Born to Be Bad in More Ways Than One: The Film and Its Battle with the Production Code Administration
August 26, 2015
After reading the film’s synopsis, you may be surprised to learn that the author of the novel the movie was based on, Anne Parish, was a prolific writer of children’s books. With a producer like Howard Hughes aboard and source material titled All Kneeling, you could have placed bets that this adaptation would be the farthest thing from the children’s section that one could get.
The irony of the author’s background in the juvenile arena stands on comparable ground with the film’s equally intriguing production and censorship background. Why? For starters, work on the script began sometime in 1945, but the movie didn't make it into theaters until the summer of 1950. What went down during those four-five years, you ask? A lot. On the production side, several cast and crew changes delayed proceedings. On the censorship side, dozens of pages of correspondence between the studio, RKO, and the Production Code Administration (PCA) reveal the battle over the film’s (correctly) perceived low moral values; in this piece, I'll be focusing solely on the movie's struggle with the PCA. Alan Rode joked that the film’s PCA file probably looked like the Manhattan Telephone Book. Though I saw the pages in digital form, I can confirm that it probably could have covered at least one NYC borough.
There's those taglines again. With lobby cards like this, you're probably asking for trouble from the PCA.
The Battle with the PCA
Born to Be Bad was released in late August 1950, but the PCA file dates back to Christmas Eve 1945, when a copy of the script, then titled Christabel Caine, was sent to Joseph Breen, Head of the PCA. A mere three days later, Breen replied, saying he read up to page 79 and though he saw a few small issues, he was “happy to say that the basic story seems to comply with the provisions of the Production Code.” I wonder what script he read?!
Clearly, it wasn't the same one that made the leap to the screen a few years later. Nothing was noted in the file from January 1946-March 1948, during which time the script was renamed Bed of Roses and must have undergone some serious demoralizing. When the PCA reviewed the submission in early April 1948, they noted that “the present version could not be approved because of the implication of illicit sex which is treated without the proper compensating moral values.” The PCA also requested that certain lines be deleted, including a very blunt response to a question of Christabel’s love for her husband: “Didn’t last night prove it?”
Two months later, that small issue of adultery/immorality still hadn't been tackled. The PCA file noted in June 1948: “The rendezvous between Nick and Christabel seems to indicate that they have had an adulterous affair. It will be necessary to remove any such flavor if the finished picture is to be approved.” Seems to indicate? Really?
Though Nick looks a little pissed here, I don't think there was ever any doubt as to the nature of his relationship with Christabel.
Unsurprisingly, problems still existed that September. Before release, it was “assured” that a “violently passionate scene between Ryan and Fontaine” in Ryan’s apartment would “be eliminated from all release prints” by one Harold Melnicker from RKO. However, it seemed as if Melnicker wanted to keep this concession on the down low. The PCA recorded Melnicker's request in the file: “...if, in view of certain peculiar circumstances, we would issue our certificate on that understanding, without reference there to in a postscript.” Hmm, I wonder what those “peculiar circumstances” were. Regardless, the PCA wrote back that they would need Breen's permission, which they eventually obtained.
So, end of story? Far from it.
At the time, the PCA completed several charts for each picture, all consisting of a multitude of questions. These forms polled how many instances of violence and death were shown onscreen, whether characters were married or single, depictions of sex, and so forth. Somehow, “no” was marked for the following question: “Is adultery a dramatic element in the picture?” Not sure what version of the film the PCA watched…or didn’t watch, which is more like it. Then, though the ending was marked as “happy,” accurately a “no” was ticked next to: “Does the picture end with promise of marriage or continuing love?” Even more precisely, a “yes” was checked regarding the “family” element: “Does the picture concern family relations or family problems?” I should say so!
Once again, no adultery here. Nope. Just a few embraces.
Character motivations were also recorded and listed as "achieved," "not achieved," "sympathetic" and "unsympathetic." As you can guess, Christabel was marked as "unsympathetic" and "not achieved" in "success in love" and "acquiring of wealth." Both Curtis and Nick, however, were regarded as "sympathetic" (really, Nick?) and also "not achieved" in "success in love."
