The Bette Davis Project: The Bad Sister (1931)

Synopsis:

Sidney Fox (Call it Murder) plays an ambitious young woman, Marianne Madison, who is desperate to escape the simplicity of her hometown in Indiana, USA. When Marianne falls in love with a travelling businessman, Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca), she carefully plans her escape, but things don’t turn out quite the way Marianne envisioned them.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This Pre-code melodrama, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1913 novel The Flirt, is mostly remembered as the film debut of one of cinema’s more enduring legends: Bette Davis. The actress spent the rest of her career apologizing for The Bad Sister, but this is by no means a bad film. It is no classic either, but I quite enjoyed it.

The Bad Sister (1931)

The Bad Sister, written by Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, and Edwin H. Knopf, directed by Hobart Henley, shares many similarities with George Stevens’s Alice Adams (1935), which is also based upon Tarkington’s work. Both movies revolve around frustrated small-town women trying to escape their humble surroundings. While Stevens’s film is blessed with high production values, top-notch direction and a terrific performance by Katharine Hepburn, The Bad Sister is nothing but mindless entertainment.

Fox’s colorless work is a great liability. She’s just not up to the challenge. I found her mannered and amateurish. Legend says that Fox got the role because she was producer Carl Laemmle, Jr’s girlfriend. Fox never achieved stardom — her best remembered film is Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. She retired in 1934 and died of an overdose of sleeping pills shortly after.

If you expect to see any signs of genius in Davis’s work you’ll be sorely disappointed. She looks uncomfortable yet her role marks the beginning of the actor’s long history playing sexually repressed women with romantic aspirations. Davis’s stiffness is not entirely her fault. A microphone hidden on her chest prevented Davis from moving more natural. Universal, a second-tier studio, had not mastered the use of sound yet. The film also provided Bogie with one of his very first film roles. Unlike Davis, he looks at ease playing one of his earliest baddies.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Regardless of its flaws, The Bad Sister is an entertaining soap opera, with good performances, mostly of interest to fans of Davis and Bogie. The cast also includes Zasu Pitts (Greed), Slim Summerville (Captain January), Conrad Nagel (All That Heaven Allows), and Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred). Photographed by legendary cameraman Karl Freund (All Quiet on the Western Front and Dracula). B&W, 68 minutes, Not Rated.

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