There is a sweetly comic tension running through Frank Borzage’s romantic comedy-melodrama Bad Girl (1931) that arises from trying to discern how we are to regard the lower-class New York City couple at its center. Adapted from a 1928 novel by Vina Delmar, and a 1930 play by Delmar and Brian Marlowe, Bad Girl follows Dotty (played by Sally Eilers) and Eddie (played by James Dunn), who rush to marriage, move into a too-expensive building, and nervously await the birth of their not-all-that-wanted child. This tension extends to the title of the film itself. Dotty, a shop model, is introduced in an idealized situation in which she models a wedding dress — only to be leered at by male customers. She lives with her paternalistic and abusive older brother, Jim, who warns her of becoming a “bad girl” after she stays out late with Eddie and decides to marry him (as means to avoid Jim’s violent punishment which she has endured before, or perhaps, Borzage tentatively suggests, because she might just love Eddie). Eddie works at a radio shop and, at first, resists Dotty’s lively advances on the ferry boat on which they meet: “If you don’t want me to salute you, take down your flag!”[i] At the film’s conclusion, in which the couple put aside their misunderstandings and grudges to raise their child together, it is clear Borzage wants his audience – affected, just like his protagonists, by the Great Depression – to sympathize with and find hope in their plight, and he does so in a way that appealed to the era’s content restrictions while retaining artistic significance and power.
The film’s ending is an unambiguously “happy” one, but one that is hard-won and richly earned. Along the way are typical romcom barbs, primarily courtesy of Dotty’s sardonic best friend, Edna (played by Minna Gombell), a single-mother: “When it comes to men, they only got one idea in their head.”[ii] A married couple in Dotty’s apartment consists of a drunk older man who staggers in and out of the frame and an offscreen wife who screams from their apartment upstairs. When Dotty informs her brother of her engagement, he warns (and Borzage foreshadows) that “accidents” will happen. Eddie receives one of the film’s sharpest couple of lines. After bringing Dotty back to her apartment after staying at his for the night (where sex may have taken place, though we only see the two cuddling after a series of hazy dissolves), he rebukes her sunny and ambitious worldview: “Sure there’s a lot of things in life besides money, but you gotta have money to find them.”[iii] In the same scene, when a neighbor’s mother has passed away on one floor and a baby has been born on another, Eddie reflects: “Born on the second story… he’ll probably die on the fifth. All his life to climb three flights of stairs.”[iv]
The dialogue in Bad Girl is virtuosic and realizes Depression-era, working-class Americans’ knowing vacillation between optimism and pessimism, and Borzage allows his characters to admit the contradictions between their words and behavior. Eddie initially acts unfeeling towards Dotty but confides to her that “I’d like to be nice to women. You know, say nice things to them, like fellas can. I can’t though. I think of nice things to say, but when it comes to puttin’ them into words, I only say something sarcastic and mean.”[v] Borzage even honors his audience’s passion for movies during a time of “pinching nickels,” in an exchange where Eddie suggests Dotty go to the movies during her free-time (unaware, at the time, of her pregnancy). Clearly this is a film of its hardscrabble time, though with a light, subtle touch of its director (Borzage won his second Academy Award for Best Director for Bad Girl). Several editing and compositional choices deepen the ordinariness and slightness of the film’s narrative. For instance, in the film’s opening shot, we see Dotty wearing a wedding dress, only for it to be revealed that she’s merely modeling it for her job. In an extended scene in which Dotty waits at Edna’s apartment for Eddie, Edna’s son is unsupervised and terrorizes the house (this child is conspicuously absent from the rest of the film; it is perhaps Borzage’s acknowledgment of the predicament of many illegitimate children of the time). One shot displays hands cleaning dishware in a sink; the camera then pulls back to reveal Eddie doing the housework, a gender-reversal gag typical of many screwball comedies. One sharp edit cuts from Dotty admitting to Edna that she doesn’t believe Eddie wants their child to a shot of a baby, which is revealed to be Eddie’s coworker’s child. Since the film has already included one previous ten-week narrative time-jump from the couple’s first date to their marriage, Borzage wants us to question where – temporally and emotionally – we are placed within the central relationship. Later, there is a sad bit of cross-cutting between Dotty and Edna chastising an absent Eddie for not being present before her birth and Eddie getting pummeled in a boxing match and imploring his sympathetic opponent to make the fight last longer, so more money can be earned.
