Did any other major studio make as few memorable, distinctive and worthwhile films through the thirties and forties as Fox?
The point was really brought home when they recently decided to chronicle their history in a massive set of DVDs called 'Studio Classics' - and boy, were the pickings thin. Ironically, Fox operated one of the best B-units through these years - none of the product of which made it to Studio Classics - but as for the As, well... I'm trying to think of some now. The Grapes of Wrath. Er... Any more?
But the great thing about Studio Classics was that its very barrel-scraping desperation brought about the release of Born To Be Bad (1934), a hypnotic curiosity from the tail-end of pre-Code. Less than an hour in length and mad as a march hare, it would never have seen the light of day but for the freak accident of it star casting: Loretta Young and Cary Grant, both cast fantastically against type.
Actually, Grant is still in his pre-Code years before his type had been properly established, years that usually found him at Paramount, being disreputable in a tuxedo. Here he's given a normal, real-life type of role, and watching him struggling with it, trying to pretend that he's not Cary Grant, even before he or anyone else really knew who Cary Grant was, is fascinating. He's called Malcolm Trevor and the name suits him. The blurb on the back of the DVD claims he's a dairy farmer, which really would be something worth seeing. In fact he's the big cheese, so to speak, of Amalgamated Dairies; he wears a suit, has his usual shiny hair, works in an office and lives in a gated mansion (a mansion built on milk, if you will.)
Meanwhile Loretta makes an equally vivid surprise, especially if your abiding memory of her is of the host of her eponymous tv series, or of the woman who Joan Crawford quipped left the mark of the cross on her seat when she got up.
Like her studio here, Young survives as an icon with surprisingly few great films to her credit in the three decades between her silent beginnings (when she answered a casting call intended for her sister) and her hugely successful defection to tv. (Her best performance is probably as Gallagher, the one-of-the-boys journalist in Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde (1931), discreetly vying with rich girl Jean Harlow for the affections of Robert Williams, but she's also impressive in Orson Welles’s under-rated The Stranger (1946), slowly realising that the husband she idolises is a renegade Nazi.)
Her reputation as a beauty among beauties ensured constant box-office appeal, but she went on strike for better parts at the end of the thirties, tired of ‘being Mrs Alexander Graham Bell’, as she once put it.
Devoutly religious, she also resisted suggestions to play the kind of bad girl roles permissible in the pre-Code era, and in fact did so only once, here.
A gum-chewing tramp in a leopard-skin coat, in sole charge of a son she is raising to lie, cheat and steal... out with a different man every night and lounging around her apartment in her lingerie all day... yes, truly, this is Loretta Young.
No wonder she recalled the film vividly in John Kobal's compulsive book of Hollywood interviews People Will Talk:
I took many suspensions on contracts because I would not even play something like a divorced woman who marries someone else. The only one that I can recall ever doing was Born To Be Bad, which had been written for Jean Harlow. I was under contract to Zanuck at the time. I came back from a trip to Honolulu, and Zanuck said, "Here's your next script, you're going to do it." And I said, "I can't play this. I don't know what to do with it." And he said, "Well, anyway, you're going to play it." So I had to play it. To the best of my ability. We had a marvellous director, and Cary Grant was marvellous in it. But I hated it so, and disapproved of it. And when the picture came out, the review said, "This picture is called Born To Be Bad. It is." That's all it said! It never ran in first-run theaters, it went to second-run. So that is the one and only time I tried it, against my better judgement, and it didn't work. So from then on I never played those parts.
If it resembles any other movie I suppose it's Baby Face, in which Stanners learns similarly how a girl from the wrong side of the tracks gets ahead. In both films the girls seek frequent counsel from a benevolent but disapproving old man: in Loretta's case, Fuzzy, played by Henry Travers; in Barbara's, Alphonse Ethier's Adolf.
But far more than it resembles any other film, Born To Be Bad is unlike any other film. It's a film lost in time. Loretta's kid gets knocked down by one of Cary's milk vans, and even though he's not hurt she opts to take Cary to the cleaners by pretending he's crippled for life, enlisting the help of a crooked lawyer played with his customary effervescence by the great Jewish comic actor Harry Green. (Apparently, Green really did practice law before opting to try showbiz.)
But this Fortune Cookie-style scam comes to nothing when Cary has the boy surreptitiously filmed bombing about on roller skates. The suit is dismissed and the court takes Loretta's son away from her, banging him up in a reformatory!
From here, the film skids into a parallel universe. First Loretta turns up at Cary's office and pulls a gun on him, threatening him that if he doesn't get her son back she'll kill him. Then Cary decides to adopt him himself, and takes him to live at the mansion. He soon rather takes to the high life, but when Loretta comes to visit she convinces him to attempt a break-out, locking Mrs Cary in a cupboard and helping himself to some of her silverware en-route. (Cary doesn't even get cross about this, just explains to the lad that he's only really stealing from himself.)
But Loretta's not finished. Next she decides to seduce Cary and capture the conquest on a concealed home-recording phonograph record, in order to blackmail him. The very essence of a decent, upstanding milk tycoon he may be, but even Malcolm can only hold out so long against Loretta in a series of slinky cocktail dresses...
Still, Hollywood is Hollywood, and by the end, she has tearfully decided that the kid belongs with Cary after all. More happens in 58 minutes of this than in the complete works of Ross Hunter.