Born to be Bad (1934) Lowell Sherman

This late entry in the pre-code movie book, it opened in New York City on May 30th 1934 at the Rivoli Theater, stars the gorgeous Loretta Young as Letty Strong. Letty is a prostitute and con artist, and by the clothes she wears a successful one in both trades. She became pregnant at the age of 15, was helped by no one except for a kind old man who owns a local store where he let her live in the back.  Since then, Letty has taught her son Mickey (Jackie Kelk), now a school age seven or eight years old, how to con everyone; cheat, lie and steal  is her motto. Letty is hard as nails having built years of resentment into her short life.

Young’s co-star is an up and coming actor by the name of Cary Grant  who as Malcolm Trevot portrays a rich diary company owner whose wife Alyce (Marion Burns) cannot conceive the child he so desperately wants. Their worlds will collide when the young boy, roller skating while holding on to the back of a truck, swinging back and forth, runs into the path of a milk truck driven by Malcolm (early version of Undercover Boss?).  Letty and the kid lie about the accident. Faking a severe injury, they take the case to court. However, once inside the courtroom, Mal and his lawyers prove the young boy was faking the injuries with film taken by investigators of Mickey running and jumping only a few days after the accident. As a result the court decides the boy should be taken from Mom’s custody and sent to a child services facility.

In a soft hearted moment, Mal, who has wanted a boy of his own, ask the court if he could take custody of the young lad. The court agrees, and Mickey, at first not happy about it, comes to like living with Mal and his wife. After all, what’s not to like? Mal’s rich and kind. However, mother Letty wants her son back. Despite the fact she can visit him at Mal’s all she wants.

In a blatant case of pre-code adultery, Letty seduces the married Mal; admittedly it was not a difficult task since he has fallen in love with her. Letty records Mal’s declarations of love in an attempt to blackmail him, threatening to expose their affair. Only thing is, Mal has already informed Alyce that he has cheated and even more, he has fell in love with the fallen woman and wants to marry her.

In a sudden unexpected twist, Letty finds salvation? Morality? A heart? Whatever it is, she is unable to accept Mal’s declaration of love, ruin a marriage and the chance for her son to be brought up in a good home. She leaves it all behind and returns to the kind old man who took her in those many years ago.

Loretta Young’s Letty Strong is a tough, hard bitten schemer, ready to sleep her way or con her way to success.  Given this is what transpires for the first sixty minutes of this sixty two minute feature, her sudden transformation at the end of the film turning it into a sappy morality tale; a Joan Crawford style tear-jerker ending with a unbelievable twist that is somewhat as hard to swallow as a millionaire driving a milk truck.

But the real joy here are the risqué moments. Young’s wardrobe, or lack of wardrobe, early in the film makes for some impure thoughts about an actress who years later would go on to play a nun in Come to the Stable and later on in The Farmer’s Daughter. There is also a scene where a doctor who treats Letty’s son agrees to be paid “later.” One is definitely left with the impression he’s not talking about monetary compensation either. This is all prior to Young’s seduction of the debonair Mr. Grant and their adulterous night of passion. By the time we reach the film’s conclusion, no one has really paid for their sins.  Well, maybe Letty, who so valiantly has given up her son to Mal and her one chance at true love. Grant’s Mal, so hot to trot with sweet Loretta, can still go back to his wife, his mansion and his new “son.”

Ah, the joys of pre-code life.

That said, don’t expect a great film here. The script have plenty of problems. Most of the characters are undeveloped. Grant’s Malcolm Trevot is very one dimensional and his wife comes across as too good to be true. Way too willing to give up old Cary, even though admitting she still loves him. Young’s Letty, who the film centers around, is the one well developed character. Still her change of heart at the end is hard to swallow as Joan Crawford’s oversized shoulder pads, making the ending pure drivel. But in between are some extraordinary pre-code highlights that are fun to watch. In its defense, the film did face some censor problems, which may account for some of the choppiness with the Hays Office. It was bounced back a couple of time for editing before being given approval.

