquisitely attuned to narratives centered on women; and, despite its camp, BTBB’s plot is focused on how women seek love and success in a post-war world.  In the same year as BTBB’s release its studio, RKO, released Ray’s noir masterpiece, In a Lonely Place, a bleakly beautiful look at the impossibility of romance in a society loosed from all stable moorings.  A year earlier RKO had also released Ray’s melodrama A Woman’s Secret, which, like BTBB, looks at two women involved with one man; as with the later film, one of Secret’s female characters is a coy innocent who can’t make a move without screwing it up for everyone else.  Secret’s contrived murder plot doesn’t make sense, and it ends with a half-cocked revelation that won’t satisfy viewers (studio interference marred the film), but Ray does make a stab at examining issues of women’s ambitions, rivalries, and crises of identity; and his eye for the odd, discerning detail (such as a woman complacently spooning ice cream while the anti-heroine sings at a concert) reveals a sensibility that can dig below surface mechanics and reveal something truly strange about the seemingly conventional.

Which is what Ray, and his scenarists, also do in BTBB, but with a difference; they ditch the earlier film’s heavy dramatics and flip its women’s-film mechanics on its well-styled head.  Taking similar situations and tropes, BTBB plays them not for heart but for snickers.  As with Secret, almost all of BTBB’s characters are unlikable and not very bright, but now the plot lets you in on the joke, particularly through its outsider character, a painter nicknamed Gobby who, observing Christabel’s antics, offers knowing sidelines commentary.  Acted to the hilt by Mel Ferrer (probably his best film performance), Gobby’s a girl’s gay best friend, always ready with the revealing wisecrack and acid home truth (“Relax,” he’ll say after a snide remark, “this is Gobby”).  Ferrer plays Gobby’s bitchiness with an uncommon delicacy; he doesn’t slam it at you as would Clifton Webb but merely touches on it, in subtle tones and a fey gesture or two, accompanied by a sly glance and half smile.  His very presence, as in his introduction, in which Ray, observing him mount the stairs, cuts to an unexpected and unsettling reverse shot, destabilizes the narrative and upends genre expectations.  He’s the guy who, flipping over the rock, gives you another, nastier, point of view.

Ray carries flipped shots throughout the film, reflecting Christabel’s duplicity and doubleness of character (Ryan’s novelist describes her as Lucretia Borgia crossed with Peg O’ My Heart); a profile  closeup of Fontaine embracing Scott is then filmed from its opposite side when she embraces Ryan.  And Ray keeps his direction dynamic; much of the film’s action has characters winding through rooms and corridors and up and down stairs, negotiating complex connections in space.  Movement flows seamlessly, time and people shifting slightly ahead of our perception, like Christabel’s maneuvers; then Ray will have his cast come to rest in a layered shot, using fore- and background to create depth and a sense of tangled relationships, where nothing happens in isolation but the effects ripple outward.  Everything follows from something else if you can only figure out the curves and joins that link them and which door leads to where.  Ray creates an uneasy, mutable world in which Christabel, at its center, is frequently posed next to mirrors but, oddly, casts no reflection in them—as if there was no soul within her to be caught in those flat, shiny surfaces.

In her autobiography No Bed of Roses Fontaine barely mentions this film, only to say that she thought it a disaster but that she liked her wardrobe.  She notes it mainly for the problems caused her by Howard Hughes, who had just bought RKO while she was filming and was, as usual, making a pest of himself (though, curiously, her autobiography’s title recalls a line from the film, a sarcastic comment from the novelist on Christabel’s marriage being a “bed of roses”).  I assume Fontaine’s acting, with many an askance eye and lopsided smile, as if not wishing to come across too strongly but still letting us see the mask slip, was deliberate signaling to the camera that she wasn’t taking this too seriously.  Her demure head tilts, like a cat curious about a mouse, and shy hesitancy in speech bring to mind her performance in Rebecca, only now she seems to have merged the second Mrs. de Winter with the first, hiding a wicked heart under a layer of old lace and cameo jewelry.  It’s a knowing performance, one that, if not psychologically subtle, anchors the film in camp.

And yet, despite the campy fun, the fabulous wardrobe, the two men in her life (Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott?  Day-um!), Christabel is not happy.  Could it be that the film does have a moral, which still resonates (though maybe not within the Production Code)?  And that is:  Having it all really is no bed of roses.  Marriage to Mr. Moneybags proves, for Christabel, to be a rollicking run of charity functions, charity meetings, charity boards, and charity donors, while watched over by nosy minders, guardians, and handlers, all demanding time, attention, and patience that wears thin.  Having everything means just that, boredom and busybodies included.  The perils of Cinderella aspiring to the prince is that—you just might get him.  And THEN what will you do?

BONUS CLIP:  You’ve never met a girl quite like Christabel! (Thank God, we might add), or so notes the trailer for Born To Be Bad, which depicts its scheming heroine quite seriously.  Note also Mel Ferrer’s line, that his main occupation is to convince husbands that he’s harmless—an example of subtly slipping characterization past the Production Code:

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4 Comments

  1. I saw the film a couple or so of years ago, and I surprisingly still recall a lot of it and enjoyed your comments. Very recently I watched A Woman’s Secret and I certainly agree with you that the film was uneven. I think the title reflects the fact that the secret was never revealed, remaining “the woman’s secret”!

    Reply
    • You make a good point about what IS the secret in A Woman’s Secret. It’s never clear why Maureen O’Hara confesses to a murder attempt that didn’t happen, and my ultimate reaction was how much dumber could she get for doing so. I gather that, once Howard Hughes took over RKO, he meddled with all the films about to be released, which may account for that movie’s incoherence. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply
  2. Christabel … Christabel … Christabel
    The only trouble with the Burnett spoof was that I saw it years before I saw Born to Be Bad. It would have gone over my head back in those days anyway. When I finally caught up to the movie, the whole thing made such perfect and delightful sense.

    I recently watched Born to Be Bad for the second time after believing this was one I wouldn’t be revisiting. What fun! I may even be seeing it again someday, with your pithy comments in the back of my head. More fun.

    Reply
    • It’s definitely a fun movie, the kind you can revisit every once in a while, especially with friends. The Burnett parody is funny, but her skit uses actual lines from the film, so there was already plenty of original material to work with!

      Reply

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