Friday, March 22, 2024

The Two Faces of Joan Fontaine: ‘Born to Be Bad’ 1950


(L) Joan Fontaine as conniver Christabel in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."
(R) Carol Burnett from her TV show, spoofed this noir soap as "Raised to Be Rotten!"

By the end of "Born to Be Bad," everyone wants to strangle Christabel, even herself!

Born to Be Bad is a film noir soap opera that toys with Joan Fontaine's on-screen persona. In the role referenced in the title, Joan's seemingly demure miss recalls the cinematic bouquet of shy English roses that Fontaine played in the '40s. Here, this rose reveals her thorns, as the poor relation who’s a two-faced schemer. Fontaine's memoir was titled No Bed of Roses, ironic since a Bad character sneeringly refers to her schemer’s life in a rich marriage as such. Fontaine was also known off-screen for her sharp-tongued wit. On-screen, her characters were usually soft, wide-eyed, one brow raised, with a Mona Lisa smile. 

Christabel Caine comes to San Fran! "Born to Be Bad's" Joan Fontaine with her
go-to expression, the arched eyebrow, slight smile, and "Who, me?" expression!

As conniving Christabel Caine, Joan and director Nicholas Ray use the Fontaine image very cleverly. As other movie fans have noted, Christabel's tactics are much like the same year's passive/aggressive villain, Eve Harrington, in 1950’s All About Eve. Fontaine's acting style is also similar to Anne Baxter’s, but much more dialed down. There's the same raised eyebrow, deer in the headlights looks, and lowered voice, but Baxter often went big!  They even have the same severe curled bob that was mysteriously popular post-war. Christabel wants a rich husband and Eve wants to be a star, and anyone in the way gets steamrollered.

Christabel seems to be the bad seed, an orphan raised by a meek relative. She leaves her Aunt Clara in Santa Flora and moves up to San Francisco to go to business school, and live with career girl Donna, who works for Christabel’s uncle. At first, family and friends are taken by the poor "girl"—it’s amusing to think of over-30 Fontaine’s goal to be a secretary. Not to mention the poor relation arrives with a gaggle of Hattie Carnegie dresses, swanned throughout Born to Be Bad

Joan Fontaine's Christabel feigns innocence in 1950's "Born to Be Bad." 

Joan Fontaine plays the part in perfect studio era style. The demure diva smirks as the supposedly sophisticated city folk fall for her manipulations. Or the left eyebrow that gets an aerobic workout every time Christabel gets away with her latest scheme. While Joan Fontaine was naturally pretty, it's an eye roll that men are falling all over her or that she's so charismatic that others are blinded by her blatant insincerity. The film’s posters describe Christabel as man-bait and a female savage! Rita Hayworth or Vivien Leigh, she ain’t. The spinster bob, plus a series of shoulderless gowns that accentuate her slightly hunched posture and modest bosom don’t help at all, either.

"Born to Be Bad" hardly lives up to the poster's captions or depicted cup size of Joan!

As Donna, Joan Leslie is natural and surprisingly holds her own. Just 25 at the time, and while no Janet Leigh or Eva Marie Saint, Leslie's playing is straightforward and strong. 

Joan Leslie's Donna realizes that scheming Christabel is "Born to Be Bad!

As the men in Christabel's life, there's Mel Ferrer as Gabriel Broome, the young artist who paints her portrait. Nicknamed “Gobby,” he’s more of a frenemy, and some film fans think he was a coded gay character. No wonder he didn’t fall prey to this perilous mantrap! Then there's Robert Ryan, well-cast as rugged author Nick Bradley, who sees through Christabel but can't help but be captivated by her alleged charms. I loved it when Ryan’s Nick declares he won’t be the vixen’s “backstreet boy!” Another staple of this era's type of film is the "smart" dialogue that comes off campy. And Ferrer and Ryan get the best/worst of the cheesy zingers, usually directed at that devil in disguise, Christabel.

A young Mel Ferrer plays a glib, gay young artist in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."
Robert Ryan is the rugged writer who charms himself & Joan Fontaine
in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."
Zachary Scott, at home in a tux or ascot, is the millionaire in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."

Zachary Scott played many characters who were either charmers, creeps, or both. Remember him as the cad Monty in Mildred Pierce? As Donna's rich fiancé Curtis Carey, he's sympathetic, but falls for Christabel's conniving. In the 90 minute film, Donna's out and Christabel is in by the half way mark! But, she still hankers for that rough-hewn Ryan. Natch, Christabel overplays her hand and soon enough gets caught and tossed out on her ear. Donna and the millionaire are reunited, natch. And Christabel contentedly drives off with a carload of furs. 

