The Bad Sister (1931)

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Well, baddish . . .
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US / 65 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Hobart Henley Pr: Carl Laemmle Jr Scr: Edwin Knopf, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock Story: The Flirt (1913) by Booth Tarkington Cine: Karl Freund Cast: Conrad Nagel, Sidney Fox, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Winninger, Emma Dunn, ZaSu Pitts, “Slim” Summerville, Bert Roach, David Durand, Helene Chadwick.

This was the third time Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt had been brought to the screen—the precursors had been

  • The Flirt (1916) dir Phillips Smalley, with Lois Weber, Marie Walcamp, Grace Benham and Juan de la Cruz, and
  • The Flirt (1922) dir Hobart Henley (who also directed The Bad Sister), with Eileen Percy, Helen Jerome Eddy and Lloyd Whitlock.

The movie has many great strengths and a few weaknesses, but really The Bad Sister is one of those pieces whose significance goes far beyond the artistic creation itself. Here we have the first screen role for Bette Davis and an early screen role for Humphrey Bogart, and it could so easily have been the last screen role for both. It was also the first screen role for poor Sidney Fox, the Star Who Never Was.

Sidney Fox as Marianne.

In Council City, Ohio, realtor John Madison (Winninger) is respected throughout the community as a man of utmost probity. With his wife (Dunn) he has raised three daughters: Amy (Chadwick), now married to plumber Sam (Summerville), vivacious, “highly strung” Marianne (Fox) and the drabber Laura (Davis). Much younger is son Hedrick (Durand). Rounding out the household is the long-suffering maid, Minnie (Pitts).

Although her parents cannot see this, Marianne is a spoilt, manipulative, self-regarding, materialistic, egocentric little shrew, an emotional terrorist driven to faints whenever she’s opposed. Minnie’s the only person in the household who seems to have her sized up right:

Minnie: “Hmph! I’ll bet she ain’t any more sicker than I am, the lazy good-for-nothing thing.”

ZaSu Pitts as Minnie.

Marianne is currently supposed to be going steady with plump insurance man Wade Trumbull (Roach) but is secretly two-timing him with attractive young physician Dick Lindley (Nagel). Out on a date with Dick one night she runs into out-of-towner Val Corliss (Bogart), and the electricity between them is immediate . . . so now she’s three-timing Wade.

A further complication is that Laura has long nurtured a secret—through pretty bloody obvious—passion for Dick Lindley, the turmoils of which she has confined to her secret diary.

Dick (Conrad Nagel) learns the truth about how Laura (Bette Davis) feels for him.

The big allure of Corliss for Marianne seems to be that he comes from somewhere other than Council City, Ohio. He tells the Madison family he’s a vice-president of the Electro Household Corporation and is here prospecting for a suitable place to build the company’s new factory. He even suggests John Madison might be made of suitable material to become one of the company’s senior officers.

Corliss is of course a cad and a conman. Thanks to Marianne forging her father’s signature to a letter Corliss has typed out, one that testifies to Corliss’s great probity and the soundness of the Electro Household Corporation for investors, the city’s businessmen are robbed blind. By then Corliss and Marianne have eloped to Columbus where, after a wild night in a hotel room, he vanishes from her life.

Humphrey Bogart as Val Corliss.

When Marianne returns home she must find her place in a freshly established order . . .

The ending of the movie is a bit rushed, but otherwise this is pleasant enough entertainment—think of 1942’s The Man Who Came to Dinner dir William Keighley, another Bette Davis vehicle, and you won’t go far wrong so far as the feel of the production is concerned. However, here the comedy is far quieter and there are some moments of genuine tragedy—for example, Amy’s death in childbirth. The blending of the comic and tragic elements is superbly done: there’s never the sense, as there can be in such instances, that we’re watching two movies that shouldn’t have been combined.

Helene Chadwick as Amy and Slim Summerville as Sam.

The movie’s big attractions for the modern viewer are of course the performances of Davis and Bogart, but it’s worth trying to switch off one’s hindsight for a moment and look at the other players. ZaSu Pitts is tremendous in her supporting role, and often comes close to stealing the show; because Pitts became so widely known as a farceuse in the talkies, we forget that she was highly regarded for her dramatic work in such silents as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). In The Bad Sister she produces a gently comic character who also serves as a sort of occasional Greek chorus. As with the comedy and tragedy in the movie as a whole, the balance of the two in Pitts’s performance is impeccable.

David Durand as Hedrick.

