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When Loretta Young first rose to stardom as a teenager in the late 1920s, her beauty was the most compelling thing about her. But she easily made the transition to talking films, and in the early 1930s proved her acting skill in several pre-code films that would have shocked fans of her 1950s television program who only knew her as a glamorous bastion of moral rectitude.
Released just six weeks before the MPAA began enforcing the Production Code, Born to Be Bad (1934) is one of Young's raciest films. In his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, Mick LaSalle calls Born to Be Bad "Young's most down and dirty role...The character was an unwed mother who worked essentially as a call girl for a department store. She got money and free clothes for pleasing the male buyers who came to town." Young later recalled that the role of Letty had been written for Jean Harlow, and that she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pull it off: "This was a woman who just had to walk into a room and men would drop dead." Young needn't have worried. She plays it tough, sexy and unsentimental, making no effort to soften the hard edges of a woman who uses sex to get what she needs for herself and her son. That includes seducing a married man, played by a heavily made-up Cary Grant, in an early role, who delivers the film's campiest line: "You're bad, bad, bad, bad. You're just a beautiful bad girl!"
As much as Born to Be Bad got away with, there were indications of the crackdown that was to come. The film was twice rejected by Production Code officials and sent back for changes before it was finally approved. According to an article in Daily Variety, additional footage had to be shot, but "no way was found to clean up the sex-hexed story without eliminating the blue scenes." Producer Darryl Zanuck protested that pressure to enforce the Production Code was leading the Hayes Office to reject things that would have been acceptable in the past. After Zanuck agreed to further cuts, including several scenes of Letty in her underwear, Born to Be Bad was given a certificate of approval. It's unclear whether that approval was rescinded once strict enforcement of the Code enforcement began.
Born to Be Bad's notoriety was not helped by the film's poor reviews. Variety panned it: "Loretta Young looks better than ever, but the story gave her too much of a handicap to do anything but look well. Her performance might be called satisfactory under the circumstances, but the same doesn't apply to Cary Grant. He gives a colorless, meaningless performance." Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times heaped scorn on the screenplay by actor Ralph Graves. "If this opus is any criterion of Mr. Graves's literary skill, he is scarcely to be congratulated on having temporarily abandoned his acting. It is a hopelessly unintelligent hodgepodge, wherein Loretta Young and Cary Grant have the misfortune to be cast in the leading roles."
Seen today, however, Born to Be Bad holds a lurid fascination. It's a snapshot of a transitional period in American cinema, just before censorship ended a period of frank eroticism in American film. It's an eye-opening look at early performances by two icons, when Loretta Young was sexy and Cary Grant wasn't. And it offers a rare, fearless, no-holds-barred performance by Young that's a vivid contrast to the elegant grande dames she later played.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Lowell Sherman
Screenplay: Ralph Graves (story and screenplay); Harrison Jacobs (continuity)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Art Direction: Richard Day, Joseph Wright
Music: Alfred Newman (uncredited)
Film Editing: Maurice E. Wright
Cast: Loretta Young (Letty Strong), Cary Grant (Malcolm Trevor), Jackie Kelk (Mickey Strong), Marion Burns (Mrs. Alyce Trevor), Henry Travers (Fuzzy), Paul Harvey (Attoney Brian), Russell Hopton (Steve Karns), Harry Green (Adolph - Letty's Lawyer).
by Margarita Landazuri