Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BORN TO LOVE (1931)

The cynicism of Pre-Code cinema often is taken for granted, but film buffs and critics usually have the up-front themes and personalities of characters in mind. Hard times made cynical people, the thinking goes. But for real cynicism on the part of filmmakers you might not find a better example than Paul L. Stein's film of Ernest Pascal's screenplay.  Their cynicism takes the form of ruthless melodrama. Their story is of an American Red Cross nurse (Constance Bennett) who has a brief fling with an American flier (Joel McCrea) in London before he returns to the front, goes missing and is presumed dead. When it turns out that that fling got her pregnant, Sir Wilfred (Paul Cavanagh) steps in, offering to marry Doris and make her child legal. Predictably, the end of the war -- Born to Love is padded with a disproportionate Armistice Day celebration scene that's practically a standalone experiment in art cinema -- brings the real father, the flier, back from a POW camp. Sir Wilfred feels betrayed when Doris rekindles her romance with Barry Craig. He divorces Doris and claims custody of her child, practically daring her to challenge his right in court and have her boy dubbed a bastard. Instead, she acquiesces in a tragic accommodation, gaining limited visitation rights in return for renouncing Barry forever.

At this point Pascal has painted himself into a corner. Wilfred would be too good to be true if he renounced his rights and allowed a reunion of the child and his natural parents, and the lovers certainly aren't going to steal the child and flee to America. The best option, from a romantic standpoint, might have been for Doris to give up on the boy -- think of the pathos! -- and start over again with Barry, but I suppose audiences might have rebelled against an ending that left the kid to be raised by a spoilsport who was no blood kin. Somehow it was presumed more satisfactory to kill the boy. It's his birthday and Doris, living in modest circumstances (on settlement money from Wilfred?) has bought him a present. She's allowed to go to Wilfred's house to see the boy, after a very awkward exchange of pleasantries with her former husband that ends with him warning her not to go upstairs to the child's room. There's no stopping Doris, however, before she enters the room and finds (unseen to us) a little corpse. There's been no set-up for this, no discussion that I can recall of the kid's frailty. He just up and died because he was an inconvenient obstacle to the lovers' reunion. And of course, no sooner has Doris fled the place in raging despair ("Don't touch me!" she shrieks at Wilfred's pathetic attempt at consolation) that she finds Barry waiting in her flat, having been unable to walk away from her as she had urged. She breaks down sobbing in his arms, and it's a happy ending because you know they're going to be together now. These last scenes are awful in their contrivances -- why on Earth doesn't Wilfred tell Doris about the tragedy the moment she comes through his door? -- and show sharply why Constance Bennett, here a tragedienne, was better off in light comedy. She is quite bad here, especially when Doris gets to screaming at Wilfred, but no one's really good, though the film might be noteworthy for the most straightfaced performance ever given by Frederick Kerr, James Whale's irascible Baron Frankenstein, as the aristocrat hosting Doris for the duration. Wikipedia tells me that Born to Love was a modest hit despite mixed reviews. What that tells us about Pre-Code audiences is unclear, though for all I know the movie's Gordian Knot approach to Doris's dilemma may have appealed to Depression audiences impatient for similarly drastic solutions to the troubles from which Born to Love was a momentary, peculiar escape.


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thecragus said...

I have noticed a very strange image towards the end of this movie and was wondering if anyone else "sees" it and wonders if they had another ending in mind....When she walks upstairs to the bedroom and pulls off the covers of her "dead" baby, her hands move to her head as she cry out, at the same time, two hands can be seen moving up from the bottom of the crib towards her, as if a baby is "asking" to be picked up.....all this is done is silhouette but it looks quite clear to idea why this might be a stage hand.....what do you think?

AuntieLiLi said...

thecragus : YES! I saw that, too, and assumed that something must have happened to hideously disfigure the baby which was why the woman screams and runs out instead of picking the baby (or the body) up. Reminded me of Rosemary's Baby. But it bothered me because I could not think of any way that the baby could have been physically damaged such that the mother would give up on it. Not having the option to rewind and view it again, I searched online for any explanation of that ending, and discovered that, according to the reviews I read, the baby was meant to have died. This makes no sense to me either, as I thought the baby's arms reaching up was pretty clear, as you did. I was waiting for the ex-husband to provide some kind of explanation or verification, but all we got was "It happened this afternoon," which maybe could explain while the body was still there, but nothing else. If the baby died, I want to know how! If the baby's still alive, what happened?