Thursday, April 01, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Bad Sister (1931)

The Bad Sister isn't a particularly auspicious start to Bette Davis' screen career: She plays second fiddle to forgotten starlet Sidney Fox in this dull, perfunctory family drama with flat characters and little tension. Fox is the title character, a selfish slut who strings along three different suitors and milks her naive dad for money, while Davis plays the good sister, who mostly stands in the background and looks on disapprovingly while pining away for a doctor who's one of her sister's admirers. She's decidedly frumpy compared to the vibrant (if obnoxious) Fox, and certainly doesn't look like a future superstar.

Humphrey Bogart fares far better in one of his earliest roles as a slick out-of-towner who is obviously a con man from the moment he proposes a business deal to the sisters' bumbling father. This horrendously predictable ruse plays out as the movie's main plotline, holding back until the very end what is plain to see right away. At least Bogart is effectively oily, and he and Fox make for a good villainous pair until he ditches her (also obvious) and she unrealistically repents, leading to a disingenuous (and rushed) happy ending. Waiting for Fox to get her comeuppance is about the only reason to stick with the plodding story, and it never even comes. Instead her poor dad has to pay for her mistakes.

If not for Davis' debut, The Bad Sister would almost certainly be lost to time, and as it is the movie isn't easy to find (the only way I could watch it was in a low-quality version with French subtitles on MySpace Video). It's little more than a curio for Bette Davis fans or connoisseurs of early sound film or pre-Code Hollywood (a scene with Davis hanging panties on a clothesline is really the only risque thing in the movie, though). There's an occasional glimmer of the Davis to come, but otherwise, like the movie, she's barely noticeable.

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