Born to be Bad: Letty Strong
“Mal is what’s called a gentleman – a man with decent, proper instincts. And you’re an ill-bred little tramp. . . . Almost any woman can pick almost any man – your way, the cheap way – used by cheap women. But it won’t last. Men like Mal are after diamonds, not rhinestones.” – Born to be Bad (1934)
When I first saw Loretta Young in Born to Be Bad, I was shocked – shocked, I tell you!! – at some of the things I saw her do and say. That’s not to say I didn’t love her performance in this Lowell Sherman-directed film. Simply that some of the scenes literally left me with my mouth open.
We hear about Young’s character, Letty Strong, before we see her. As the film opens, a trio of swells is seated at a table in a swanky nightclub, taking in a vision across the room (“That’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life,” says one). We learn from their in-the-know wine steward that the woman in question frequents the club night after night, always with a different man, and always clad in a different gown. As the camera takes us across the dance floor, we finally see the object of their appreciation – Letty, seated at the bar, enjoying a cocktail and the company of two admirers.
In stark contrast, when we next see Letty, she’s seated at a dressing table in a spacious but slightly shabby apartment, now clothed in frequently seen Pre-Code attire – a lacy bra and step-ins. It’s then that we learn that Letty has a seven-year-old son named Mickey (Jackie Kelk) — information that is delivered, along with the boy, by the local truant officer. It’s after Letty charms the officer into letting Mickey off with a warning that we get our first glimpse into her persona – and the first scene that leaves my mouth agape. Mickey explains that the truant officer caught up with him while he was hauling a stash of empty beer bottles to sell for two cents a pop. First Letty calls him a “cheap little thief” (though she seems to say it more as a casual observation than with any degree of censure), but when she discovers that he’s wrapped the bottles in one of her nightgowns, she slaps his face, whacks him on the back, and chases him across the room. They end up briefly on the floor with her on top of him, shaking him and delivering more blows, as he screams for her to stop. She does, suddenly, then breaks into a laugh and smothers him with a long kiss – letting up only when he kicks her. (“You shouldn’t kick your mother, Mickey,” she remarks, to which he replies, “Why not? You always told me to fight back when anyone takes a poke at me.”)
Besides being more than a little startling, the scene goes a long way toward giving us a glimpse inside Letty’s personality – she’s hard, cynical and streetwise, and is raising her son to be the same. We learn more about Letty when she is visited by a family friend, “Fuzzy” (Henry Travers). As it turns out, Letty has never been married, and had Mickey when she was just 15 years old – Fuzzy took her in when she showed up, alone and pregnant, on his doorstep. It’s from Fuzzy that we find out just what kind of mother Letty has turned out to be: “It’s about Mickey – he’s the talk of the neighborhood,” Fuzzy tells her. “He smokes, don’t go to school, he runs around with a lot of roughnecks that’s older than he is, and he’s always in trouble. If you’re trying to raise him to be a first-rate scoundrel with a complete lack of ethics and morals, you’re certainly succeeding. The poor little fellow don’t know good from bad, and if he finally lands in prison, he can thank you!” Fuzzy also hints at Letty’s profession which, ostensibly, is some sort of dress model, but actually appears to be closer to a high-class call girl: “You think I’m a doddering old fool – a buttinsky, maybe. Well, you’re wrong. I ain’t so dumb. I know you can’t wear the clothes you wear and do the things you do and not pay for it – one way or the other!”
But Fuzzy’s remonstrations fall on deaf, stubborn, self-righteous ears – Letty believes in making sure her son has no illusions about the real world and is equipped so that nobody can put one over on him (“Honor and decency – that’s a lot o’ hash!”). We don’t have to wait long for Letty to provide a stark illustration of her philosophy – when Mickey is hit by a dairy truck while skating in the street. He isn’t seriously hurt, but when Letty realizes that the remorseful truck driver (played by a young Cary Grant), is actually the dairy company’s owner, she sees a golden opportunity to cash in. She convinces Mickey to fake an injury, but when evidence is produced in court showing that Mickey wasn’t hurt after all, Letty loses custody of him: “I can find no words too severe to label a woman who would permit her child to be dragged into such proceedings,” the judge tells her. “A woman like you doesn’t deserve a child.”
Throughout most of the film, Letty stays true to character – in one scene pulling a gun on the dairy company owner to force his aid in regaining custody of Mickey, and in another, seducing him and recording their one-night stand with plans to blackmail him. Her abuse of Mickey continues as well – it seems like she’s either slapping and shaking him, or verbally berating him, every chance she gets. Still, by the last reel, this woman – who was described as “bad” by no less than three characters (including herself) – finds herself transformed and compelled to make the supreme sacrifice for her son’s best interest. It’s a rather abrupt and contrived transformation, coming as it does in the last 10 minutes or so of the film, but Young’s portrayal throughout the film is so compelling, and such a departure from her later, mostly upstanding characterizations, that we happily go along.
Born to be Bad is available on DVD: http://amzn.to/iXn7tR