One should keep in mind Cary Grant was not yet CARY GRANT as he was when he and Young co-starred some years later with David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife. At this point in his career, Grant was still an up and coming star supporting such leading ladies like Mae West (I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong) and Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus).  His role here is nondescript, lacking any trace of the Grant persona that would come forth in just a few years. Basically, the role could have been played by anyone on the lot.  Still, along with the pre-code allure, Grant’s appearance is another reason this film is a must see.

Loretta Young had top billing and it is interesting to see Young, who was a devout Catholic play such a slutty role. True she was in her share of pre-code films, Employees Entrance, Heroes for Sale and Platinum Blonde, but she generally played the “good” girl in those films. She did play a gangsters moll in one of her best films from that period, Midnight Mary. Her character was really a victim of unfortunate events and does find some redemption by curtain time. Not so in Born to be Bad, where she is out and out bad, her only good deed is the nonsensical tacked on ending. In real life, Ms. Young liked to project the image of a good decent woman. Oh sure, there was an affair with the married Spencer Tracy before, during and after the filming of Born to be Bad, and according to the press of the day was considered, ‘the other woman’ in Tracy’s marital problems with his wife. There was also the other fellow she had an out of wedlock child with, what’s his name, oh yeah, Clark Gable.  Sweet Loretta had the baby in complete secrecy and gave it up for adoption. About a year and a half later, Loretta got the child back when she announced she was adopting a baby girl (Judy). What she didn’t say was it was her own child she was adopting. Rumors obviously had been spreading around Hollywood though as to whom papa was, and some friends found it easy to connect the dots once they saw the young child and her big ears.

Jean Harlow was originally wanted for the role of Letty by 20th Century Fox but MGM refused to lend her out. The film was a flop upon its release and Young was said to not like the role, having a distaste for portraying fallen women or even divorced women. She apparently felt more comfortable in those wholesome works like, The Bishop’s Wife, The Farmer’s Daughter and her Academy Award nominated performance in Come to the Stable.

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17 comments on “Born to be Bad (1934) Lowell Sherman

  1. I loved your post, John. Born to Be Bad is actually one of my favorite pre-Codes, probably because I was so blown away by the Loretta Young character when I first saw the film. (If you’re interested, I wrote something about it a while back: http://bit.ly/ojbTdP .) I share your impression of Letty’s drastic moral transformation — talk about turning over a new leaf! Interesting that Loretta Young didn’t like the role and that the film didn’t do well. I like her as a bad girl!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much! I do like the film even though it’s a mess at time. I agree with you about being blown away by Young’s character at first. She’s a wild child to be sure. I will check out your article, thanks for the link.

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  2. KimWilson says:

    John, it is always interesting to watch Loretta Young play anything, but this Letty sounds like a really bad girl. Ah, too bad Loretta could embrace these type of characters–she would have been even more entertaining. Cary Grant looks quite handsome in that photo where Young has her hands on his chest. Forget Spencer Tracy–Grant was the man she should have had the affair with!

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    • John Greco says:

      “Forget Spencer Tracy–Grant was the man she should have had the affair with!”

      If I were a woman I would agree with that 100%. More to my tast is Young who is darn sexy in this film, she’s evil but sexy. Seriously, she was a very attractive woman, I don’t think she was a great actress, more like in the okay category. Reply

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  3. Judy says:

    Sounds as if you liked this film a bit more than I did, John – it’s a little while since I saw this one, but I remember thinking it’s quite a weak story, doesn’t hang together well and Cary Grant doesn’t get much scope in it at all. But, as you say, he wasn’t really getting many good parts yet, and at least he has more screen time in this than he does in other pre-Codes like ‘Hot Saturday’… or ‘Devil and the Deep’, where it is almost a case of blink and you’ll miss him!

