CMBA Hidden Classics Blogathon: Bad Sister (1931)

Up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of the movie Bad Sister. Then I read a book called Hollywood’s Hard-Luck Ladies by Laura Wagner (which I highly recommend, by the way). The book centers on 23 actresses who “suffered early deaths, accidents, missteps, illnesses, and tragedies.” The chapter on actress Sidney Fox noted that her film debut was in the 1931 feature Bad Sister – which was also the first feature film for Bette Davis – and that Fox played a “horrible little wretch.” The picture’s intriguing title, the fact that it was Davis’s first film appearance, and the description of Fox’s character all combined to make this a must-see for me. So you can imagine my delight when I found it on You Tube – and my utter satisfaction to discover that it lived up to its promise!

Produced by Carl Laemmle, the film was based on a 1913 Booth Tarkington novel, The Flirt, and centers on a middle-class, small-town Ohio family, the Madisons. The family includes Mr. and Mrs. Madison (Charles Winninger and Emma Dunn), and their children, the self-absorbed Marianne (Sidney Fox), kind but reserved Laura (Bette Davis), and mischievous Hedrick (David Durand).

Marianne is the kinda gal who could benefit immensely from a slap in the kisser.

Like her own world, the film revolves around Marianne, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a clear idea of just what kind of person she is. When we first meet her, she’s lying in bed; the wall above her is decorated with a series of large photographs – each is of Marianne. The family maid, Minnie (Zasu Pitts), enters to announce that breakfast is ready, and Marianne leisurely requests that her meal be served to her in bed. Minnie – who’s no slouch in the smart-mouth department – vehemently objects and Marianne lets loose with a series of insults, calling her stupid, common and ignorant. Later, Marianne asks her father for $50 (a sum which, adjusted for inflation, would be a whopping $800 today) to buy a new dress, employing every device from cloying sweetness, to fury, to tears until her father caves in.

Marianne jumps in the car with this guy.

Marianne is sought after by several suitors, including Wade Trumbull (Bert Roach), who’s overweight and a little goofy, but owns a successful insurance business, and Dr. Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), who is also the target of unrequited love from Marianne’s sister, Laura. Marianne, meanwhile, continues to show that she is a real piece of work – while on a date with Lindley (who had the nerve to show up at her house sans transportation, expecting her to take THE BUS), Marianne encounters a man driving an expensive car and literally jumps in beside him, leaving Dick on the street alone. The man, Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart), is a stranger in town but will figure prominently in the film’s plot – he woos Marianne with his big-city sophistication, and attracts the town’s leaders with his plans to build a factory and his assurances that they can get rich by signing on as partners. Unfortunately for Marianne and her family, Corliss is not all that he appears to be – a realization that they discover the hard way.

Bad Sister is worth watching for a number of reasons. First off, it’s fascinating as the first film of Bette Davis, who is my absolute favorite actress. But while there are a few brief flashes of the brilliant performer that Davis would become, there aren’t many. It’s really Sidney Fox’s show. She has the juicier part and she makes the most of it. Her Marianne is a self-centered bitch, a social climber who’s not above stepping on anyone – including members of her own family – in order to get her way.

Hedrick isn’t falling for the okey doke.

Interestingly, Marianne’s parents are either completely oblivious to her true nature, or they make a conscious effort to overlook her potential for nastiness. It almost as if they’re so delighted with her beauty and her popularity and her style, that they’re able to convince themselves that she’s really not that horrible. Like the scene where Marianne not only comes home with a new dress but new shoes – when she tells her mother that she just had to have them, and charged them to her father, Mrs. Madison first frowns and says, “You shouldn’t have done it.” But seconds later, practically against her own will, she says admiringly, “But they are pretty!” One person who isn’t fooled by Marianne’s charms is her little brother, Hedrick. He constantly gets under her skin; at breakfast, he graphically describes the kissing sounds she made the night before, and he delights in exposing her plans to ditch Wade in favor of Dr. Lindley – right in front of Wade! And he really sets her off when he makes Marianne pay him to stay away when Corliss is invited to dinner, and then shows up anyway, plopping down right beside the guest of honor and cheekily inquiring: “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Val charms them all.

