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Born to Be Bad in More Ways Than One: The Film and Its Battle with the Production Code Administration

August 26, 2015

The 16th edition of Noir City: Hollywood in 2014 featured tributes to a few actresses who had recently passed away, Joan Fontaine included, who has long been one of my favorites from the classic era. The programmers included Fontaine's semi film noir soap Born to Be Bad (1950) in the lineup, which celebrates its 65th anniversary in 2015. As a special treat, the event also marked the big screen debut (I believe) of the film's 'alternate' ending, which was shown after the movie.

What taglines! Especially the upper right. Clearly, this film was just asking for censorship trouble, which it certainly got.

In his introduction, the Film Noir Foundation's Alan K. Rode shared a humorous story from a few years ago when he and Eddie Mueller tried to get Fontaine to attend Noir City in San Francisco. She lived fairly close by on the coast, so the duo wrote her a letter "and word-smithed it," inviting her to appear as a guest. They were surprised and delighted to receive a reply in less than two weeks that read: "Dear Alan, [in big capital letters] I appreciate your invitation, but I am retired! Free at last, free at last, thank God free at last. Sincerely, Joan Fontaine."


Rode pointed out that Fontaine was known as a lovely and sophisticated lady, but he advised the audience to throw away any thought of a delightful or respectful Fontaine, because her performance in this film was about as deliciously scheming and bitchy as one can get!



The Movie

Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) arrives at her cousin Donna Foster (Joan Leslie)'s home for a party. There, she meets artist Gobby (Mel Ferrer), Donna's wealthy fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), and writer Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan). Though Nick's hard exterior initially is off-putting to Christabel, she quickly becomes attracted to him, despite, or perhaps due to, his shamelessly forward flirtation. Example: "Donna tells me you're going to business school. When you go to school I want to carry your books for you." They begin seeing each other, but in between the passion the relationship quickly turns rocky.


However, one man isn’t enough for Christabel, especially since Nick doesn’t have any money. Thus, she sets her sights on Curtis, jumping at the chance to drive a wedge in his relationship with Donna by slyly making Curtis' wealth an issue between them.

Christabel (Joan Fontaine) snatches the two main men in her life right off the bat at her cousin Donna (Joan Leslie)'s party: Curtis (Zachary Scott), above, and Nick (Robert Ryan), below.

Sure enough, when the Christabel-manufactured problem threatens the union, Christabel conveniently swoops in. Oh, and in between her man hunting/plotting, she somehow finds the time to model for Gobby, which will come into play later. Such a nice friend.


However, it isn’t long before Christabel’s back in Nick's arms, and this time, he pops the question. She holds off on accepting to commence her plotting, because she receives the news she was hoping for: Donna is leaving for London...without Curtis. Donna suddenly sees Christabel's true colors, though Christabel promises she was just trying to help. Donna disagrees: "I can just hear you, being so helpful and so helpless. Helping to mess up people's lives for your own selfish purposes. And just about as helpless as a wildcat!"

Watch out, Christabel. Donna's onto you.

What, Christabel, nervous?


With Donna out of the picture, Christabel makes her move, seducing Curtis at a ball by telling him she believes she caused the whole Donna mess. Truth: she actually did. Curtis falls right into her arms, just as Christabel calculated.

You're done for, Curtis.

But there’s still Nick, who was the first to propose after all. Let’s just forget about that, though, as Christabel seems to. When she informs Nick that she's marrying Curtis, Nick jumps on the Donna train and finally realizes what Christabel's up to, but he warns her: "You'll never get me out of your blood!" He's right, and she runs straight into his arms as the phone rings. She answers it: "Curtis, darling, I was just sitting here thinking of you." Sure, in Nick's arms. And there Nick goes, out the door.

Angry Nick...

...for only a few seconds. It doesn't take long for Christabel to work her magic.

And then Curtis calls. Mixed signals much, Christabel?

