Bad Girl (1931): Frank Borzage’s Oscar-Winning Marital Melodrama, Starring Sally Eilers and James Dunn

Bad Girl, Frank Borzage’s well-acted melodrama, from Edwin J. Burke’s scenario, concerns a couple (played by Sally Eilers and James Dunn) who struggle to survive in anticipation of their first child.

Burke’s screenplay was based on the 1928 novel by Vina Delmar, and the 1930 play by Delmar and Brian Marlowe.

Bad Girl
Badgirl movieposter.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Detailed Synopsis

Dorothy Haley (Sally Eilers) and Edna Driggs (Minna Gombell) are store models, first seen in bridal clothes. After work, Dorothy fends off her boss, claiming she’s married to a prizefighter.

Returning from Coney Island on a steamboat, the women make a bet about attracting the attention of a man named Eddie Collins (James Dunn).  Eddie, who works in radio shop and dreams of having a shop on his own, slowly connects with Dorothy.

On a date, Eddie keeps Dorothy late at night, and she’s worried about the reaction of her abusive elder brother-guardian. Indeed, her brother calls her a tramp and evicts her from home. Dorothy suffers some anxiety the next day, when Eddie disappears, but he turns up and the two are happily married.

Dorothy gets pregnant, but she is reluctant to share the news with Eddy, who’s about to open a business. She tells Eddie she’d like to return to work, and he assumes she wants a larger place to live. he then rents a lavish new building and new furniture. There’s misunderstanding, when Eddie finds out he is to become a father, resulting in marital strains. Eddie earns extra money and arranges for the best doctor, without telling Dorothy. After the child is born, Dorothy plans to leave Eddie, but the misunderstanding is cleared up, and they are happy again.

Borzage wanted Spencer Tracy for the lead, but Fox would not release him. Several studios were interested in the rights to the novel and play, but this was in the pre-Code era, and they were scared off by the Hays Office.

Director Borzage (1894-1962), who had also helmed the Janet Gaynor hit “Seventh Heaven,” went to greater glory in future films, such as “A Farewell to Arms” and “Three Comrades” and “The Mortal Storm,” both starring the great Margaret Sullavan.

So did James Dunn (1905-1967), who made his feature debut in this picture, and appeared in several mediocre films before winning the Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the alcoholic father in Kazan’s 1945 melodrama, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Winfield Sheehan
Director: Frank Borzage
Adaptation: Edwin Burke

Oscar Awards: 2


Oscar Context

The winner of the Best Picture was MGM’s all-star drama, “Grand Hotel,” in a year in which eight films vied for the top award: “Arrowsmith,” “The Champ,” “Five Star Final,” “One Hour With You,” “Shanghai Express,” and “The Smiling Lieutenant.”

Directed by Frank Borzage
Written by Edwin J. Burke (continuity & dialogue), Rudolf Sieber (uncredited), based on Bad Girl (1928 novel) by Viña Delmar; Bad Girl (1930 play) by Viña Delmar and Brian Marlowe
Cinematography Chester A. Lyons
Edited by Margaret ClanceyProduction company: Fox Film Corporation

Distributed by Fox Film Corporation

Release date: September 19, 1931 (US)

Running time: 90 minutes
Budget: about $100,000
Box office $1.1 million