For the past year I have been saying if I got the chance to go to film school and study film history I would love to focus on 1930s Pre- Code and Screwball comedy films. I love Pre- Code films they usually had really good stories and it is so interesting to see actors and actresses who I am so used to seeing being good and in sweet stories with happy endings being all bad and risqué. Born to Be Bad is one of those lovely Pre-Code films that really makes me wish I had become interested in classic films some time ago.
Loretta Young plays Letty Strong. Letty is a young mother in her early twenties with a seven year old son named Mickey. Her life has not gone in a great path: at fifteen she wound up pregnant with nowhere to go until a nice man who owned a bookstore took her and Mickey in. As Mickey grew up she taught him to lie and cheat and do whatever he has to to survive in the world. Letty brings many different men through her apartment and Mickey skips school do to what he wants. A truant officer brings Mickey home after he caught the boy walking the streets. Letty pretends to be a decent mother and yell at him but once the officer leaves she stops and definitely does not care. The bookstore owner, affectionately called Fuzzy Face, begs Letty to give Mickey some structure in his life. The boy is the talk of the town no one wants him around their kids. Letty does not care she thinks of herself and how she has gone through life she does not want her son to wind up like she did. In reality Mickey is heading towards life in jail eventually.
One day Mickey goes out roller skating. He grabs a string attached to the end of a truck. Letty sees him out the window and tells him to get away from the truck. Mickey disobeys his mother and as the truck pulls away he gets hit by a milk truck driving the opposite way. Letty runs out to her son worried that he may be dead. Mickey is alright he has a gash on his head and he is just shaken up. The man driving the milk truck is Malcolm Trevor (Cary Grant) who owns the milk company. Letty sees this accident as an opportunity to take the company to the bank and earn a lot of money by suing him. The plan almost works but it backfires when Malcolm’s attorney has evidence that Mickey has been perfectly fine and playing for the past few weeks. The court sees Letty has an unfit mother, which she really is, and takes her son away from her.
Now all Letty wants is her son back she is lost without him. In desperation she goes to Malcolm to get her son out of social services. Malcolm gets Mickey out but the boy has to live with him and his wife and Letty can come and visit him whenever she wants. Letty sees this arrangement as another way to get money out Malcolm and uses her son worse than before to do so.
Alright, so the story is not that mind blowing but I really liked it. This was the first time I ever watched Loretta Young in a film. I did not know what to expect from her and I found myself liking her acting a lot she was very believable. I have read about Young and know that she played the good girl roles and that she was very religious but I liked seeing her as the bad mother. She was sexy and seductive with Cary Grant and often wore revealing (1930s revealing, now) clothing. She knew what she wanted and had to do and she did it. Even though Letty was not a good mother I still rooted for her to be with her son and get him back because she really loved him but in the end she did what was right. Cary Grant’s role of Malcolm Trevor is a bit unusual for him; when Letty stays at his place for a few days he falls in love with her and he tells his wife. This is a role that is quite different from what we tend to see him play.
Born to Be Bad is one of a dozen Pre-Codes that are so good and makes me curse the Hayes Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency. This type of film would not be seen until twenty years later when the studios collapsed and the Code was thrown out the window. I can never help but wonder what films would have been like such as Hitchcock’s Suspicion and Rebecca or The Thin Man or Casablanca without the strict code. It is so much fun seeing characters that have “sinned” or are “no good” morally get away things and not have to pay. The story of Born to Be Bad and the character of Letty had a lot of potential and while the Hayes Code was not fully enforced when this was made they did hold back on many things or it felt as if they did.
Born to Be Bad is a Pre-Code not to be missed especially for Loretta Young’s performance.