The film reserves some of its most subtle and darkest implications for the subject of motherhood and parenting. During several exchanges in which Dotty and Eddie argue about what to do about their impending child, the two fall silent and it is clear what fills that silence: abortion. Near the film’s end, following Dotty’s birth of their son, there is a briefly suspenseful moment – cut with “breaks” across the theatrical one hundred eighty-degree line, sharp camera movements, and stark point-of-view shots – in which Dotty and Eddie believe that something may be wrong with their newborn child who has been placed in the hospital’s nursery. This moment is defused with a nurse’s reassurance of the child’s good health, but it is a stinging reminder of the dangers of childbearing that afflicted poor couples during the Depression.
Bad Girl, even with its lack of explicit content, language, or sex, has a verbal and visual frankness towards dark subject matter that, per correspondences gathered from its original Production Code Administration files, almost cancelled its production before having crucial revisions made. Studio heads noted that the original novel was clearly the product of a “woman who has had a child, for it reads like a diary.”[vi] This woman-minded perspective extends to the film where Dotty’s fears of pregnancy and birth stem from her mother having died while giving birth to her. Those at the PCA thought the source material’s presence of “illegitimate [children], several illegal operations, and a sordid, painful sequence of obstetrics” would “fail to interest the average motion picture audience.”[vii]
Pointed revisions from the original novel and stage production to the screen adaptation include making Dotty more “naïve and inarticulate”[viii] in contrast to the older and more experienced women around her who provide the film its sharp-tongued humor (however, Dotty does take a defensive stance against men over the course of the film: on two occasions she warns assertive men that her boyfriend is a “prizefighter” – which, ironically, will soon become a reality – and a policeman). The censors’ aversion to the medical dialogue around motherhood and women’s health in the original works lead to the removal of a birth scene that had been performed in the stage production (in the film, we see Dotty recovering post-birth and awaiting to be united with her son). One change that was never realized regarded the title itself. Those in the PCA never took to the title: “neither in the book nor the play is Dot a ‘bad’ girl […] those who have never read the book nor seen the play may expect something far different.”[ix] However, in letters to state cinema boards requesting their approval to screen Bad Girl, each one concludes with the recipients to “please remember that the ‘bad girl’ has, under the influence of the Code and the public consciousness of the producer, been turned into a very good and human little wife.”[x]
Does Borzage’s film take its single and financially-independent protagonist and turn her into that “very good and human little wife”?[xi] Dotty does become a wife and mother over the course of the film, but she does not go soft. In fact, it’s Eddie who has the film’s most overtly emotional scene. Eddie, in another attempt to meet his pregnant wife’s needs, visits a wealthy doctor that only “millionaires” can afford, and when offering to pay him overtime for delivering his and Dotty’s child, begins crying and begging the man for his service. James Dunn plays it sublimely, refusing to let Eddie come off across as pathetic while courageously dropping his stubborn posture and asking someone with far more wealth (in a time of extreme poverty and inequality) simply for help. Borzage makes his lovers equal in marriage, seen in the final shot where the two ride home together with their new son and hold onto each other, forming a united family unit.
