Adapted from the novel Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt, Bad Sister is an intriguing drama of family betrayal and loss. Starring Bette Davis in her first screen role as Laura, the younger plainer sister of the glamorous titular character Marianne (Sidney Fox), the film deals with how a partying spendthrift suddenly becomes aware of the damage her behaviour has caused.
This isn’t a particularly critical film, not one that particularly focuses on the moral behaviour of Marianne’s action, as she is as much the subject of betrayal as any other character – but she is the catalyst. In fact we are invited, as the audience, to enjoy what she gets up to.
Marianne has several suitors – the rotund and sweet Wade (Bert Roach) she is bored by, and her favoured beau Dr Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel) soon takes a back seat when she meets the dashing stranger Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart). To complicate matters her sister Laura loves Dick and is in silent agony at the way Marianne treats him. Marianne is accidentally cruel and behaves very selfishly towards the men in her life, never letting the other know she’s not interested – more just letting them cotton on themselves and drift away. But it’s the arrival of Humphrey Bogart’s character, with a business proposition for Marianne and Laura’s father, which drives the story forward.
The original poster tagline was “The story of a girl who wanted everything!” but what does that mean? A scene where the young brother teases Laura as she hangs out the laundry, may seem surprising for modern audiences. The implication is clear as the young boy laughs about the difference between Laura’s plain underwear and Marianne’s risque lacy knickers as they are pegged to the washing line. Marianne, we understand, has reason to wear such scanty items; she wants… everything.
For a film made in the early 1930s it is also surprisingly visual. That may seem a weird thing to say, but early talkies (this came out only 4 years after The Jazz Singer) could be very dialogue heavy – but the most brilliant and affecting scenes in this movie are purely reaction shots, people behaving with truly heartbreaking moments of silent sadness. There is trust in the audience to draw their own conclusions. Bette Davis is fabulous in these moments. Her eyes tell us everything we need to know, and it is very surprising to discover that upon seeing a screening of the film she was so distressed by her performance she left early and cried all the way home.
Bad Sister is an entertaining film which twists and turns, with surprises and beautifully depicted heartache. It’s light and dark and, at 64 minutes long, zips right by like an elegantly staged short play. The performances are great, and watching them its clear that Bogart and Davis exude star quality. It’s interesting to see so many strong female characters in such an early movie, especially as one of them in particular is provoking the behaviour of men as opposed to the other way round. The social roles may be fixed but the exploration of an other life is, for its time, fascinating. It’s very sad that Sidney Fox died so young, as judging by this film she could have had a long career.
Bad Sister is out on DVD on Monday 18th April, and is worth a look.