“If you ever draw an honest breath I want to be there to see it.”
In the film Born to Be Bad ingenue Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) arrives from the country to attend business college. She’s the niece of publishing magnate John Caine (Harold Vermilyea) who’s arranged for her to room with one of his editors, Donna Foster (Joan Leslie). Donna is engaged to the millionaire playboy Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott). When the film begins, Donna is arranging a party to follow the opening night of a play. It’s an important night for Donna, and she hopes to impress Curtis with her hostess skills.
Christabel arrives unexpectedly. She’s not supposed to arrive until the day after the party, but she wheedles her way into Donna’s home with her mealy-mouthed, self-deprecating ways. Christabel insidiously comes between Donna and Curtis by capitalizing on both of their weaknesses–Curtis’s fear is that Donna is marrying him for his money, and Donna’s fear is that she’ll be seen as a gold digger. One scene in the film very cleverly establishes a fissure in the relationship–a fissure that Christabel identifies and then uses to pry the society couple apart.
There are two other bachelors in Donna’s life–the amoral, opportunistic artist Gabriel Broom (Mel Ferrer) and the aggressive author Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan). Nick is the only person in the film who sees Christabel as other than the meek little innocent she appears to be. There’s a terrific sexual dynamic between Nick and Christabel–one she’d rather not respond to, but she can’t help herself. Nick realizes that Christabel has conflicting feelings about him, but he chalks it up to fear of ‘letting herself go’. He tells her “I think there are two of you. One is fictional.” Gradually, Christabel is revealed as devious, manipulative and money hungry, and she’s prepared to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants.
Born to Be Bad directed by Nicholas Ray is surprisingly enjoyable. Joan Fontaine as the ingenue Christabel is a little too old, but that’s soon swept away by a good performance. She’s evil as she delivers her poisonous speeches, and it’s great fun to watch her in action. While it would have been nice to see her true claws occasionally, the plot allows a good, solid exploration of her truly trashy character, and her final scene with the fur coats is priceless. Ultimately, Born to Be Bad is a tasty soap rather similar–but not as glossy as–All About Eve, and it’s well worth watching.