At the time of its release, Bad Girl was an immediate critical and commercial success, grossing over a million dollars. In the New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall wrote that despite the film “[dealing] merely with a year in the married life of a humble young couple,” Borzage “succeeds in inoculating his episodes with the necessary suspense.”[xii] Hall praised the performances: “Besides Mr. Dunn’s sterling portrayal, sincere and commendable performances are given by Sally Eilers as [Dotty] and by Minna Gombell as Edna.”[xiii] He also noted the film’s odd title: “It is so well done that it seems a pity that the producers did not see fit to give it a more appropriate title, for, in spite of the generous flow brightly written argot, most of which was contributed by Edwin Burke, it deserves to have a suggestion of poetry, in its label.”[xiv] In the Detroit Free Press, critic Clark Branion also praised the acting and specifically Dunn’s performance: “The screen play itself must be considered in a light secondary to the acting of its principal characters, and most of all to the performance of this smiling young man who portrays so truthfully and so accurately the arrogant, hard-spoken, but clean-hearted youngster peculiar to the meaner streets of New York.”[xv] Branion notes that the film version thankfully “does not contain any of the downright and unforgivable nastiness of the book,”[xvi] proving the PCA members to be correct in their assumption that the film would benefit from a subtler approach to its subject matter. Branion also predicted the film’s commercial appeal to moviegoers in similar situations of the protagonists: “For those who know and understand the wrench of poverty and love-in-a-one-room-flat, it will prove more than an ordinarily interesting movie.”[xvii]
Contemporary film writers have similarly agreed on the film’s, and Borzage’s, unassuming and deft touch. In Film Comment, critic Fernando Croce wrote that Bad Girl, “with its impulsive proposals, unexpected pregnancies, and phosphorescent glimpses of Coney Island, Borzage’s teeming city vision unfolds like his own version of King Vidor’s The Crowd, lighter but no less heartfelt.”[xviii] In a lengthy symposium about the career of Borzage, critic Kent Jones, also in Film Comment, writes that the filmmaker “really is nothing more than the cinema’s Great Romantic – a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.”[xix] Jones continues this idea of Borzage’s humanistic cinema that places his characters within hardships of American reality: “the lovers and believers occupy the enormous and exquisitely detailed center while everything around them is hazy and indistinct (war, the Depression, strikes, local color, parties, other people).”[xx] Jones hones in on the undeniable lush and moving visual sense of Borzage:
“But while illumination is certainly a worthy metaphor for Borzage’s overpowering belief in love, the architectural metaphor gets closer to the living, physical immediacy of his films and their creation of paradisaical environments. But on a purely visual level, Borzage’s work is a lush continuation of Renaissance painting. His camera is magnetized by full-cheeked and saucer eyed faces that fill the frame, and his lovers calmly radiate from the center of the screen[…].”[xxi]
Regarding the idea of love between people – between men and women and their families – that is at the center of a film like Bad Girl, Jones clarifies Borzage’s worldview: “For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage’s is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation.”[xxii]
Borzage’s Bad Girl is a film deeply reflective of its time, where nearly every aspect of a person’s social life — romance, friendship, family, sex, marriage – is tied to the scarcity of money. Yet its resonance, when seen today, is in the modesty of its story of two people negotiating their differences for themselves and their child – an enduring symbol of their unity. The film is light and stark, funny and frank, realistic yet replete with directorial and editing choices that deepen its thin narrative. The artistic choices Borzage and his collaborates made under the PCA’s restrictions do not reflect an unhappy compromise, but rather an inspired finished result savvy enough to placate the morality police while speaking directly to its intended audience.
[i] Bad Girl. Directed by Frank Borzage. Fox Film Corp. 1931
[vi] Hollywood and the Production Code: Bad Girl. Fox Film Corp. Hollywood, California. 1931.
[xii] Morduant Hall, The New York Times. “Sunshine and Shadows”. August 23, 1931.
[xv] Clark Branion. The Detroit Free Press. August 21, 1931. “The New Films”.
[xviii] Fernando Croce. Film Comment. Vol. 53. Iss. 1. Jan./Feb 2017. “Bad Girl”.
[xix] Kent Jones. Film Comment. Vol. 33. Iss. 5. Sep./Oct. 1997. “The Sanctum Santorum of Love”.