On August 8, 1950, almost one year after the film had seemingly been granted approval with the removal of one scene and less than three weeks before the movie came out in theaters, another ending was reviewed by the PCA. In this finale, Fontaine’s character was shown on the phone talking “in such a manner as to indicate there will be no change in her character.” This leads me to believe that the conclusion referred to is the “alternate” version included as an extra on the Warner Archive DVD, because that cut incorporated a new scene with Fontaine in her room on the phone. “This new ending was discussed in huddle this morning and, inasmuch as there seems to be little basic difference between the two endings…it was agreed that the new footage could be approved.” Little basic difference. Again, really?
OK, all set to go, right? Wrong. Though the PCA approved the picture, the Big Bad Wolf, in the form of the Catholic Legion of Decency, got wind of the situation somehow, and in the process, mistakes and oversights on the PCA’s end were revealed. In mid-September 1950, after the film’s release, the Legion informed RKO that they were placing the film on their condemned list (I'm guessing this was the "alternate" version, but I can't be sure). The Legion was “assured” that Breen himself did not review the picture; otherwise, how could it have passed given its content, particularly with Fontaine “employing means to her various ends which tear through the Decalogue (sic) like a bulldozer?" Basically, the Legion spelled out the moral defiance, of which the PCA was supposed to be the gatekeeper, for their convenience: “A Code violation automatically appears, in view of the fact that while the character [Fontaine’s] does not change, she continues merrily on her way.” The PCA couldn't have been happy with that note.
In a letter from the Legion's Martin Quigley, one of the co-authors of the Production Code, he wrote that the new ending was “illogical and inconsistent.” It seemed to him that the movie may have gotten by with the original conclusion, but with this new finale the “audience was left with quite an undesirable impression of the dame breaking all the rules and nicely getting away with it.” To be honest, that impression is pretty clear in both versions, Quigley.
You bet Christabel's getting away with those minks!
Joe Breen re-entered the picture in late September 1950, writing Joseph Quigley: “It goes without saying that I am deeply disturbed with what you tell me. I had not seen the picture, and presumed it was all right…I don’t have to tell you that we have had very considerable difficult with this particular studio in recent months...” Well, it looks like Breen should have had a pow-wow with his employees to make sure they were all on the same morality page. Clearly by this time, a good 16 years after the Code was re-adopted and strictly enforced, the cracks in the walls were already expanding.
In the end, the Legion of Decency issued the film a ‘B’ rating, objecting that the picture “reflects the acceptability of divorce” and includes suggestive sequences. This rating only applied to the version released in the US and Canada, as the one with the alternate ending “exported to other countries is judged to be more morally offensive.”
Though I find the film's entire PCA history fascinating, I'm particularly intrigued by the addition of the second ending later in the files, presumably the "alternate" one. Why, again given the difficulties with the PCA, did RKO decide to film this version and submit it later? Was it actually recorded during production, or was the cast called back weeks or months afterwards? With the actual production date on that more risqué finale a mystery, it's hard to tell, but the fact that it was submitted to the PCA separately, right before release, is questionable.
As I noted above, the PCA eventually approved both endings. However, the Legion of Decency's involvement in the situation a month after the film hit theaters adds another twist: Was the alternate ending screened and then taken out of circulation, or was it simply - and only, always - meant for foreign audiences? If the latter is true, why would the Legion of Decency be upset if it wasn't shown in America, why was it submitted to the PCA, and why was another ending tacked on just for foreign audiences? Breen wrote in October 1950 that when multiple versions of a film are to be distributed worldwide, it’s necessary to submit all for approval, but isn’t that the job of a foreign censor board then? So many questions! (And sadly for now, no concrete answers. If anyone has those, I would love to hear them!)
The gang's all here, in happier times.
The Hollywood Reporter's August 22, 1950 review hailed the film as a “sophisticated drama” that held “strong appeal for adult filmgoers” and praised Fontaine’s “characterization in an unsympathetic leading role.” The writer noted some may dislike the “selfish and scheming heroine” but urged audiences to enjoy the suspense and performances. Variety's August 18 article was a bit harsher, noting that the exploitation of the title and story content gave the picture a chance at a good box office return; however, the author also pointed out that while Fontaine “would appear to have a natural set-up for an acting tour de force…it doesn’t come out that way, though, despite the star’s strong performance. The character is too obvious.”
Obvious she may be, but that doesn't stop Born to Be Bad from providing audiences with a deliciously devilish (and slightly ludicrous) good time. To experience the absurdity, complete with all of Robert Ryan's amazing one-liners, pick up both versions of the film from the wonderful Warner Archive. Yes, on the same DVD.
Motion Picture Association of America. Production Code Administration records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.