Born to Be Bad
Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan
(USDVD release date: ; USDVD release date: )
At RKO, Nicholas Ray directed these women’s pictures about unscrupulous schemers who temporarily derail other women’s romances. Warner Archive has released them with a Film Noir label, which is hardly correct, although they sound like they might pass for it in a chiaroscuro’d room. A Woman’s Secret does indeed adopt such expressionist gorgeousness in an early flashback in which Maureen O’Hara takes credit for shooting her protegé Gloria Grahame, but that moment of heightened style is explained by the falseness of the events being depicted.
As produced and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) from a novel by Vicki Baum, this is another movie that uses multiple flashbacks to explore the history of someone famous, in this case a musical star (Grahame) who’s been groomed by a retired star (O’Hara). The men in their lives are Melvyn Douglas (an insouciant composer) and Victor Jory (rich pigeon). The movie unconvincingly implies that Douglas and O’Hara are made for each other, but the story only begins to add up if we understand the symbiotic relation between the female flatmates as going a good deal farther than the Production Code would allow, and even then it still makes not a lick of sense that O’Hara falsely claims responsibility for shooting Grahame—unless the final flashback that explains everything is also a lie.
Ultimately, its secrets may never be given away, turning it into a mystery of human behavior. That’s also what we have in the more straightforward Born to Be Bad, written by Edith Sommer from a novel by Anne Parrish. With infitnite subtlety and reverse psychology, goody two-shoes Joan Fontaine steals the rich boyfriend (Zachary Scott) of Joan Leslie while carrying on a physical passion for rude writer Robert Ryan.
One of two remarkable elements in this San Francisco tale is that witty artist Mel Ferrer is manifestly coded as queer without any swishy stereotyping. This trait that dared not speak its name must be clearer to modern eyes than it was in 1950, yet Fontaine pegs him as “really not interested in women”, to which he responds with a witticism about making husbands think he’s harmless—an astonishingly ambiguous line when you think about it. Seeing through Fontaine from the start, he’s the only one who appears to sympathize with her eternal masquerade. Their barbed complicity is one of the movie’s most curious details.
The second remarkable and even subversive element—which prevents it finally from claiming to be noir—is that the “bad” Fontaine isn’t really punished. She emerges from her comeuppance smelling like a rose, or at least a mink. This is the rare studio-era movie that condones divorce. Even more amazingly, this 1950 RKO item has somehow preserved footage of an alternate ending (offered as a bonus) that elaborates even more cynically on the aftermath and essentially turns the film into a comedy of manners. The trailer also has at least one torrid scene that didn’t make the final cut, with Scott in his pajamas and Fontaine clutching Ryan’s novel.