The Bad Sister (1931)


An ambitious young woman, Marianne Madison (Sidney Fox, Call it Murder), is desperate to escape the simplicity of her small hometown in middle America. After falling in love with a travelling businessman, Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of Sierra Madre), Marianne carefully plans for the future, but things don’t turn out quite the way the young woman envisioned them.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’ve never found a man I can fall in love with.”

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 most 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’s an entertaining if undistinguished little movie.

The Bad Sister (1931)

The Bad Sister 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 and a terrific performance by Katharine Hepburn in the title role, The Bad Sister is nothing but mindless entertainment.

The film is relatively well-directed by Hobart Henley (The Big Pond). Sidney Fox’s clunky performance is the film’s biggest flaw. I found her mannered and amateurish. Fox allegedly got the role because she was the movie’s producer Carl Laemmle, Jr’s girlfriend. Fox never achieved stardom — her best remembered film is the 1932 horror classic Murders in the Rue Morgue. Fox suddenly and unexpectedly retired in 1934 and died of an overdose of sleeping pills shortly after.

If you expect to see any signs of genius in Bette Davis’s work, you’ll be sorely disappointed. She looks uncomfortable and is poorly photographed by legendary cameraman Karl Freund (Dracula and The Mummy). That being said, Davis’s role as the heroine’s ugly-duckling sister marks the beginning of the actor’s long history of playing sexually repressed women with romantic aspirations.

Davis’s stiffness is not entirely her fault, though. A microphone hidden in her blouse prevented Davis from moving more naturally. The Bad Sister also provided Humphrey Bogart with one of his very first film roles and, unlike Davis, Bogart looks at ease playing one of his earliest baddies. The cast also includes Zasu Pitts (Greed), Slim Summerville (Captain January) and Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Despite its flaws, The Bad Sister is an entertaining soap-opera with good performances. It’s also a great curiosity: you get to see legendary actors Davis and Bogie at the beginning of their long careers. Highly recommended to fans of either actor! Fans of Pre-Code Hollywood will enjoy it too. B&W, 68 minutes, Not Rated.

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