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10 February 2010 @ 02:52 am
Bette Davis Marathon 2010: Movie #1–-The Bad Sister (1931)  
And here we go... It's going to be a bit of a long slog for the first six years' worth of films, but I think I can make it.

Here, for your viewing pleasure (or... not), is The Bad Sister in all its glory. If you don't want to have the film spoiled for you--not that there's much to spoil--you should probably watch the film yourself before reading on. If you don't care, then this review-thing might save you an hour.


Released on 29 March 1931 by Universal Studios, this is IT. This is the film that launched the career of one Ruth Elizabeth Davis. In addition, it's Humphrey Bogart's fifth or sixth film. With all that future star mega-wattage, I wouldn't blame you for jumping to the conclusion that this is a forgotten cinematic treasure. You would be incredibly wrong, but I wouldn't blame you.

It's based on a 1913 Booth Tarkington novel called The Flirt. Mr. Tarkington, in his lengthy career, also wrote two Pulitzer Prize-winners, both of which were successfully adapted into films: The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921). I'm not really sure what happened with this one. Either Tarkington was having a bit of an off day or the three (THREE!) men with writing credits--Edwin H. Knopf, Tom Reed and Raymond L. Schrock--ran amok. The story is awfully soapy but not too tricky to follow, with visionary director Hobart Henley at the helm. You may know Mr. Henley from such classics as Unknown Blonde, Captain Applejack, His Tiger Wife and Free Love. (I have no idea who he is either. I'm just having WAY too much fun looking at his resume on IMDb.)

Now that we've got the preliminaries taken care of, let the synopsis begin.

Here's our lovely cast:

I'd like to note that, even though Bogie has at this point been in more movies than Bette, she still gets billed over him. Third billing. In all capital letters, no less. Not too shabby for a debut.

It also might be important to point out that my copy of Bad Sister has French subtitles on it. Well, maybe not important, but you must admit it's at least mildly interesting and will possibly provide some amusement to those of you who read French.

The film begins like approximately 98% of older films set in small-town America: a train pulls into a station. Cut to the station's sign and lo and behold we're in:

Council City, Ohio (although I assumed it was Iowa for some reason), allegedly the fastest-growing town in the US. Bully for Council City.

Next we see what is apparently a paperboy pedaling his bike through an idyllic neighborhood. There are a couple of things that really bug me here. Firstly, it looks like he's carrying the newspapers unfolded in his basket. You know, not the usual little bundle that you see adolescent lads hurling at houses in most other films. Doesn't that seem rather impractical? Secondly... why is he wearing a blazer?

This the most formal paperboy I've ever seen. Incidentally, the man on the left is Mr. Madison (Charles Winninger, Show Boat), our patriarch. He seems a jolly sort and he tips generously. Now Blazer Boy can buy a new baseball AND a catcher's mitt! Happy days are here again.

Look how jolly he is! It'll be a shame to watch him suffer at the hands of a selfish daughter for the next hour.

Into the Madison house we go and--OH MY GOD! THERE SHE IS!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Miss Bette Davis. She's all of 22 years old, if my math doesn't fail me (which it very well might), fresh-faced and setting the table for breakfast. Her character, Laura Madison, is the Good Sister. She spends most of her time doing chores around the house and looking depressed. There are a couple of moments here where the Davis attitude we know and love breaks through all the drabness, but those are pretty rare. Mostly, she sulks and hangs out laundry. Ah well. Better things to come. It is interesting, though, to see her in full-on "Little Brown Wren" mode, before she got bleached and glammed. Carrying on...

Mr. Madison asks her if Hedrick is up yet. Laura answers, with deliberate slowness and a slight giggle, "Oh, he's up all right. I dumped him out of bed." "Good for you," her father responds. A bit patronizing, don't you think? Pretty much everyone treats Laura like this, as though there were something not quite right with her. As far as I can figure out, her only problem is perpetual glumness, but when everyone's treating her like an idiot, who can blame her for being glum? But the Madisons mean well. There's a tiny moment here that I kind of love. After Mr. M says, "Good for you," Laura emits a rather self-satisfied, "Mmmhm!" She knows she has done well by dumping Hedrick out of bed. Very soon, we will understand why.