Humphrey Bogart who, up to this point in his career, had appeared in only three full-length films, is intriguing to watch, especially if you’re more familiar with his later performances in pictures like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Like his characters in those films, he’s smooth here, too, and loaded with a certain kind of charm, but he’s clearly up to no good. He plays the entire family like one big fiddle, giving each of them what they want – enticing Marianne with the promise of freeing her from her “one-horse” home town, luring Mr. Madison with the notion of being secretary and treasurer of his corporation, drawing Mrs. Madison in with the notion of being the wife of a big-time businessman – he even charms the normally acerbic Minnie, gallantly taking her in his arms when she’s tripped by Hedrick: “I think you’re just wonderful,” she swoons.

Clocking in at an economical 68 minutes, Bad Sister doesn’t have a single dull moment – the performances are noteworthy and the story is interesting and multifaceted, containing just the right amount of melodrama, pathos, humor, and pre-Code badness. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

You only owe it yourself.

Other Stuff:

This is the third version of the Booth Tarkington novel. It was filmed as The Flirt in 1916 and 1922. Both the 1922 and 1931 versions were produced by Carl Laemmle.

The film’s cinematographer was Karl Freund, who I know best as the director of photography for I Love Lucy. On the big screen, he was behind the camera for such classics as Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Key Largo (1948).

Sidney Fox, in better days.

Sidney Fox had been named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931 (along with such future stars as Joan Blondell, Frances Dee, and Karen Morley), and was seen in good roles the following year in The Mouthpiece, opposite Warren William, and Once in Lifetime with Jack Oakie. But her few follow-up films were mostly forgettable, and her life off-screen was a rocky one, with an on-again, off-again marriage to an abusive husband. Her last big screen appearance came just a few years after Big Sister, and she died at the age of 34 from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Bad Sister is the first of seven movies in which Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart appeared together. The others were Three on a Match (1932), The Petrified Forest (1936), Kid Galahad (1937), Marked Woman (1937), and Dark Victory (1939). (Not a clunker among ‘em!)


This article is part of the Hidden Classics Blogathon, presented by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to discover more great classics to add to your must-see list!

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 20, 2021.

8 Responses to “CMBA Hidden Classics Blogathon: Bad Sister (1931)”

  1. Thanks for your tangy write up of “Bad Sister” featuring screen debuts of Sidney Fox and Bette David .. I just watched it. Upon reflection, what a contrast in careers going in different directions. Amusing how Bogart’s voice in the movie seems an octave higher than later films. And energetic David Durand has the best lines. I remember him from early Our Gang episodes and hilarious (and nearly forgotten) Terry Kelly shorts.

    • Thank you — I think “tangy” is my favorite description of all time! And you are SO right about Bogart’s voice — I’d started to mention it myself. I didn’t know that David Durand was in the Our Gang shorts!

  2. Sidney Fox is an actress who intrigues me. I’d love to see this. It’s interesting how Warners tried to keep Bette in the background in so many of her earliest films, but clearly she wasn’t having it. Thanks for writing about this film – sounds like fun.

    • Thanks for your tangy review of “Bad Sister” – very enjoyable! I just watched the movie on YouTube and I was struck how Bogart’s voice seemed an octave or two higher than in later films. And, it’s interesting that the film careers of Fox and Davis, after making their debuts here, would soon split in separate directions. I especially liked David Durand’s energetic performance that breathed life into several draggy scenes. He scored with multiple potent zingers and verbal darts – I remember him from his “Our Gang” days as well as very amusing “Terry Kelly” shorts.

  3. Karen, you always find gems. Thanks for the heads up on this one. 🙂

  4. “Clocking in at an economical 68 minutes,…”

    —-Ever since I began watching films like Bad Sister, and noir from the 1940s and ’50s, it’s almost impossible to watch contemporary film without casting a jaundiced, weather eye at how long a writer takes to get plot unspooling and establish the main characters in cases where there’s no cause to dawdle or meander.

    Even recent films as acclaimed as Marriage Story (2019 [and a wretched, bleary 137 minutes long]) are filled with bloat, pointless characters, fatty paragraphs, and self-indulgent foolishness compared to the lean brilliance of character studies such as Woman on the Run (1950, 77m) and The Narrow Margin (1952, 71m).

    This is from someone who was rapt throughout Stalker’s (1979) 168 minutes. Tip to writers: When in doubt, Get on with it.

    • Ha! I totally agree, Blair. While I can certainly appreciate a long movie that makes sense, the films from the Golden Age certainly showed that effective and excellent stories could be told in half the time. I wonder how/why the trend toward longer films began. It seems almost unthinkable for a feature film today to be 68 minutes long!

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