Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Good Bad Girl (Columbia, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Good Bad Girl was a 1931 “B” from Columbia (with that delightfully cheesy early-Columbia logo with a cartoon Statue of Liberty and the words “A Columbia Production” in an arc over its head) based on a 1926 novel of the same title by one Winifred Van Duzer. It was essentially gangster movie meets soap opera, but with the soap opera elements much stronger than the gangster ones: Marcia Cameron (Mae Clarke, top-billed), is the mistress of gang boss Dan Tyler (Robert Ellis), but is disgusted with his criminal involvement and wants to leave him. Dan, in turn, threatens to kill her if she leaves — and also to murder any other man she might be involved with. Said other man is Bob Henderson (James Hall), whom she’s been seeing so secretly they’ve agreed not even to tell each other their names, sort of like Last Tango in Paris. When Dan asks Marcia to provide him an alibi for his latest murder, she refuses, and as a result he ends up in prison.

Marcia accepts Bob’s marriage proposal and the two stay together long enough that Marcia gets pregnant (which in movies usually happens the first time two people have sex!), but when she’s “outed” by the reporters covering Tyler’s trial Bob’s snooty society parents (Edmund Breese and Nance O’Neil) demand that they break up. Obediently, Bob puts his tail between his legs and heads off to Paris for a divorce, and the Hendersons then set their sights on Marcia and demand that she turn over her child to them. At first she refuses, but when Marcia’s friend and roommate Trixie (Marie Prevost in a marvelous comic-relief performance that’s the best thing in the film) shows up from the restaurant above which they live, and where they both work, with two bottles in her hand and a goodly supply of alcohol already in her body, an embarrassed Marcia decides that giving up the kid is for the best. Meanwhile, Tyler escapes from prison, determined to gun down both Marcia and Bob — only the police catch up to him in Marcia’s apartment, there’s a gun battle in which the police shoot down Tyler while miraculously both Marcia and her son escape unscathed, and Marcia attempts to hide out but her husband, having returned from France still legally married to her, catches up to her on the street and they reconcile.

The Good Bad Girl had real potential — especially with Roy William Neill directing and Jo Swerling writing the script — but there are only sporadic flare-ups of Swerling’s usual comic brilliance (notably one line in which, commenting on the news that Tyler has fled to Philadelphia to avoid arrest, Trixie says, “Nobody goes to Philadelphia unless they have to”) and Neill’s direction includes a few atmospheric shots — some of the gangland scenes are shot as just flashes of light in otherwise intense darkness, and for the final clinch Neill takes his camera above the reunited couple and ends with an odd three-quarter closeup of Mae Clarke from an odd angle above her. But most of the movie’s potential entertainment value is drowned by the relentless soapiness of the material, which is played to the max by all hands, and though unquestionably a product of the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost (in 1937 the Production Code Administration refused to allow Columbia to remake it because it dealt with “two illicit sexual relationships”) it’s also a really dull movie that never quite builds up the ferocious energy it needed (imagine it made at Warners with one of their speedfreak directors and Bette Davis in the female lead!).