Both the casting, plot and characterisation of Lowell Sherman’s Born To Be Bad are pretty implausible, but one thing that’s not is Loretta Young’s costumes, designed by Gwen Wakeling. Cast in a surprising promiscuous role, Young (who was a devout Catholic) wears several impressive (read: revealing) evening gowns and, in one early scene, shows considerable flesh in some barely-there silk underwear. If that sounds like pre-code territory, it’s because it is – Born To Be Bad was released six weeks before the MPAA began enforcing the Production Code. The costumes are only the tip of moral-less iceberg – adultery, seduction, cheating and dubious child-rearing practices are all present and correct too.
Young plays Letty Strong, a hard-as-nails, scheming, unsentimental single mother who’s raised her young son Mickey (Jackie Kelk) to be equally tough and streetwise. Pregnant at the age of 15, she seeks refuge with bookstore owner Fuzzy (Henry Travers) then gives it all up for an independent (albeit amoral) career that’s little more than a call girl for a department store; seducing male buyers in return for clothes and cash. When Mickey is run over by a milk truck driven by successful businessman Malcolm Trevot (Cary Grant) she sees opportunity and concocts a fake injury sob story. Unsurprisingly (well even a pre-code has to have some morals!) the judge sees through the smoke, and Mickey is sent to what’s essentially orphanage.
Broken-hearted Letty – she does love her son, just not in the ‘normal’ way – begs Mal to intervene; he agrees on the basis that the young boy will live with him, with Letty granted visitation rights. A scheming Letty, out for personal gain, seduces the married Mal and records his declarations of love, using the transcripts as blackmail bait. The problem is that Mal has actually fallen in love with Letty, and his saintly wife Alyce (Marion Burns), is willing to step aside in the face of true love. Just in the nick of time (and it really is – the movie is just 60 minutes long) Letty has a change of heart, discovers her morals and gives up Mal, leaving Mickey in his care. It’s a schmaltzy end that doesn’t quite ring true – for one thing, Letty’s dramatic redemption happens in minutes, an unlikely reconciliation for a hardened woman.
The role was originally written for Jean Harlow, and it’s certainly not a stretch to imagine the sultry sexpot playing Letty. Young was reportedly concerned about projecting a Harlow-worthy aura of raw sensuality and, in retrospect, it’s odd to see her take on a role that’s a million miles away from the puritanical image she would later come to personify. That might just be the film’s redeeming quality as, in the main, the characterisation is one-dimensional, and Grant’s role – one of his earliest – is lacking (Variety described his role as ‘[a] colourless, meaningless performance”). The screenplay, written by Ralph Graves, is unintentionally comical and melodramatic, filled with cringe-worthy innuendos and flat one-liners. Just one example from Mal: “You’re a bad, bad girl, Letty. A beautiful bad girl.”
But back to the costumes. Much is made of Letty’s appearance in the opening scene. Initially off camera, she creates much interest among the other bar patrons who are desperate to know who – and what – she is. Of course, her beauty is the attraction, but it’s also her gown, which makes her ‘look like as though she’s just stepped out of the pages of Vogue’. The gown in question is a bias-cut satin number that drapes over one shoulder and is completed with short gloves and sparkly earrings. Letty is beautiful, but she’s too beautiful – the kind of beauty that can only mean Trouble. Slow-on-the-uptake viewers are left in no doubt of Letty’s promiscuous nature in the second scene, in which she dares to bare her underwear whilst brushing her hair. This is our first introduction to Letty’s apartment and, whilst it’s homely in a shabby-chic way, it’s clearly not in accordance to the glamour she projects. It’s quickly established that Letty is a girl who (somehow) dresses beyond her means.
Of course, to contemporary viewers, the underwear shot seems remarkably tame – and indeed short, as Letty soon covers up with a dressing gown, a silk scarf tied around her neck. But at the time of the film’s release they caused director Lowell Sherman and producer Darryl Zanuck all kinds of problems, and were one of the main reasons why the Production Code twice rejected the film. Zanuck protested that the board were being unnecessarily harsh, and rejecting things that would’ve previously been acceptable. But the board could not be convinced; and extended scenes of a lingerie-clad Letty were cut, and the adultery plot was toned down.
Lingerie might have been a controversial costume choice, but in the main, the costumes – and particularly the gowns – are wonderful, and are an excellent character reference. Consider the evening gowns. Following the underwear shots, Letty swiftly gets changed into a beaded column dress, complete with a wide boat neckline and a low back, dropped armholes and a fitted waist. This is ‘bad’ Letty at her most beautiful – the only competition is the gown she herself wears later in the film when her plan to seduce Mal goes into overdrive. This revealing, backless number includes two draped trains that fall over each bare shoulder, a halterneck-style keyhole design at the neck that’s repeated at the waist, and a fishtail hem. The ultimate expression of glamour, and the perfect entrance gown, all eyes are on Letty as she descends the staircase.
Of course, ‘bad’ Letty can also try to be ‘good’, but no matter the effort, the gowns sit less easily and, despite their relative austerity, actually compete for attention rather than enhance it. Consider exhibit one: the scene where Mickey is run over by Mal. Letty is clad in a polka dot ‘day’ dress, complete with a large ruffle collar and sleeve trim. The oversize collar (and a well-placed handkerchief, handy in an emotional crises don’t you know?) lends a purity to the character, but Letty can’t help but return to her ‘old’ ways. At one point she offers to ‘pay’ the doctor who’s treating her son to lie about his condition – and it’s clear she’s not referring to monetary compensation. Despite her puritanical appearance, she’s scheming, working out how the situation can be turned to her advantage.
It’s the same story in the courtroom scenes. The caring and nurturing Letty styles up her credentials with a perfectly-placed hat and a dark dress finished with a large nautical collar and an oversize corsage – the perfect image of responsibility, respectability and innocence. Of course, the court sees through the ruse, and ‘bad’ Letty resurfaces instantly.
As befits a character transformation plotline, ‘good’ Letty only seems full comfortable in the skirt suit she wears when she rejects Mal’s proposals and leaves Mickey solely in his care. The sober tweed coordinates matches her newly-reformed morals, but is elevated with just enough glamour – large brass buttons, a square fastening and shoulder tucks that exaggerate the silhouette – to satisfy ‘bad’ Letty. A sign that the transformation is only a surface veneer, a play to get something else that’s bad? Maybe, but it’s visually the most convincing ‘good’ Letty outfit as it blends the two aspects of her personality, and she seems genuinely committed to making changes (just don’t question her overnight transformation!)
So what’s the conclusion? Don’t watch Born To Be Bad for the morals, characters or plot, but do stay for the gowns, and the chance to see an actress who would later find fame playing elegant, always-on-the-right-side roles vamp it up with considerable aplomb. Well, there are worse ways to spend 62 minutes.