Just how bad was she?
US / 90 minutes / bw / Fox Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Edwin J. Burke Story: Bad Girl (1928) by Viña Delmar and Bad Girl (1930 play) by Viña Delmar and Brian Marlowe (i.e., Brian Marlow) Cine: Chester Lyons Cast: James Dunn, Sally Eilers, Minna Gombell, William Pawley, George Irving, Frank Darien, Louis Natheaux, Billy Watson, Charles Sullivan, Frank Austin, Sarah Padden, Bud Eilers, Sue Borzage.
Based on a novel of, apparently, such unbridled salaciousness that it was—gasp!—briefly banned in Boston, the pre-Code movie Bad Girl tells a story that would have seemed pretty tame even post-Code. Despite the title, its heroine is bad only briefly, if at all. Yet the movie’s pretty interesting in its own right as a sort of slice-of-life drama and, although it (understandably) views a little datedly today, it’s for the most part quite absorbing.
According to the AFI, Lamar Trotti of the Hays Office reviled the novel as “cheap and shoddy writing about cheap and shoddy people” but praised the movie as the “best picture since sound came in . . . it is a marvelous job and will do the industry untold good.” You’d’ve thought that, coming from where it came from, that second quote would have killed the movie stone dead at the box office, but no: on Oscar night, Bad Girl went home with two statues—and major ones at that (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay)—and was nominated for Best Picture.
Dorothy “Dot” Haley (Sally Eilers) has recently been promoted from sales girl to dress model at the store where she works, and for her first show is modeling a bridal dress. As her best friend Edna Driggs (Gombell) remarks, “Say, if I could look like you in a wedding gown, I’d be a bigamist.”
Dot (Sally Eilers) shows off a bridal dress.
So far as Dot’s concerned, the compliment’s welcome, but in general she’s fed up with her looks, which attract men like moths to a candle flame:
“Honestly, if I ever met a fella that didn’t try to date me up right off the bat, I think I’d fall on his neck. . . . Men are all alike, rich or poor. When it comes to women they’ve only got one idea in their heads.”
As a determinedly good girl, she’s become a dab hand at fending off the unwanted attentions. One gambit, as we soon discover, is “My husband’s a prizefighter.” (Later on, the mythical husband is “the cop who walks this beat.”)
Coney Island, a sinner’s paradise?
That night Dot and Edna go to Coney Island together to have some fun—Edna, who’s a young widowed mother, for a bit of harmless flirting and Dot seemingly to strum her ukulele. (Shut up at the back there.) Which is what she does in order to attract the attention of a young man who’s spent the entire evening leaning against a post and refusing to talk to any of the “janes.” Edna warns Dot that, with him, “a girl can’t get a tumble” (okay, so the language has changed a bit) and bets her a quarter she can’t get a word out of him. That’s when the badly played ukulele and a badly sung song come into the picture.
Dot becomes eligible for the quarter, but the words she manages to get out of the young man, Eddy Collins (Dunn), are hardly presages of a burgeoning romance. The two happily insult each other for a while, with Dot admitting that she finds Eddy refreshing because he’s the first man she’s ever met who hasn’t tried to, etc., etc., and him responding by pointing to her clothing and her curves: “If you don’t want guys to salute you, take down your flag.”
(Eddy initially introduces himself as Joe. This little deception seems to have no plot function at all, but it does allow Dot a good line: “I used to know a fellow named Joe. He drove a Ford. Did y’ever meet him?”)
So they spend the evening together and at last Eddy takes her back to the tenement where she lives with her po-faced elder brother Jim (Pawley), who’s raised her since their mother died giving birth to her. There’s a long scene as the not-admitting-it lovebirds protract their goodnights at the foot of the tenement stairs, occasionally making room for other occupants to get by, either climbing or descending. One of these is a haggard old man (Austin) with a shrewish wife and, as we later discover, a taste for the hooch. Another seems to be the local harlot, or at least tramp, because Dot tells Eddy that she’s the only person in the building who’ll say hello to the woman. As far as I can establish, this unvirtuous lass is played by director Borzage’s kid sister Sue—an odd bit of casting for a director to make, you’d think, albeit not as odd as casting Eilers’s kid brother Bud as one of the wolves who tries to pick her up.
Dot (Sally Eilers) and Eddy (James Dunn) at the foot of the tenement stairs.
This very long, essentially static scene is one of the signs that the movie, rather than being based directly on the source novel, was adapted from the successful stage play. Longish static scenes proliferate throughout; this one’s probably the longest but also arguably the most successful, because Borzage and cinematographer Lyons make a strength of the staticness, barely moving the camera. (The only significant shift of viewpoint is when an old lady, Mrs. Gardner [Padden], comes to the phone to transmit the news of her mother’s death.) Another sign of the movie’s stage origins is that the two principals tend not so much to speak their lines as declaim them, as if concerned that the folk at the rear of the hall might not hear.
