Bad Girl (1931) is a meaningless title because there's no bad girl in it, but visitors to the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming retrospective "William Fox Presents" (May 18 - June 5) will experience a rare pleasure when they're able to see this Frank Borzage pre-Coder, adapted from a novel and play by Vina Delmar, who later wrote The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow.
Borzage is a master of sentiment so sincere it transcends the maudlin and attains a sublime Hollywood romanticism. Delmar can be more cynical, but her dry wit by no means cancels out her director's warmth. And they have three stars who prove very pure transmitters of these auteurs' joint world-view.
It's a boy-meets-girl story, or actually more of a girl-meets-boy one (the end credits identify the main characters simply as "The Girl" and "The Boy). Like other Borzage pre-Codes such as Living on Velvet and Man's Castle, it sets up a romance where the guy is the problem, due to him having too much or too little of a desirable quality. This is amplified here by both characters making some pretty basic errors of communication for the sake of drama, but let's overlook that because the story is beautiful and funny and touching. It's a movie composed almost entirely of grace notes and unexpected acts of kindness.
Sally Eilers, The Girl, rose out of bit-parts at Fox (she can be glimpsed in the early Howard Hawks films Fazil and Paid to Love, also showing in this season, and has a starring role in another, Hat Check Girl). She was popular for a time, but her fame didn't last and her appearances gradually become more sporadic. A shame, as she's bright, charming and natural.
James Dunn, her co-star, usually played overly bright, sunny chappies with a desperate smile suggesting he didn't quite have faith in his own star persona. Alcoholism sped his decline to B-pictures until Elia Kazan took a major chance by casting him in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) in a role almost cruelly close to his own nature: a perennial optimist doomed by drink and his inability to anticipate disaster. One of the most startling moments in this film, or in any Hollywood film, is when Dunn reflects on his late father: "he sold his coat for a drink and caught pneumonia," uncannily anticipating his own fate in his most famous film.
Dunn is equally brilliantly cast here, counter to his usual unconvincing cheerful roles: rather than exploring the cracks in that facade as Kazan would do, Borzage bulldozers it altogether. Dunn plays prematurely bitter, cautious, unromantic, disparaging of marriage and child-rearing, determined to achieve financial independence... and gradually drawn into exactly the kind of conventional, impoverished life he's been so resistant to. His natural anxiety is given full freedom, and his attempts to be warm and twinkly shine through only in bursts, which makes him more appealing and a lot more believable. He also has a signature gesture, like Toshiro Mifune in a Kurosawa film, only instead of hitching his shoulders or wiping his nose, he gives a shy, offhand salute, hand flipping limply down from one brow, the most casual sign-off imaginable.
There's also Minna Gombell, one of those great best friend characters the pre-Code years abound with: a skeptical sidekick in the Ruth Donnelly vein. Rather than mocking social norms like Dunn's character, she mocks men, and especially Dunn. He's not a sex pest like nearly every other figure in pants here, but his very abstinence from freshness makes him suspect. The guy ain't right in the head.
The troupe of adapters transferring Delmar's book and play to the screen haven't troubled themselves with an excess of opening-out: they're quite content to spend ten pages sitting on a tenement staircase with our leads, and we don't resent it for a moment. Still, there are some big scenes, including a prize-fight where Dunn tries to raise funds to pay for a decent doctor to attend the pregnant Eilers, but the film is mainly a study in small gestures and glances, the language of love, with an overlay of wisecracks.
Along the way, the lovers acquire a nice apartment they can't afford, and it has a rooftop that serves as another of those lovers eyries beloved of Borzage since 7th Heaven (1927). The characters stand on the set (the whole movie is sound stages apart from exciting Coney Island footage) and admire the city (a miniature), the East River (a studio tank) and the stars. "Not phony ones, either," boasts Dunn. They are, though. By nudging us to notice the artifice, Borzage affirms his self-conscious romanticism: to be knowingly romantic is to admit your opposition to mundane reality. If the film has no obvious expression of Borzage's spirituality, it perhaps still hints at it in sublime moments like this: above the tenements are the stars; beyond them is the studio lighting grid; but beyond that, perhaps something else?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay