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Born To Be Bad

To get an idea of what Cary Grant's film career was like before he became Cary Grant, give 1934's Born To Be Bad a spin. Grant was one of the first actors to gain enough popularity to break with the studio-contract system, negotiating his own projects and paychecks, but when the good-looking Englishman arrived in Hollywood in the early '30s, he wound up in Paramount's stable, and the studio gave him a variety of dependable, if not terribly interesting, roles, both in-house and on a loan-out basis. Whether playing a sailor, soldier, businessman, or gentleman, Grant basically had two tasks: speak English and look fabulous. It's little wonder the former circus acrobat struck out on his own, eventually becoming as well known for his comic gifts as his dapper demeanor. Grant stars opposite one of the day's biggest female stars in Born To Be Bad — Loretta Young, who plays Letty Strong, a single mom from the wrong side of the tracks with a seven-year-old son, Mickey (Jackie Kelk), who's often on the run from the truant officer. But when energetic Mickey is hit by a milk truck in downtown Manhattan, Letty finds a shyster lawyer to swindle the company's president, Malcolm Trevor (Grant), out of some loot. Malcolm turns the tables, however, by proving that Letty has rigged her case, and after she loses custody of her boy, Malcolm generously offers to take Mickey in to his sprawling upstate home. He also allows Letty to visit, but she has other plans — namely, plot a nookie trap for the businessman and blackmail him to regain custody of her son. The "bad" in Born to Be Bad is Loretta Young, and one of the chief pleasures to be derived from this melodramatic hour-long chestnut is watching America's sweetheart play completely against her screen-image by chain-smoking cigarettes, talking in her best "Noo Yawk" accent, and giving up lots of hateful little glances. Child actor Jackie Kelp is likewise entertaining, albeit unintentionally, with a turn that could get him a spot in an "Our Gang" reel, but little else — when not talking, his face seems frozen with lips clutched in an exaggerated pout. It's about as good as a kid could be expected to do back then, and memorable enough that one invidiously wishes his nascent film career somehow became horribly diverted by an event worthy of Hollywood Babylon — say, being kidnapped by a gasoline-huffing one-eyed uncle who forced him into child-labor on a Sacramento Valley farm before he vanished from history. (Perhaps it's reassuring to note that Mr. Kelp, who had a limited acting career, peaceably passed away in 2002.) Cary Grant delivers what he was paid to do throughout, and his performance in this film, along with many other early efforts, is notable only in how his marvelous, stone-faced turn in Hitchcock's Notorious (1947) seems to channel the blandness of his younger persona, but to a far more thrilling effect. Trivia fans will note that most sources list Born To Be Bad as a 1934 release, but the title card claims 1933, and this is undoubtedly pre-Code material — in the first scene, Young swings her torso about in a slinky bra that would be considered risqué by broadcast television standards, and one backless gown provides extra sex appeal in an outdoor setting. Fox's DVD release of Born To Be Bad features a good transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from an acceptable black-and-white source-print, with reasonably clear monaural audio (DD 2.0). Stills, trailer gallery for other Cary Grant titles. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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