In the kitchen, we meet Minnie the maid (ZaSu Pitts, who was in a movie called Love, Honor and Oh Baby!), who is constantly frazzled, and Mrs. Madison (Emma Dunn, Mr. & Mrs. Smith--no, not THAT one. We'll be running into her again soon in Hell's House), whose personality appears to be more or less identical to her husband's. They're making pancakes for breakfast. Good times. Here they all are:

Mrs. Madison suggests that Minnie go up and wake Miss Marianne (SO MANY M's), but requests that she "do it gently. You know how nervous she is." Uh huh. We know someone has to be the bad sister here, and we're pretty sure it's not the one setting the table. Our suspicions are confirmed when Minnie says in a battle-scarred sort of way, "I found that out." The parents look at each other as if to say, "Oh, that wacky ZaSu," and carry on with Operation Flapjack.

As Minnie heads upstairs, she runs smack into Hedrick (David Durand, A Study in Socks). As soon as he opens his mouth you want to throttle him. So does ZaSu. I'm not even going to bother describing his shenanigans unless they're vital to the plot. I want to avoid Hedrick as much as possible. Suffice it to say that every time he shows up, he's unspeakably obnoxious.

I know his character is meant to be irritating, but I'm wondering if he's also intended to be somehow endearing. Because if he is, they missed the mark by a long shot.

Minnie and Hedrick's bickering has stirred Sleeping Beauty upstairs. Our second piece of confirmation that she is indeed the titular Bad Sister: she has photos of herself ALL OVER HER ROOM. And they're not even pictures of her with her family or doing fun stuff. No, they're just portraits of her. I think the filmmakers might be trying to communicate that Marianne is self-centered. Just a thought.

Marianne (Sidney Fox, Murders in the Rue Morgue) doesn't feel at all well this morning, and wants Minnie to bring her breakfast in bed. (Add laziness to the laundry list of the Bad Sister's vices.)

To make a long story short, that ain't happening. ZaSu starts on a "humph"ing motif that lasts for pretty much the rest of the movie. In fact, if she turns up in any screencaps from now on, just assume that she's "humph"ing in them. You'll probably be right. Incidentally, here are some more pictures of herself that Marianne has on display. Girl is vain.

The telling bookend: When Minnie comes downstairs, all a-"humph", Mr. and Mrs. M attribute the problem to the maid "upsetting" Marianne again. That should tell you all you need to know about who's really running the Madison household. (And everyone speaks in double negatives. How quaint.)

Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about stupid Hedrick any more than I had to, but look at Bette here. She shares my longing to smack the child upside the head and I love her all the more for it. (Also, what the hell kind of a name is Hedrick, anyway?)


Bette Davis has had enough of your bullshit, Hedrick. Watch yourself.

The mail arrives, and we learn that there is a third sister, Amy (we already have a Good Sister and a Bad Sister, so I guess Amy is Neutral Sister?), whose husband, Sam, has just lost his job. Since Amy is expecting a baby, they are coming home to live with the Madisons until their luck turns around. This letter is telling, not asking, which seems a tad presumptuous to me. Mr. M laments their own financial difficulties. I want to ask him why he gave the blazer-wearing paperboy such a big tip then, but I don't want to get too involved in the twisted logic of a film that allows a character like Hedrick to exist. Laura thinks the whole thing is just a pity.

Marianne finally saunters in and she and goddamn Hedrick have an altercation about her love life. Apparently, last night after her semi-official beau, Wade, left, she was macking with Dr. Dick on the porch. And no, that's not a euphemism. I don't think. Wade has "the biggest insurance business in town", but because of his girth Marianne is none too keen on being his bride. On hearing that Dick Lindley asked her sister to marry him, Laura goes from glum...

to glummer...

to glummest.