David Durand, as the bratty little brother, is another to deliver a splendid turn, albeit one that’s less nuanced. Hedrick is played mainly for laughs—there’s a gloriously funny brief sequence when Hedrick arrives home to find a cop on the doorstep and immediately assumes the cause must be one of his own malfeasances—but Durand handles well, too, the scene in which he realizes that giving Laura’s diary, and thus her innermost secrets, to Dick was an unfunny prank that could have serious consequences for the sister he loves.

Bert Roach as Wade.

Charles Winninger, in a fine piece of casting, delivers the kind of excellent turn as paterfamilias that we expect from this topnotch character actor. Conrad Nagel is one of those actors whose merits I’ve never been able to appreciate, but he’s perfectly adequate here as a male romantic interest.

Charles Winninger as John Madison.

Emma Dunn as Mrs. Madison.

The movie belongs, though, to Sidney Fox. It’s perfectly easy to understand why, when Universal brought her across to Hollywood from New York, they assumed she was going to be a major star. Here she delivers a captivating turn: we can immediately see why Wade, Dick, Corliss and—in a rather different sense—her father are so besotted by Marianne. For all her tantrums and affectations, Marianne remains an enticing figure, one who’s full of life and eager to live it to the maximum possible—or at least to the maximum that’s convenient, and consonant with her self-image. By the end of the movie I felt almost bruised by having been in the proximity of Marianne’s character. The portrayal is something of a triumph.

Dick (Conrad Nagel) starts to tell Marianne (Sidney Fox) a few hard truths.

However, that bright career of stardom was not to be. Scandal beset Fox—at one point Hollywood rumor had it that “for professional reasons” she was sleeping not just with Carl Laemmle Jr but with his father, Carl Laemmle Sr. At the age of just 34, trapped in an unhappy marriage and with an at best undistinguished screen history behind her, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. Although the authorities declined to declare this as a suicide, there seems little doubt that it was.

Conrad Nagel as Dick.

So what of the two actors who did go on to become megastars?

After the shooting was done, producer Carl Laemmle Jr, according to an account of Conrad Nagel’s cited by Ed Sikov in his Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (2008), called Davis and Bogart separately to his office and explained to them that “they had nothing to offer. They were colorless. No fault of theirs. They just didn’t photograph. He suggested they go back to New York.” It’s a misjudgment to rank alongside that of the 1960s Decca executive who told Brian Epstein the Beatles were no-hopers. Bogart was able to keep on plugging on despite Laemmle’s decree. For Davis’s career it could very easily have been the end—she herself thought she was hopeless in the movie, and walked out of the premiere before the finish—were it not that cinematographer Karl Freund spoke up for her: there was something enchanting about her eyes, he maintained, that the camera loved.

Bette Davis as Laura.

There’s a tale that may be apocryphal. At one point Laura has to change the diaper of the deceased Amy’s baby. Supposedly it was when Davis peeled back the diaper of the infant that she first clapped eyes on male genitalia; she’d thought the baby was a girl. The swap was a stunt arranged by Bogart, so the tale goes, whom Davis had declared to be rather uncouth. (According to Nagel, again as cited by Sikov, Bogart thought, “That dame is too uptight. What she needs is a good screw from a man who knows how to do it.” Did someone say “uncouth”?)

And yet, again putting hindsight to one side, we can understand what Laemmle Jr was getting at. In The Bad Sister Davis’s depiction of demureness is sometimes clumsily unconvincing, as if she hadn’t shaken off the conventions of the stage and its requirement for exaggeration. Elsewhere in the movie she shows flashes of brilliance, but really she’s still a work in progress. As for Bogart, in this movie he has yet to grow into his face: the cragginess that would make it so distinctive is a thing of the future. And the nasality of his voice seems offputting in the younger man.

The Bad Sister is required viewing because of its cast. As I say, it’s also a thoroughly enjoyable minor movie in its own right.

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6 thoughts on “The Bad Sister (1931)

    • It’s the kind of thing that may very well turn up on your telly late one night when the cocoa’s freshly made and the popcorn’s by your elbow . . .

  1. Ha! Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart don’t photograph well on screen. That’s a good one.

    I’m not at all familiar with ZaSu Pitts’ dramatic work. I’ll have to remedy that. I love her in everything I’ve seen so far.

    • I do hope you get a chance to watch the movie, Ruth, because I’d be interested to learn your opinions of Davis and Bogart in it — I know that, had I watched it back in 1931, I’d never have predicted them for stardom, let alone megasupercalifragilisticexpialidocious stardom.

      Pitts’ role here isn’t exactly dramatic: her character’s a bit of an eccentric. The role’s not comic relief or anything like it, but it’s clearly meant to elicit an affectionate smile.

      I’m pretty keen on Pitts, too!

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