Bad Sister (1931): Hobart Henley’s Pre-Code Melodrama, Starring Conrad Nagel and Bette Davis in her Screen Debut

Hobart Henley directed Bad Sister, a pre-Code drama, marking the screen debuts of Bette Davis and Sidney Fox, who was billed over Davis.

Bad Sister

The screenplay by Edwin H. Knopf, Tom Reed, and Raymond L. Schrock is based on Booth Tarkington’s 1913 novel “The Flirt,” which had been filmed in 1916 and then in 1922.

The cast also includes Humphrey Bogart and Zasu Pitts in supporting roles.

Set in the 1930s, Saucy Marianne Madison, bored with her routine life, falls for dashing con artist Valentine Corliss, who has come to town looking for fresh marks to swindle.

She has many suitors including the desirable Dr. Lindley and the portly Mr. Trumbull.

In a chance encounter, she meets Corliss while out on a date with Dr. Lindley. She leaves her date to head home with Valentine.

Corliss soon charms her into faking her well-respected father’s name on a letter of endorsement which he presents to a group of local merchants, who willingly give him money. Corliss then prepares his escape, but not before conning Marianne to come away with him, promise her marriage.

Her sister Laura, sweet and unassuming, is in love with Dr. Lindley who does not return her affections. Her younger brother secrets her personal diary professing her feelings to Dr. Lindley when he visits the house to look after her father. Laura then burns her diary, and with it her hopes of marrying him.

After spending a night together in his Columbus hotel, Valentine abandons Marianne.

Angry, ashamed, no longer a maiden—and unmarried—she returns home and announces to her jilted fiancé Dr. Lindley that she will now marry him. But he informs her that he has fallen in love with her shy sister Laura.

After confessing to her father and the duped investors, Marianne accepts wealthy but portly Wade Trumbull’s proposal. Trumbull bails her father out of his debt, and Marianne becomes genuinely fond of him.

The original title for Bad Sister was What a Flirt, which was changed briefly to Gambling Daughters.

Bette Davis, nervous about her first feature, consulted with studio makeup chief Jack Pierce.  “He surveyed me critically, almost resentfully,” she recalled in 1938 issue of Good Housekeeping.

“Your eyelashes are too short, hair’s a nondescript color, and mouth’s too small. A fat little Dutch girl’s face, and a neck that’s too long,” he told her. He then suggested a different shade of lipstick and advised her to use eye shadow, but their meeting left Davis feeling anxious and lacking self-confidence.

After seeing the completed film, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. commented, “Can you imagine some poor guy going through hell and high water and ending up with Bette at the fade-out?”

In one scene, Davis was required to change a baby, and the fact that the infant was a boy was kept secret from her. When she undid the diaper and saw male genitals for the first time in her life, she was so embarrassed that her face reddened.

Davis and her mother attended a preview in San Bernardino, California. The actress was reportedly so distressed by her performance that they left before the final credits. She later claimed that she cried all the way home.

Bad Sister has been preserved in the Library of Congress collection.

Conrad Nagel as Dr. Dick Lindley
Sidney Fox as Marianne Madison
Bette Davis as Laura Madison
Humphrey Bogart as Valentine Corliss
Charles Winninger as Mr Madison
Emma Dunn as Mrs Madison
ZaSu Pitts as Minnie (Madison family servant)
Slim Summerville as Sam
Bert Roach as Wade Trumbull
David Durand as Hedrick Madison (Marianne and Laura’s  brother)

Directed by Hobart Henley
Written by Edwin H. Knopf, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, based on a novel by Booth Tarkington
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Cinematography Karl Freund
Edited by Ted J. Kent
Music by David Broekman
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date: March 29, 1931
Running time 68 minutes