“Born to Be Bad” (1950) starring Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie, & Mel Ferrer

Baby-faced Savage in a jungle of intrigue! -A tagline for the movie (featured on the poster)

Donna Foster (Joan Leslie), assistant to publisher John Caine, has agreed that his niece/small-town gal, Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), can stay in her apt while she attends business school in San Fran. Donna won’t need the place much longer; she and her philanthropist fiance, Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), will soon be married. Also, Mr. Caine is preparing Christabel for Donna’s current job. While living w/ Donna, Christabel befriends NOT only Donna and Curtis, but two of her artist pals- struggling painter, Gabriel “Gobby” Broome (Mel Ferrer), and aspiring writer, Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), who lives next door.

Christabel: You don’t care very much for women, do you?

Gobby: My dear girl, apart from painting my major occupation is convincing women’s husbands that I’m harmless.

RKO had originally scheduled this film to be made 2x previously. This film (directed by Nicholas Ray) was shot in 1949, BUT released a year later. Now, I’m NOT a fan of Fontaine (though my mom likes her in certain roles); I prefer her sister (Olivia de Havilland). I decided to watch this b/c it had Ryan (an actor I’ve admired from several fine noir films). Jeff Bridges said that Ryan was his fave actor- wow! Fontaine isn’t a femme fatale, BUT a conniver who projects the persona of a humble, soft-spoken, guile-less woman. As one astute viewer commented: “she’s reminiscent in her way of a non-show biz Eve Harrington” (All About Eve). Unlike Donna (the hard-working career gal), Christabel has zero interest in work; she quits business school (much to her uncle’s disappointment). Just how bad is she though!?

Nick: [to Gobby, as they both look at Gobby’s painting of Christabel] Looks like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg o’ My Heart. Even with two heads you couldn’t look like this – or do you know something I don’t?

What does this (above) comment mean? I looked up the references. Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) was a Spanish-Italian noblewoman of the House of Borgia who was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei. According to Mandell Creighton in History of the Papacy, “Lucrezia… was personally popular through her beauty and her affability. Her long golden hair, her sweet childish face, her pleasant expression and her graceful ways, seem to have struck all who saw her.” Lucrezia was known for her cunning and became notorious for suspicious deaths and political intrigue in 16th c. Italy. Peg o’ My Heart was a 1933 Pre-Code film adaptation (there are earlier versions also) of a play by J. Hartley Manners. Marion Davies plays a poor/orphan/Irish girl who stands to inherit a fortune from her wealthy English relatives, if she satisfies certain conditions.

Donna: [to Christabel] I can just hear you, being so helpful – and so helpless. Helping to mess up people’s lives for your own selfish purposes. And just about as “helpless” as a wildcat. Somebody should have told the birds and bees about YOU!

The other reason to see this film (aside from Ryan) is the terrific dialogue; the best (and sometimes biting) lines are given to Gobby (the observer) and Nick. This movie was considered controversial; Gobby is (subtly) characterized as gay and there are (obvious) hints at extramarital sex. Ann Parrish wrote the source novel, All Kneeling, which was adapted by Charles Schnee. The screenplay was by Edith Sommar w/ additional dialogue contributed by Robert Soderberg and George Oppenheimer (who had a prolific writing career in movies/TV shows).

Robert Ryan was an actor first, a star second. He could play the good guy. He could play the bad guy. You name it, he could play it. That’s what good acting is all about. -Ernest Borgnine, co-star of Ryan in 3 movies (TCM tribute)

Nick: [to Christabel] You little fake. Don’t you know what you really want? Make up your mind, and make it up now, because I’m a restless guy.

I liked ALL the scenes between Fontaine (about 5’3″ tall w/ slight build) and Ryan (6’4″/former collegiate boxer), though physically they make an unlikely couple. In the “meet cute” in Donna’s kitchen, Nick jokes w/ Christabel, BUT she’s a little intimidated. At Donna’s party later that night, he’s eager to get to know her and puts on the charm, BUT she doesn’t stay by his side too long. Notice how Ryan’s hand totally swallows up Fontaine’s? Some time passes and Christabel (finally) goes to have dinner at Nick’s place. Ryan’s chest is heaving as they talk just before their 1st kiss. As the romance begins to sour, we see the undercurrent of danger emerge from Ryan (perhaps his trademark). Nick is the one man that Christabel can’t fool!

There is nothing exceptional re: the directing, though Nicholas Ray went to work on some big movies. Though it is set in San Fran, we don’t get many exterior shots of the city or its landmarks (too bad). I liked most of dresses worn by Fontaine and Leslie. One viewer commented: “Ray must’ve had a sense of humor,” as BOTH Nick and Curtis tightly hold and kiss Christabel in the same way- LOL! Much is done w/ sly/knowing looks, though a few viewers commented that they found Fontaine “campy.” The story moved along at a good pace. I got a big kick out of seeing Ryan in domestic settings, being a friend, and esp. – a love interest. Though he gets to play romance in Clash by Night (1952), Nick here is a more fun/intelligent/sophisticated character. However, the romance (w/ Stanwyck) is darker/hotter in the other film. There was another ending shot by Ray for this movie, but the studio rejected it based on moral grounds. You can rent this movie on Amazon Prime.

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