    I gather you have rather mixed feelings about Loretta Young. Must say I really like her as an actress from the films of hers I’ve seen so far, which were mainly early to mid-30s – ‘Man’s Castle’ and ‘Taxi!’ are both good roles for her as well as some of the others you have mentioned. In ‘Born to be Bad’, though, where she was only 21 and if anything looked even younger, it’s impossible to accept her as the mother of 10-year-old Jackie Kelk! I haven’t seen many of the films Lowell Sherman directed – I did see ‘The Greeks Had a Word for Them’ aka ‘Three Broadway Girls’, and as far as I remember didn’t like that much either, so maybe he was better as an actor, in films like ‘What Price Hollywood’, than he was as a director.

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    • John Greco says:

      I don have mixed feeling about Young, though admittedly I have not seen MAN’S CASTLE, a film I do want to see. TAXI! I like but this is Cagney’s film. Anyway, I admit this film has problems but from a pre-code point, Young’s bad girl, it’s a lot of fun. You mention HOT SATURDAY that’s another film I need to see.

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  4. DorianTB says:

    John, I must admit that I only knew of Loretta Young’s goody-two-shoes roles, such as COME TO THE STABLE, THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER, and THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL. I’m impressed that she played such a dyed-in-the-wool bad girl, even if the filmmakers ended up schmaltzing it to a fare-thee-well! 🙂 Facscinating post and a great read, as always!

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  5. John Greco says:

    Dorian, Good girl and glamour that was the image she wanted to project for most of her career. I actually caught this film by mistake. I thought I was recording the Robert Ryan film on FMC with the same name and happily found this. Thanks!

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  6. I really like your writing and your sense of humour. This movie sounds like a must-see!

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  7. ClassicBecky says:

    John, I love the pre-codes, and I enjoyed this one a lot despite its flaws. Loretta Young in her scanties is quite a departure from her good girls, as you said. I couldn’t help but remember the other “Born To Be Bad” in later years with Joan Fontaine, a movie I think is just awful. I’ll never forget Carol Burnett’s spoof on that one, which she called “Raised To Be Rotten”! LOL!

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    • John Greco says:

      Becky,

      I actually thought I was recording the 1950’s Robert Ryan film when I did this one. It was a pure accident but a happy one, needless to say.I agree the film is enjoyable in spite of its flaws. Thanks!

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  8. Patricia Dumas says:

    I’m enjoying all the comments here. I just saw this film on TCM, and got a real kick out of it! I remember seeing an interview with Loretta’s daughter recently– how she never got to know Gable, and what a “stuffed shirt” Loretta was! too bad.. maybe if she were around today, she’d get a bit real. But, I guess the times kept her laced up tightly. She sure did have some fun with Spence and Clark! Too bad she was a phony about it I really LOVED Loretta movies, and wished she were as smart as her characters and not so religious! Thanks for the interesting blog! Loved it.

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    • John Greco says:

      Patricia, Welcome and glad you enjoyed the movie. Young made quite a few per-code films. I hope you got to watch EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE which was on a littler earlier the same day. If not, you need to watch this too.

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      • Patricia Dumas says:

        Thanks, John. Haven’t seen that yet, but will. I like the pre-code short films. Something about them– I think it’s the lack of “slickness” and put- together look. Like Hollywood trying to find itself early on with sloppy writing. In between the lines you see real story lines and not a bunch of 2 bed primness. Before home videos came out, my father (who worked in PR at 20th Century Fox) used to lug reels of film home every friday night for Sat. night movie showings. We saw some doozies. I’ve got a great pic of him posing in D. Zanuck’s office in Hollywood. Those were the days!

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      • John Greco says:

        Wow, that must have been pretty cool thost Sat. night film viewings with flicks right from the studio. Sounds like some great memories. Thanks for sharing!!!

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  9. […] AM             BORN TO BE BAD (1934) Loretta Young, Cary […]

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