Hmmm. I wonder if she has a secret passion for someone.

Then, as Mr. M is leaving for the office, Marianne begs $50 off him for a new dress. The hussy! He feebly attempts to explain that, with Amy and Sam coming to live with them, they're going to need to be on an even tighter budget. (WHAT ABOUT THE PAPERBOY?!) Bad Sister whines about how she never gets anything nice until her father gives in.

He chuckles creepily as he makes his exit.

Laura wanders around glumly.

Is anyone surprised?

Later that evening, Marianne is holding court in her new frock AND some shoes she charged to her unsuspecting father. THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES FOR ANY OF THIS. Mrs. M is just all, "Oh, you shouldn't have done it--but they are pretty." Wanna know how you ended up with two brats like Marianne and Hedrick? This. Right here.

This is Wade Trumbull (Bert Roach, God's Country and the Woman--yes, the reason Bette fled Warners in 1936. He was also in something called Fatty's Magic Pants.). Like most of the characters in this film, he is nice enough but completely oblivious to Marianne's manipulative behavior.

Then, in a shocking coincidence, Dr. Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel, The Divorcee) turns up.

They promptly ditch Wade and go "on a walk". To the movies. On their way out, they run into Laura.

Gee, is anyone else getting a funny feeling that Laura has a crush? On Dr. Dick, maybe? I don't know. Maybe I'm just crazy. (Of course I'm crazy. Why else would I be doing THIS?) Laura gazes after them. Glumly.

Marianne's all pissy because Dr. Dick let his younger brother have his car tonight and they have to ride the bus into town. Cow. She's not even a particularly FUN Bad Sister who just wants to dance and drive fast, like Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life. She just whines. All the time.

Now that they're pretty sure Marianne has decided to marry Dr. Dick, Mr. and Mrs. M decide to set poor glum Laura up with Wade. When she remarks that her parents are having trouble finding a prospective suitor for her, Wade replies that he thinks she would make a perfect wife. However, with Bad Sister around, no one seems especially interested in a perfect wife.

Now we cut to her parents talking about how hard it's going to be to get Laura married. Good Lord. THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH LAURA. She's just glum because NO ONE PAYS ATTENTION TO HER. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!

I feel like now's as good a time as any to say that Bette Davis is, in all honesty, the only person in this film who even occasionally acts like a normal human being. Everyone else is Acting all the time. It's not entirely their fault; the script is really, really stilted. But every so often Bette manages sound genuine, and if it weren't for her... well, I wouldn't be doing this at all, would I? Anyway. Laura's talking to Wade about Marianne and Dr. Dick (I always feel like I'm being facetious when I type that, but that's seriously what everyone calls him). She is distraught.

It is here that she does a recognizable Bette Davis Move. I can't really capture it in still form. She does it in The Letter, I know. You can see her getting increasingly agitated until the emotion spills over and she whirls around violently and clutches/leans on some piece of furniture.

Someone must know what I'm talking about. Laura then pleads a headache and Wade gives some pharmaceutical advice before he clears out. She glumly shuts the door behind him.

Cut to Laura writing in her diary. Glumly.

Hedrick sneaks in in a (thoroughly obnoxious) way that makes it look like he's having some sort of painful spasm. I HATE HEDRICK. But in her attempts to get goddamn Hedrick to leave her alone, Laura displays some personality! Hedrick does do some good after all!

Actually, you know what? That's just Bette Davis. Hedrick has nothing to do with it. Now, however, Laura's deep dark secret passion is at last revealed:

I really thought that said "I here never will be anyone for me but you Dick. I love you." I still get confused. Anyroad, so Laura's in love with Dick. Is anyone even remotely surprised?

