Born to be Bad (1934): Lowell Sherman’s Woman Picture Starring Loretta Young

Lowell Sherman’s Born to Be Bad is a quintessential woman picture of 1934, the story of a tough dress model named Letty Strong (Loretta Young), who puts all her energy into educating her son Mickey (Jackie Kelk) how to survive this harsh world. “Always be on guard to fight back,” she tells him, “never let anyone get with anything.”

Single and with not much money to support her son, Letty is taken in by Fuzzy (Henry Travers), an elderly bookshop owner, who’s strong enough to point out the error pf her ways.

When Letty’s boy is hurt by a truck driven by Malcolm Trevor (Cary Grant), the president of a large company, Letty, with the assistance of a shady lawyer and an unscrupulous doctor, tries to obtain damages. Nonetheless, the hearings at court lead to losing her son to an institution. Out of guilt and responsibility, Trevor talks his wife Alice (Marion Burns) into assuming responsibility for the boy at their own estate, thus becoming his surrogate parents.

At first Letty is upset, and out of control, she enters into Malcolm’s home and tries to take the boy away. What that fails, she compels Malcolm to fall in love with her and blackmails him with a phonograph records of his pleas. Malcom is forced to tell his wife the truth. Meanwhile, the boy learns what good behavior and manners are. Excessive melodramatics kick in, when Alice jumps into the swimming pool to save Mickey from drowning.

Realizing what’s good for her son, Letty leaves the Trevors and goes back to Fuzzy, asking him for a job. The movie portrays Letty’s decision as an act of sacrifice and reformation, though by today’s standards it feels more like masochism.

Considering the story’s running time, 61 minutes, a lot is happening onscreen, and Sherman’s direction, though brisk in pacing, is dull in other ways. The emphasis of acting is a result of the fact that both Sherman and Ralph Graves, who wrote the banal screenplay, were thespians.

It doesn’t help much that Jackie Kelk is unappealing and dislikeable and that Cary Grant either seems miscast or can’t find color or meaning in his role. As the self-sacrificing, working mother, Young looks too glamorous for what’s an uncharacteristic role in her repertoire; Joan Crawford, who played such roles, would have been more suitable. Fortunately, both Grant, then a young actor, and Young, who began acting in the silent era, would go on to make more lucrative films and careers,

Even by standards of early Depression melodramas, Born to Be Bad is a B-picture with A-level stars.

Postscript:

It just happens that one of the films in the Dramatic Competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Sherrybaby, told the story of single drug-addict mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal in an astonishing performance) is forced to give her young daughter to her brother and sister-in-law upon release from jail, when she realizes she is not capable yet of being a responsible mother.