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DVD Review: Born to Be Bad (Warner Archive)

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From a script originally titled Bed of Roses, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film noir Born to Be Bad is a sordid tale that has all the parts for a juicy melodrama. But despite a couple of standout performances, the chemistry just isn’t there.

Actress Joan Fontaine had a piece of the screen rights to the 1928 women’s novel All Kneeling, and had earned enough Hollywood clout to have her pick of directors. She chose Nicholas Ray, Fontaine’s performance as the innocent-seeming but scheming Christabel is distant and uninvolving.

Ray began work on the movie with a distant approach. According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography of the director, Ray assembled his actors for an unusual theatrical experiment: a cold read of the script without inflection. This was meant to get the actors to relate to each other, but the session alienated Fontaine, who Ray later recalled as a diva: “all her talent dried up in that over-awareness.” We can’t know if this exercise doomed the production, but it certainly didn’t help it.

Ray’s boss at RKO at the time was legendary eccentric Howard Hughes, who wanted Robert Young (who became a television icon late in his career for Father Knows Best) to play the part of novelist Nick Bradley. Young would have given the part of the novelist a slighter disposition, but the director successfully lobbied for the grittier Robert Ryan. Ryan’s novelist is one of two men who instantly see through Christabel’s innocent act. The other one is artist Gobby, deliciously played by Mel Ferrer. What does it mean that the strongest performances in the film see through the central character?

Ray made Born to Be Bad  just months before a film where all of the elements came together to make a masterpiece: In a Lonely Place . Fans of the director may be intrigued by this failure, which did inspire a classic Carol Burnett skit. But vivid performances by Ryan and Ferrer aren’t enough to carry the film. 

Unlike some Warner Archives titles, Born to Be Bad does come with a DVD extra: an alternate ending that includes one more scandal. But quantity doesn’t make up for the sluggish quality of this tepid drama.

Born to Be Bad is available directly from Warner Archive.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.