In town, the movie is now over (something to do with Mickey Mouse, apparently) and Marianne is back to her hobby of bitching about every single goddamn thing. She still isn't over the undignified ordeal of riding the bus into town and is not looking forward to the return trip. They run for the bus, but just miss it. And who should come roaring along and nearly run them down but--

--baby Bogie! Look at him! He's all wee. Bless. Marianne, being Marianne, pretends that she knows him in order to hitch a ride in his car.

I love the "bitch, please" look he's giving her.

Ditched! Oh, Dr. Dick. You're such a chump. Maybe someday you'll learn. Off go Bad Sister and Bogie, whose name we learn is Val Corliss. I was unable to get a cap of this car ride where Sidney Fox didn't look like a poor man's Vivien Leigh. Marianne, you only WISH you were as good at what you do as Katie Scarlett O'Hara.

Val agrees to call Marianne the next day. That makes three beaux, for those of you keeping score. As he hops back into his car, he lets out a jubilant "Oh boy!" Oh Bogie.

The next day (or something; it could be next week for all I know), Laura is hanging up the laundry. Stupid freaking Hedrick observes obnoxiously that Marianne has lacy panties while Laura has boring granny-pants. Now, I want you to take a look at this underwear. The pair that Laura is just putting on the line, to be exact.

I'm sorry, but there's no way in hell those are her pants. Her entire body could fit through one leg-hole. This is ridiculous.

Okay, so Sam and Amy have arrived from wherever it is they come from. Here they are:

NOTE: Sam is played by Slim Summerville (All Quiet on the Western Front), the one Universal Studio executives said Bette looked like. I have to say, I'm not really seeing it.

Val is over for dinner and Marianne, as ever, is embarrassed by how gauche everyone else is being. However, Val doesn't seem particularly bothered and tells everyone why he has come to Council City. As the Vice President of the brand-spankin'-new Electro-Household Corporation (...yeah), he wants to build a factory just outside town, making local civic leaders partners. Because of Mr. M's reputation for honesty, Val wants him to convince others in the town that the factory is a real possibility. Everyone's totally stoked about this, and a long-distance telephone call seems to confirm Val's story. After supper, Marianne and Val are about to start a-neckin' on the porch when Dr. Dick pops up. Awkward.

Marianne sends the hapless doc in to fetch Laura, while she and Val "take a walk." Just as they're setting out, Wade shows up! Ho ho! What a Shakespearean comedy of errors this is!

So now Laura is stuck with two men who haven't the slightest interest in her.


Awkwardness ensues. I could seriously take about 30 stills like the one above. That is how long this awkward moment is. Then there's a cut that is either awful editing or AWESOME editing. Dr. Dick is cut off mid-bored sigh and we move to Val and Marianne's romantic moonlight walk. It's mildly hilarious.

The town leaders are all atwitter about Val's factory plans. Mr. M is still tentative, and is going to have a lawyer friend of his in New York look into the situation. After his investigation is completed, Mr. M will let his compatriots know that they can safely invest in the scheme. Just then, the Madison patriarch gets a telephone call and begins flipping out: "I'm a boy! Amy's got a grandfather!" Then there's a random slap-sticky sequence of him running down the street yelling gibberish and falling on balloons. Yeah, we get you're excited, but did you have to abruptly change the tone of the movie? Meanwhile, at the hospital, Slim Summerville is making squinty faces at the new baby.

Goddamn Hedrick is insulting the babies. What the hell, Hedrick? Can NO ONE escape your obnoxious ways? Sample: "I bet that's that Bloomberg baby over there. Looks just like his old man. Hey, Izzy! What's the price of overalls?" WTF? Really, Hedrick? Really? Just then, Dr. Dick comes out of another room, looking anguished. Uh oh. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? In rushes Mr. M, still ecstatic. But not for long.

Yup. Amy's dead. And now everyone (except Marianne, conspicuous in her absence) is glum.

Then some happy people come out of the room next door. Okay, movie! WE'RE GLUM. You don't have to rub it in.

And now... THE ONLY TIME A TITLE SCREEN IS USED IN THE MOVIE. Because stylistic consistency means nothing.

