The Bad Sister
A minor film with a major claim to fame, Hobart Henley’s The Bad Sister was intended as a vehicle for Conrad Nagel and Sidney Fox, the latter of whom plays the disreputable sibling of the title. Today its fame rests on two supporting cast members; Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role as the smooth but untrustworthy Val Corliss, and Bette Davis in her feature debut as Laura Madison.
Watching Davis’s performance today, you wonder if she was looking at Fox and taking notes. Fox’s Marianne is the kind of boldly unsympathetic role that would Davis would later claim as her own in films like Jezebel and Of Human Bondage. Here, she’s stuck reacting to Marianne’s adultery and dealing with her growing feelings for Marianne’s beleaguered husband Dick, played by Conrad Nagel. It’s hard to see what Laura really sees in Dick, other than a sense that this sap is the best she’s likely to get. Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle would probably have had some sympathy with that viewpoint, infamously saying of Davis during production “Can you imagine some poor guy going through hell and high water and getting her at the fade-out?”
Laemmle would rather not have employed Davis at all, but the debuting actress had an important ally in cinematographer Karl Freund, who had shot Der Golem and Metropolis before leaving Germany for Hollywood. Freund can make a fair claim to be the first person to recognise Davis’s star quality, and his shadowy yet impressively clear cinematography is one of the film’s main assets. Aside from Davis’s performance, which is very watchable, the other key point in The Bad Sister’s favour is the script, adapted by Edwin H Knopf, Raymond L Schrock and Tom Reed from Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt.
Tarkington is now best-remembered for two film adaptations: the 1935 Katherine Hepburn vehicle Alice Adams and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. During the days of the silents and the early talkies Tarkington adaptations were a huge industry; both of those films were remakes, and so is The Bad Sister, with The Flirt having been filmed twice under its original title before Henley’s film. Tarkington’s story has a moral scheme as black-and-white as Freund’s cinematography, but there’s a level of precision and snap to his dialogue that’s above what you’d expect from such a simple story.
There’s a few pleasures around the edges of The Bad Sister. Fox is good value, particularly her sudden faint when Davis slaps her, and ZaSu Pitts plays the family maid in her typical OTT style, squeaking out loud “HMPH!”s every time something displeases her. Strangely, one of them isn’t Bogart, who is unrecognisably fresh-faced and seems a little too green to really dig into the corruption of his character. Compared to the man who would re-team with Davis just five years later in The Petrified Forest, he’s unrecognisable, and yet the character of Val is still interesting enough to carry him along. Tarkington wrote The Flirt in 1913, before the scandals of the Harding administration and the Wall Street Crash soured America’s relationship with its nascent business class. Yet a 1931 audience would probably have seen a lot of topical relevance in Val’s manipulation of everything, even love, into a short-term attempt to gain profit. If The Flirt was remade a fourth time, perhaps he’d be driving up the prices of HIV drugs, or running for president.