Eddy (James Dunn), displaying some charm for once.
While it’s obvious that Eddy is nuts about Dot, the last thing he’ll do is say so—addressing her with nicknames such as “Unconscious” and “Stupid.” He’s a young man with high ambitions. Currently he works at the radio store owned by Mr. Lathrop (Darien), but he’s saving up all his pennies to buy a radio store of his own. He doesn’t have time or money for girls and gallivanting—well, unless the girl is Dot.
One night he agrees to meet her for a date outside a candy store, but gets so involved in tinkering with a radio that he’s brought home for repair that he forgets the time. After standing outside in the pouring rain awhile, a more than somewhat peeved Dot comes to his room to give him an earful and . . .
Dot (Sally Eilers) regards Eddy (James Dunn) with love in her eyes.
Pointing to the window and the pouring rain beyond, Eddy suggests that, rather than go out on a date, “Let’s stay here where they’ve got ashtrays and things”—at which he drops his cigarette butt on the floor and grinds it out with his shoe. So she stays.
Although we’re never told so directly, the implication is that, between now and their arrival at Dot’s tenement at 4am, an unspeakable act has happened that gives the movie its title.
All Dot’s seemingly worried about, though, is that stern disciplinarian brother Jim is going to bawl her out for getting home so late. As indeed he does. When he hears that she and Eddy, whom he hasn’t met, plan to marry, he throws her out of the house. He does this in front of Edna, for whom he has a passion and whom he invited over to lend moral support as he fretted over where Dot could have gotten to. Edna, appalled by his behavior, breaks off their fledgling relationship. “See you in the cemetery,” she says as she breezes out.
Minna Gombell is quite splendid as Edna, here losing all affection for . . .
. . . Dot’s brother Jim (William Pawley), who’s behaving like a pig.
And so, the next morning, Eddy and Dot get married, thereafter settling in the new and bigger room he’s rented. More or less at the same time that Eddy has managed to save up enough money for his radio store, Dot discovers she’s pregnant. Through misunderstanding, Eddy believes she craves a home of their own, so he forfeits the store to buy a luxury apartment instead. In order to give her the best doctor money can buy, he signs up a society doctor called Burgess (Irving) to handle the birth, then, to earn Burgess’s fees, volunteers to go into the ring with a professional pugilist for $10 a round . . .
There’s a nice little interlude here. The prizefighter, Mike (Sullivan), on learning what Eddy wants the money for, generously agrees to pull punches and keep him conscious for as many rounds as possible.
Mike (Charles Sullivan) tells Eddy (James Dunn) he has two kids of his own, so is in complete sympathy with Eddy’s plight.
Of course, when Eddy turns up at the hospital with a bruised face, Dot thinks the worst, that he’s been out bar-hopping and gotten into a brawl. Since he’s never shown any signs of such behavior before, this seems a bogus plot point. It’s one of several. Whatever:
And so on it goes, until inevitably we get to the happy ending.
Dot (Sally Eilers), the happy new mother.
What glues everything together is not so much the story—which has times of triteness and a couple of manufactured plot crises (like the one just noted) that irk through their obvious artificiality—as the figure of Edna, who has almost as much screen time as either of the principals and is, so to speak, the rock against which their emotional waves break. Eddy chides her for being a control freak and Dot’s favorite phrase seems to be “Edna says . . .” In reality they both need her, Eddy as much as Dot, and so does the movie. For a long while I tried to figure out whether it was the role or the actress that made this so—Gombell’s in a class of her own here—and came to the conclusion it was probably a bit of both. The character is in effect Dot’s big sister, and she’s also an essential counterbalance to Eddy, who’s unmistakably a control freak himself.
Dot (Sally Eilers) and Eddy (James Dunn) admire the view from the roof of their new apartment building.
This was Dunn’s debut feature—he’d been in a few shorts earlier—and it looked as if he was going to be the Next Big Thing. As the 1930s progressed, however, his career declined while his reliance on alcohol grew. He made something of a comeback in the mid-1940s, winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role (typecast as an alcoholic) in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but it didn’t last long. He was more or less bankrupt when the flowering of television gave his fortunes a new direction, and thereafter life became easier for him. In Bad Girl we see some of the strengths of his acting but also some of its weaknesses; the scene in which Eddy starts sobbing in front of Dr. Burgess is quite embarrassingly poorly executed.
Fox produced a Spanish-language version, Marido y Mujer (1932), alongside Bad Girl; it was directed by Bert E. Sebell and had George J. Lewis (credited as Jorge Lewis), Conchita Montenegro and Rosita Granada in the three main roles. Bad Girl was remade as Manhattan Heartbeat in 1940, with director David Burton and Robert Sterling, Virginia Gilmore and Joan Davis as leads.