It begins with a Dame who can’t stand Joes and a Joe who can’t trust Dames.
“All men are all alike—rich or poor—when it comes to women they’ve only got one idea in their head,” the Dame snarls to her bar-girl co-workers as they leave the night-club after a long shift of getting poked and prodded by lusty old men.
“If a guy makes a pass at you you wanna call out the police and if he don’t you wanna call the army,” the Joe mocks late one night to the Dame after meeting her on a boat bound for Coney Island. The Dame listens incredulously, stunned to find someone whose cynicism matches her own. They snarl and sneer, bicker and boast. And before the night is over, they will fall madly in love. Such is the set-up for Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl (1931), a curious pre-Code romance that has only become more fascinating with age. It seems almost detached from its time period, a bizarre anti-love story more suited for a modern cinematic climate of mumblecore indie flicks and general artistic derisiveness. Here is a film about two lovers who are not made for each other, who are not destined for marital bliss: two people incapable of trust, programmed to suspect the worst, unable (unwilling?) to properly communicate.
The film’s cynicism trumpets itself from the very first shot with the Dame, a young woman named Dorothy Haley (Sally Eilers), dressed in a lavish bridal gown alongside the other bar-girls for a faux wedding procession (complete with Wagner’s Bridal Chorus) for the perverse titillation of the night-club’s clientele.
Her first meeting with the Joe, Eddie Collins (James Dunn), seems a conscientious rejection of the stereotype of the Meet Cute: she tries and fails to seduce him after a friend bets her that she can’t do it after learning that he isn’t interested in “getting fresh.” After their first spat, Borzage uses an ironic jump fade to the end of the night showing that they’ve somehow hit it off. Before long they are “in love.” I use quotation marks because Borzage cheats the audience from experiencing why they’ve grown to care for each other…other than their shared animosity for the opposite sex. This leads us to the simple conclusion that they love each other for what they represent: exceptions to their sexual expectations.
As often happens with these kinds of stories, they are agreed to be married within a few days of meeting. But again Borzage surprises us: Eddie seems to propose to Dorothy not because he loves her but because he wants to protect her against her tyrannical brother. At first, they seem happy. But suspicions and secrets quickly pile up. More than once Dorothy flies into hysterics over the thought that Eddie has left her in response to his being a few minutes late. More than once Eddie goes behind Dorothy’s back to make life-changing financial decisions without her knowledge or participation. One particularly egregious example involves Eddie sinking all of his savings into buying an overly lavish apartment and then surprising her with it…alongside a crowd of their closest friends. She humiliates him with her reaction. But then again, maybe her response wouldn’t have been so extreme if she hadn’t been hiding her pregnancy for so long.
By the end of the film Eddie and Dorothy reconcile with the birth of their first child, both pledging themselves to monogamous domesticity (this is a Hollywood studio film, after all). But even with his capitulation to the almighty Happy Ending, notice how Borzage continues to subvert the tropes of the romantic melodrama. It is Dorothy who experiences the most revulsion and anxiety towards having a child.
The big emotional climax/debasement of the film belongs not to the woman but to the man: Eddie breaks down in pitiful sobs while begging an expensive obstetrician to take Dorothy’s case. The gender reversions continue in the hospital—the women in the maternity ward being calm, cool, and collected while the men in the waiting room literally faint and collapse in worry.
Dorothy and Eddie’s romance constitutes a whirlwind of contradictions: drawn to each other through distaste, married together in duplicity and distrust, reconciled through shared responsibility. If Frank Borzage is truly Hollywood’s greatest romanticist, then Bad Girl represents his evaluation of the pragmatic, practical concerns of love. Not everybody can have a Hollywood romance. After all, in real life love is hard, trying, and heart-breaking. But with Bad Girl Borzage dares to answer these dilemmas with one simple word: “And?”
Frank Borzage’s BAD GIRL (1931) has been previously released on DVD, but is currently out of print. You can find it for sale with resellers and streaming online.