The Bad Sister (1931)

As my movie-watching is increasingly outstripping my limited blogging time, I’m going to do a few shorter reviews of films I’ve seen recently, before they completely fade in my memory! This is also an excuse to post the pictures I’ve gathered together.  This melodramatic pre-Code directed by the little-known Hobart Henley is no masterpiece, putting it mildly. Based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt,  it is very static and soapy, with awkward, stilted dialogue, and has dated far more than many other films from the same era – but it’s interesting mainly because of its cast. 

It was Bette Davis’ first film and also stars Humphrey Bogart – both are cast completely against what later became their types, with Davis as the “good” and dowdy sister, Laura, and Bogart as a smooth and charming young conman, Valentine. Looking at him in this you can glimpse why one early review of a stage performance said he was “as handsome as Valentino”. Zasu Pitts, star of silent classic Greed, also features as the family maid, Minnie, an added bonus – while Bert Roach, who plays a kindly, bumbling character in another silent classic, King Vidor’s The Crowd, is similarly kind and bumbling here.  


However, the main star is Sidney Fox, who, like Davis, was in her debut role, playing “bad sister” Marianne Madison. Fox sadly had a tragic life, died young and is now all but forgotten, but in this she has a brief chance to sparkle. Her character is not so much “bad” as spoilt, as she twists various men round her little finger, including rich but shy Wade Trumbull (Roach) and noble Dr Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), who both want to marry her, and her doting dad (Charles Winninger). 

As everyone runs around after Marianne, nobody notices that Laura is pining away with silent love for Dick. Davis is pretty good as the quiet, repressed Laura, though I’d love to see what she would have made of Marianne. 

Conrad Nagel, Sidney Fox and Humphrey BogartAnyway, as for the plot… predictable disaster ensues when Marianne  falls for a stranger in their small town, Val Corliss  (Bogart), who has a fancy car. He isn’t so much interested in her as he is in getting her dad’s endorsement for a dodgy get-rich-quick scheme. Bogart doesn’t have all that much to do in this apart from looking handsome, but he appeared with Fox again in another 1930s melodrama, Midnight (1934), which I hope to see soon. 

Despite all the famous names in this cast, many scenes are stolen by a youngster, David Durand, who plays the  two girls’ younger brother, Hedrick. He is over-the-top and annoying in just the way that many kids are in real life, and gets far more screen time than he really should in terms of the plot!  

Bette Davis staying in the background here

 This film only seems to be available on a French DVD with forced subtitles, but I saw it at a well-known website. If you want to read more about it, check out the review at She Blogged by Night. 

Sidney Fox and Bogart

7 thoughts on “The Bad Sister (1931)

  1. Interesting look at a rare film Judy. This is truly early early Davis and Bogart, pre-Warners! Doubt it is even available here in the States, maybe in a bootleg format if at that. I am assuming Bogie had a small role in this. Great job and a great find!


    • Well, if you want to catch it, John, I saw it on a very popular video clips website – it’s still up there at the moment, though I don’t know for how long.
      Bogie actually has a reasonably big part in this, a lot more screen time than he gets in ‘Three on a Match’, but sadly doesn’t get much chance to show any character – it’s all a case of smiling and being smarmy. Thanks for the kind comments.:)


  2. Well Judy, it’s historically important as Davis’s first film, but the fact that it’s also based on a Booth Tarkington novel (and we all know what else he penned! Ha!) It’s also rather amazing that the youngster David Durand gives the most memorable performance in a film with these celebrated stars (including the great Zasu Pitts, who as you note, starred in GREED) Interesting too (and sad) to read about Sidney Fox, who also played the Madmoiselle in Robert Florey’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE in 1932. Apparently she died from an overdose of sleeping pills. In any case, I am hardly surprised that the dialogue here is static and stilted, as this was typical for the first two years of the 30’s.

    Wonderful review of a rarely-seen film.


    • Must admit I knew very little about Booth Tarkington, Sam – I see from Wikipedia that he wrote the original novels of ‘Alice Adams’ and ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him but, from a quick glance at ‘Alice Adams’ at Amazon, it looks pretty good, so I may have to put that right.

      Just to clarify that I don’t think David Durand gives the most memorable performance in this film (I’m slightly torn between Davis and Fox on that front, though Pitts has some good moments too as the maid), but he is a shameless scene-stealer, in the way that many child actors are! I do agree that many films were static and stilted at this time, but I’ve been spoilt recently by watching so many Wellmans, which never fall into that trap. Many thanks for your comments, as ever.


  3. Judy, I appreciate your reviewing this movie. A while back I bookmarked it to watch, but haven’t as of yet b/c of other movies taking a higher priority. I’ll have to rectify that soon. I didn’t realize that Bette Davis plays the good sister while Sidney Fox plays the title role. Should be interesting to watch. Looking forward also to seeing Bogart. Thanks for reviewing this film!


    • Thanks, CagneyFan – it is interesting to see Davis and Bogart so early in their career and both playing characters who aren’t what you’d expect.


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