One of the most oft-revived of the pre-Technicolor Nicholas Ray efforts, Born to Be Bad offers us the spectacle of Joan Fontaine portraying a character described as “a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg O’ My Heart”. For the benefit of her wealthy husband Zachary Scott and his family, Fontaine adopts a facade of wide-eyed sweetness. Bored with her hubby, she inaugurates a romance with novelist Robert Ryan. All her carefully crafted calculations come acropper when both men discover that she’s a bitch among bitches. She might have gotten away with all her machinations, but the censors said uh-uh. Originally slated for filming in 1946, with Henry Fonda scheduled to play the Robert Ryan part, Born to Bad was cancelled, then resurfaced as Bed as Roses in 1948, this time with Barbara Bel Geddes in the Fontaine role. RKO head Howard Hughes’ decision to replace Bel Geddes with the more bankable Fontaine was one of the reasons that producer Dore Schary left RKO in favor of MGM. Based on Anne Parrish’s novel All Kneeling, Born to be Bad is so overheated at times that it threatens to lapse into self-parody; though this never happens, the film was the basis for one of TV star Carol Burnett’s funniest and most devastating movie takeoffs, Raised to be Rotten
Based on the novel All Kneeling by Anne Parrish, Born to Be Bad (1950) is the story of Christabel, a gold-digging femme fatale who steals another woman’s fiance and marries him, while continuing to dally with her novelist boyfriend. Like many films made at RKO during the chaotic regime of Howard Hughes, Born to Be Bad has a long and convoluted history, filled with behind-the-scenes sex, intrigue and betrayal as juicy as any on the screen.
Actress Joan Fontaine had bought the rights to the novel, then sold them to RKO. Born to Be Bad was scheduled to go into production in 1946, was put on hold twice, and had gone through seven screenwriters when it finally went into production early in 1949. By that time, Hughes had bought the studio. According to Fontaine, he had been proposing to her for ten years (he had also wooed Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland), and now he continued his pursuit. By that time, Fontaine’s marriage to producer William Dozier was rocky, and in her memoirs she implied that when she told her husband about Hughes’ latest proposal, the two of them decided that she would agree to divorce Dozier and marry Hughes if he hired Dozier to run the studio. Fontaine wrote that she was not in love with Hughes, and was unwilling to have an affair with him before she was divorced, because she did not want to risk losing custody of her daughter. So negotiations broke down, the relationship with Hughes never went anywhere, and Fontaine’s marriage eventually ended. Dozier, however, did end up working at RKO. As for Born to Be Bad, Fontaine writes that “the only acceptable part of the film was my wardrobe designed by Tina Leser.” (Fontaine’s costumes are credited to New York couturier Hattie Carnegie.)
The rest of the cast included former Warner Brothers ingenue Joan Leslie, giving a strong performance as the discarded fiancee, and Zachary Scott as the rich man who becomes Christabel’s prey. Mel Ferrer, recently signed by Hughes to a contract, played an artist who paints Christabel’s portrait and observes her villainy. Ferrer was also a writer and director, and his second directorial effort, The Secret Fury (1950), was released in the same year as Born to Be Bad. Ferrer was also the fifth and only credited director on the Hughes fiasco, Vendetta (1950).
Director Nicholas Ray insisted on Robert Ryan for the part of the novelist who falls in love with Christabel. Born to Be Bad was the first of five films Ray and Ryan made together, and the start of a lasting friendship. Ryan’s rugged good looks and ability to portray complex and often conflicting emotions made him an ideal Ray protagonist. His performance as the troubled cop in Ray’s film noir On Dangerous Ground (1952) is one of Ryan’s best.
Born to Be Bad was the fourth film directed by Ray, who had made an auspicious debut the previous year with the powerful They Live by Night (1949). Already, though, Ray had demonstrated a strikingly original visual style, and an ability to convey emotional intensity even when working with the most banal material. The opening scenes in Born to Be Bad are a bravura exercise in style, as he introduces the main characters preparing for and attending a party at the apartment of Leslie’s character. The brilliantly choreographed and lit movement through the apartment hallway with many doors leading off it provides a visual metaphor for the characters’ tangled relationships. The work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had been working in films since the early 1920s, and whose work on Out of the Past (1947) helped define film noir, is stunning in this sequence.
As was becoming typical of Ray’s working method, he agonized over every scene of Born to Be Bad, which producer Robert Sparks was treating as just another romantic melodrama. After the film was finished, Hughes, typically, began tinkering. He ordered reshoots with other directors. He changed the ending. Ray asked for the right of final cut, but was denied. Somehow, an ending without retribution for Christabel managed to slip past the censors. When the film was finally released, critics dismissed it as just another soap opera. But over the years, as the cult of Nicholas Ray has grown, Born to Be Bad has undergone a critical re-evaluation. Franklin Jarlett, in his book on the life and career of Robert Ryan, writes “Born to Be Bad was well-written, fast paced, and convincingly played….In Nicholas Ray’s perceptive hands, it emerged as a morality play.” Born to Be Bad even received the ultimate movie lovers’ accolade, when it was parodied on the Carol Burnett TV show, as “Raised to Be Rotten.”
— Margarita Landazuri (Turner Classic Movies)