By which the title screen means Marianne has been taking lots of "walks" with Val.

See? Anyway, Val wants Marianne to get her father to sign a paper saying that he believes in the whole factory deal so that the townsfolk will invest their money. So Bad Sister goes in, collects her allowance check, and starts to push her daddy's buttons. Mr. M actually grows a pair and refuses to sign the paper. Marianne flips out at him and starts yelling about what a failure he is and how much she hates him. Laura and Mrs. M rush in from the porch, where they have been dutifully minding the baby. Then, in a moment of glory, Good Sister slaps Bad Sister across the mouth.

Marianne faints because she's a drama queen. Mr. and Mrs. M are horrified and tell Laura to call for Dr. Dick. You guys? She just fainted because people were saying no to her and she wanted you to feel guilty. You do realize that, don't you? Sigh... Whatever, movie. LOOK AT HER. SHE'S OBVIOUSLY FAKING.

Oh, I give up.

After Dr. Dick determines that Marianne is in fact FINE LIKE I SAID (Minnie the maid agrees with me, by the way.), Mr. M has a minor heart attack or something. As he's being escorted to his bedroom he asks Laura to "tell Marianne I didn't mean to upset her. I'm sorry I couldn't do what she asked me to." YOU GUYS. THIS IS THE WHOLE DAMN PROBLEM. MARIANNE IS NOT HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR ANYTHING. Pissin' me off. While her father is having a cardiac episode, Marianne is in her room, using her allowance check to forge her father's signature on Val's letter. At long last, Marianne Madison, HAVE YOU LEFT NO SENSE OF DECENCY?!

While everyone else (EXCEPT FREAKIN' MARIANNE) is gathered at Mr. M's bedside, Hedrick seeks and subsequently finds Laura's diary. Laura, on the way downstairs with Dr. Dick, goes in to tell Marianne about their father's illness; she finds her sister's room empty but, for some reason, doesn't tell anyone. Dr. Dick pulls the line, "You know, Laura, you'll make some man a wonderful wife." YET AGAIN. Why she doesn't strangle him, I don't understand. Instead, she says, "Oh, I don't think I'll ever marry. [...] I don't think I could ever find a man I could really fall in love with [except you, Dr. Dick, oh, I love you so much]." He responds that he doesn't know any man good enough for her. She thinks he's joshin'.

She goes to make him a cup of coffee and while she's gone, Hedrick does something slightly useful for once (in a roundabout way) and shows Dr. Dick the all-important diary entry--you know, "I here will never be anyone for me but you Dick. I love you." Laura comes back, sees that he has the diary and is horrified.

She glumly asks where he found the diary. He apologizes and gives it back. She accepts it, glumly, then suggests they pretend the whole thing never happened.

Hedrick, in a brief flash of humanity, looks upset.

For about two seconds, I am slightly fond of Hedrick. Dr. Dick awkwardly says, "Sure! That's a go!" to Laura's suggestion and leaves. Without even drinking his coffee. Laura goes, glumly, to burn her diary.

This is what heartbreak looks like, ladies and gentlemen.

Awwww, Hedrick. That's actually really sweet. Too bad you're such a pain in the ass for the entire rest of the movie. Otherwise, I'd be totally in love with you now.

Uh oh! The town leaders now have the forged letter. Now they're going to pony up all the money. Something tells me this isn't going to end well for somebody. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Marianne comes downstairs in traveling clothes, carrying a suitcase. She says she's taking some clothes to be sent to the poor. Yeah. Sure.

She runs into Dr. Dick on her way out and refuses a ride into town. Knowing her aversion to bus travel, this should have been extremely suspicious. However, Dr. Dick is kind of a moron.


Dr. Dick goes up to talk to Laura, who's changing the baby's diapers. Apparently, this was the first time Bette Davis had ever seen male genitalia. Captured on celluloid forever. I'm sure she was thrilled.

And he finally kisses her.

