Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott
Born to Be Bad (1950)

By nearly every account—most especially her own—Joan Fontaine offscreen was miles apart from the naïve and adoring women she often played onscreen. 

Biographer Charles Higham (admittedly not the most reliable biographer, but that’s a story for another day) found her, “relaxed, super sophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan,” as well as, “flippant, cool, tough, and somewhat offhand.”1

During the filming of Born to Be Bad, she was in the midst of her second divorce, the most acrimonious of her eventual four.  Though she was ultimately dismissive of all four of her husbands, William Dozier was the one who bit back the most in public.

“Joan would be smiling and charming and then there would be a barb,” Dozier said. “Finally, she lost one friend after another.  She’s the kind of woman who inevitably ends up alone.”2

As if proving his point, nearly twenty years later Fontaine would give the following quote to the London Daily Express while still married to Alfred Wright, eventual ex-husband number four:

“Obviously a wife has to do a lot of pretending to be successful; to make a difficult, selfish husband of hers feel that he is the greatest man alive even when she knows damn well that he isn’t.”3

Perhaps that’s why she was attracted to the role of Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad, a woman who pretends to be innocent and sweet to lure unsuspecting men into her web of deception and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.

Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Zachary Scott, Fontaine

Christabel Caine arrives in San Francisco to attend business school and take over for her uncle’s secretary Donna (Joan Leslie), who is about to marry.  (Remember, reader—this is 1950.  There’s no need for a plot device to explain why Donna couldn’t possibly continue working after becoming the wife of a wealthy man.)

Donna is efficient, good-natured, and in love with fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), who has come by his wealth through family money but is down-to-earth and kind.  She agrees to host Christabel while the final wedding preparations are made.

Christabel’s uncle has described her as a young woman looking for honest work and a place in the world after spending months taking care of an elderly aunt.

Her uncle is the first—but not the last—man she’s snowed.

Christabel has an entirely different agenda—she means to replace Donna as the rich wife of Curtis Carey, not as her uncle’s secretary.

The film—and the audience—delights in Christabel’s ruthless machinations as she expertly plants the seeds that will lead to mistrust and the ultimate destruction of Donna and Carey’s relationship.

There’s a slight fly in the ointment—while Christabel’s plan is unfolding, she falls in love with Curtis’ friend Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan).  She tries to have it both ways, luring Curtis into marriage while having an ongoing affair with Nick.

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Robert Ryan, Fontaine

But even then, it’s clear that Christabel’s true love is the grift itself, and we are left with no doubt that in losing a husband and gaining a fortune, the now rich divorcée has gotten exactly what she wanted.  And lover Nick, for whom she had genuine affection?

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

Born to Be Bad is entertaining, and has the advantage of being made in 1950, when the production code was breaking down and allowed Christabel’s moral crimes to go unpunished.  In fact, the film ends with a satisfying wink to the audience, letting us know that Christabel will have no trouble finding her next mark.

We’re only sorry that we won’t be able to watch her put the poor sap through the ringer.

Born to Be Bad Verdict (1950):  Give It A Shot

Notes

  1. Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)

2 thoughts on “Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

  1. Super film. I loved all these “bad girl” titles – it was like a throwback to the late 1920s/early 1930s when actresses realised they could make more money being bad than good.

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