After Christabel and Curtis marry, she takes on her role in the Carey household, heading up committees and anything else to keep her far away from her husband; after all, she doesn't like him, just his money.


One day, Christabel receives a call from her uncle John (Harold Vermilyea) informing her that her aunt Flora (Virginia Farmer) is very sick. Christabel takes the news lightly to say the least, because she's in the middle of preparing for another ball that Nick will be attending.

Someone's dressing to impress tonight. Gobby (Mel Ferrer), in the middle, looks on suspiciously.

Outside the party, Christabel seduces Nick, giving him the sob story of how unhappy she is. Nick doesn't buy it, sneering before storming off: "I love you so much I wish I liked you!" When Christabel hears footsteps she calls out for Nick, but it's Curtis: "Sorry to disappoint you."


So Curtis finally begins to question Christabel’s feelings and suggests they get away for a while. Christabel eventually concedes, but she can't stay away from Nick for long: early in their vacation, she leaves a note for Curtis saying she's stopping in at her aunt's when she's really visiting with Nick's arms.

Christabel's cozy...but that never lasts long with this one.

Their rendezvous turns sour when Christabel refuses to ask for a divorce from Curtis; she wants him to initiate so she'll get money. "You only love one person in the world, Christabel, and it's the love of a lifetime," Nick tells her before demanding that she leave. Again.  


Christabel finds that her aunt plan backfired when she returns to Curtis to find her uncle there: her aunt died that afternoon, and they've been trying to reach her. Caught at last!

Can't get out of this one...

Meanwhile, Curtis finally realizes he's loved Donna all along and kicks his wife out. Gobby helps Christabel move, keeping her portrait and slyly requesting that she get herself in another scandal, since, you know, that helps the market value. For once, Christabel comes through for someone: in the last scene, Gobby replaces the price of the painting; it's gone up double. Clearly, she didn't disappoint.

Wonder what trouble Christabel got into to double the price...

The Alternate Ending

While the released conclusion of Born to Be Bad only hints at Christabel’s further scandalous behavior, the original ending shows it, twice. The second version we saw started with the fake note Christabel left Curtis, flowing right into the scene in which she visits Nick, though the first few (innocent) lines from the released version had been cut. The rest of the sequence, in which she stalls on asking for the divorce, remains the same, and she returns home, is outed by her uncle, and gets yelled at by Curtis: “I’ll be gone exactly one week. Don’t be here when I get back.” The two versions were pretty similar up to this point.


Christabel then goes upstairs to get some clothes together. The phone rings. Expecting Nick, she’s disappointed when the voice belongs to one of her female ‘friends.’ Christabel quickly becomes impatient with the woman and spills the beans that she and Curtis are separating because she realized that he never belonged to anyone but Donna. Christabel leaves the house with the help of Gobby (the same as in the released ending), but more emphasis is put on her causing a scandal; when Gobby tells her the portrait would sell at a higher price if she gets into some trouble, she heartily agrees.

That's not the look of a sane woman.

Christabel drives away like a maniac - taking this trouble thing seriously, we see - and quickly gets into an accident. After being taken to the hospital, she hears “Paging Dr. Abernathy” over the loudspeaker and asks a nurse who he is: “Don’t worry. He’s the best surgeon. You’ll like him – everyone does!” Being Christabel, she seduces him on the operating table. Of course it turns out the doctor is married; how unfortunate...for the wife at least. For Christabel, the episode just gets her name in the papers and helps raise the price of the portrait.

Hooking wealthy victim #????: success.

Naturally, Christabel turns to her attorney for guidance: “Without your friendship, I could never go through with this.” Attorney: “I think this office frightens you. As your advisor and attorney I suggest we discuss this over cocktails.” Because that's normal advice. As he leaves he tells his secretary: “Call my wife and tell her I may not make it home for dinner.” May not?

What a dedicated (probably rich) attorney.

Cue Christabel's sly smile as the price goes up once again…will she ever stop? 

That's a lot more than the original price - or ending - now!

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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