She doesn't look particularly pleased about it, though.

I see. She's just saving her glee until after he awkwardly leaves.

I think this picture says it all.

Someone got their ass dumped by Humphrey Bogart.

The family back home is unduly concerned about where the whiney trollop has got to. Upon Marianne's return to town, she goes straight to Dr. Dick's office and tells him that, now that Val's rather unceremoniously dumped her, she'd be reasonably content to settle for marrying him. Dr. Dick is all, "Umm... I don't know how to tell you this, but... while I was waiting for you to come around, I kind of fell for your sister. Who is not quite as glum as rumor would have it." Her response is not that of a proper Bad Sister at all. After a brief pause and without a hint of resentment, she says, in essence, "With Laura... How wonderful! I just know you're going to be happy!" And leaves. Not a single conniving plot to win him back. I am disappoint. She looks momentarily glum outside his office door, then heads off home. There's a shot of her walking like she's taking a drunk test that I'm sure is supposed to be significant somehow.

An angry mob of citizens cheated by Val Corliss is descending upon the Madison home. Well, three annoyed middle-aged guys and a policeman. They want the money that Val stole from them back. Mr. M, naturally, has no idea why they invested in the factory before he completed his investigation. Marianne comes back, sees the men hounding her father and confesses. Mr. M promises to pay all the money back, and makes the men promise to keep Marianne's name in the clear. (And I'm not even going to discuss that spazzy fast-motion sequence with goddamn Hedrick, who annoys me again.) Realizing that her father will have to cash in his life insurance policy and sell the house to pay off the debts she has incurred, Marianne decides that there is only one thing to do...

Completely disregard her own happiness, marry a man she doesn't love for his money and spend the rest of her life baking him chocolate cakes! Of course! What did you THINK she was going to do?

Now that she's undergone a complete personality shift, everyone loves her! Why, Minnie even came over to help her make ice cream!

Minnie's assessment is all too accurate: "Somehow it doesn't seem natural for her to be so nice. Oh dear." No, it isn't natural. Or logical. Or in character. At all. Oh dear. I demand a sequel where Marianne reverts to her wicked ways.

And now the gang's all here for cake and ice cream! Hurrah!


So there you have it. The first installment of the Bette Davis Marathon 2010 Recaps. Let me know what you think--about the recap, sure, but especially about the movie itself.

If, for whatever reason, you'd like to read more about the wonder that is The Bad Sister, may I direct you here... This is a lot more succinct (and probably considerably more entertaining) than my effort.

Current Mood: dorkydorky
Bettina Dawesmothergoddamn on February 11th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
HAHAAHAHAA! This is the best thing I've ever read! JE SUIS SINCERE!

I too had one moment of liking Hedrick but it was over rode by the intense need to burn him with fire.
royaltyisshe64royaltyisshe64 on February 11th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Aw, gee. Thanks! If you're not careful, I'll go all Sally Field on you.

I was rather conflicted about Hedrick the first time I watched Bad Sister. Couldn't make my mind up what I wanted to do most: throttle him, smack him upside the head or burn him with fire. Ye gods, that child was annoying!

Waterloo Bridge isn't going to be quite as much fun, since I can't really do proper screen caps, and Bette's Stupid Jodhpurs really must be seen to be believed. Hell's House, on the other hand, will be an absolute BLAST.
Bettina Dawesmothergoddamn on February 11th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
Cannot wait to see more, bb!
P: bette davisstillsparkling on February 11th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
*adds to memories* As I haven't seen the movie yet I'm doing that first, but I want you to know that there is interest and appreciation!
royaltyisshe64: Bette Cigaretteroyaltyisshe64 on February 11th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! Hope you enjoy the movie! It's an odd one, but curiously endearing.
(Deleted comment)
royaltyisshe64: Bette Cigaretteroyaltyisshe64 on February 12th, 2010 12:25 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it. That scene would have been perfectly effective if they'd just left it at that shot, but nooo... lol