Carol Burnett as "Christinabelle" in her takeoff of "Born to Be Bad," called
"Raised to Be Rotten!" With Harvey Korman, so good at spoofing Scott's rich guys.

Carol Burnett was famed for her television show’s film takeoffs and she lampooned this type of film perfectly. Here, Born to Be Bad is called Raised to Be Rotten. Carol kicks it up a few notches, playing crafty "Christinabelle!" By the end of the skit, she’s a pickpocket to everyone along the way out. Burnett's spoof cleverly skewers every time Christinabelle and the rugged writer go into a clinch, she swoops into his arms, and the music swells. Or when guest star Richard Crenna as Ryan's writer tells Christinabelle to shorten her name! Carol's got Joan's arched eyebrows and smirk down pat and her bad girl aptly tells Crenna’s bad boy to “take your cheap repartee and get out!” This parody is so close to the bone it reminds me of Carol’s take off of Joan Crawford’s Torch Song.

One thing that makes me laugh about Robert Ryan's rugged artsy type is his proclamations about Christabel as a woman. It reminds me of Dane Clark as the opinionated artist giving Bette Davis guff in A Stolen Life or Steven Boyd's editor to new girl Hope Lange in The Best of Everything. The gist of which is generally: "You know what your problem is? You're afraid of being a real woman!" And their characters surely had a solution for what ailed the leading ladies’ “problem.”

"Read any good books lately?" Joan Fontaine's schemer is feeling Zachary Scott
but looking at Robert Ryan, in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."

Born to Be Bad is one of those post-war film noir soaps that served as showcases for its leading lady. Monster hit Mildred Pierce in '45 was surely the inspiration. Joan Crawford herself did a series of such films in the late '40s through the '50s, as did many established female stars. The formula was the film diva was either a woman in jeopardy or a scheming vixen. The latter usually afforded a film fashion show for the star. The supporting cast was usually a bevy of leading men who were knocked over like bowling pins by the star's feminine wiles. Any women in the movies, while usually younger than the star diva, were no competition. Even if the star's character paid for her sins at the finale, she had a lot of fun along the way. And so it is with Born to Be Bad. Enjoy!

Here’s the film that mixed film noir and soap opera, brought Joan Crawford back and created a subgenre for strong female stars.  My look at Mildred Pierce:

"Portrait of Joanie?" Mel Ferrer's artist creates this masterpiece
of Joan Fontaine's charismatic schemer in 1950's "Born to Be Bad."


  1. My first exposure to this movie was, like quite a few others, through the Carol Burnett parody! Later, I'd actually *see* the movies that I'd grown up watching be spoofed on her show and there would be an odd familiarity that I couldn't have otherwise known about. That's how well she and her pals did those (and, yes, Harvey was great at that type!) I'd have almost thought that Zachary should be the gay artist and Mel the ladykiller, but I guess they were happy to play against their real-life types. The name "Christabel" is bad enough, but it's hysterical that it was lengthened further to "Christinabel" by the TCBS writers. This movie was the first time I'd ever seen Joan Leslie in anything and I thought she was very lovely. Ought to have had a more significant career IMHO. I suspect Olivia de had no trouble buying li'l sis in a role like this one. Ha ha!

    1. ...thanks, Poseidon! Haven't seen it, but I love that Carol is still doing spoofs like "Palm Royale" at age 90! And I too thought Joan Leslie was natural and appealing, unlike a lot ingenues of her era. Cheers, Rick

    2. Carol is amazing in Palm Royale! She can still do the Tarzan yell! Has not lost a bit of her famous timing...still the reigning Queen of Comedy, even with this small but very key role. We'll see her even more in flashbacks, I hope...

    3. Hey Chris, sounds like Palm Royale is worth checking out! Rick

  2. Super fun movie, Rick, which I need to see again. I love Joan almost as much as I adore Olivia. I love them both a lot more than they loved each other...

    1. I'm far more an Olivia admirer, but Joan had her moments, too! Cheers, Rick

  3. I think Carol Burnett's spoof of Stolen Life is another great classic. After seeing Carol's spoof, I cannot watch the movie without referencing the spoof. As for Born to be Bad, it was a personal disappointment for Joan Fontaine. She had hoped it would allow to escape her shy and virginal English rose persona but it did so so business in its initial release.