Bordertown (1935): Archie Mayo’s Melodrama, Starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis

Warner contract director Archie Mayo helmed Bordertown, a melodrama about the career of an ambitious lawyer, starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis.

Laird Doyle and Wallace Smith’s script is based on Robert Lord’s adaptation of the Carroll Graham’s 1934 novel, “Border Town.”

After graduating from Pacific Night Law School in Los Angeles, the ambitious Mexican American Johnny Ramirez loses his first court case because he is ill-prepared. His poor Hispanic client’s truck was destroyed by careless Dale Elwell. Johnny is harassed by the opposing attorney, uppercrust Brook Manville, who is defending his lover, Elwell.

Disbarred for his actions, after losing his temper, he goes to a small town south of the border and finds work as a bouncer in a seedy casino owned by Charlie Roark. Johnny helps transform the dive into a major nightclub called the Silver Slipper that attracts upscale crowd. As a result, Charlie makes him a partner to reward him for his efforts.

Charlie’s lonely, unhappily married wife Marie tries to seduce Johnny, but he resists her advances.  Desperate, she locks her husband in the garage and leaves the car running, asphyxiating him.

Dale Elwell and her society friends, including Brook Manville, visit the club and Johnny becomes infatuated with her. A jealous Marie accuses Johnny of murdering Charlie, but when called to testify at his trial, she collapses on the witness stand.

Johnny returns to Los Angeles and proposes to Dale, who rejects him, citing the dramatic differences in their racial and economic backgrounds.  Trying to get away from him, she is hit and killed by a car.

Johnny, guilty and more conscientious, sells the Silver Slipper, donate the proceeds to a law school, and settle in L.A. among his own people.

In the original script, Johnny Ramirez was disbarred for committing murder and had an affair with Marie Roark, two plot elements that had to be revised before the screenplay was approved by the Production Code.

Paul Muni wanted either Carole Lombard or Lupe Vélez as his co-star, but after watching Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (made by RKO) he convinced studio head Jack Warner to cast her in the role of Marie Roark.

Director Mayo expected Davis to deliver a histrionic over the top performance, but the actress, whose own sister suffered from a mental disorder, offered a subtle, more realistic portrayal of breakdown.

Made on a modest budget of $369,000, Bordertown was profitable at the box-office, earning $1,237,000.

Paul Muni …. Johnny Ramirez
Bette Davis …. Marie Roark
Margaret Lindsay …. Dale Elwell
Eugene Pallette …. Charlie Roark
Robert Barrat …. Padre
Soledad Jiminez …. Mrs. Ramirez
Hobart Cavanaugh …. Harry
Gavin Gordon ….. Brook Manville
William Davidson …. Dr. Carter

Cinematography by Tony Gaudio
Edited by Thomas Richards
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: January 23, 1935
Running time: 90 minutes