As part of the Joan Fontaine Centennial, Noir City DC programmed two of her noir titles that often get overlooked: Ivy (1947) and Born to Be Bad (1950). Eddie Muller introduced the films by commenting on Fontaine’s tempestuous relationship with her sister Olivia de Havilland, taking sibling rivalry to a whole other level. De Havilland was born first and became an actress first, but Fontaine was always close behind, spouting an “I can do it, too” attitude. Fontaine won her first Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar in 1941 for Suspicion, the same year de Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn. (De Havilland won her first Oscar in 1946 with To Each His Own.) Mutual congratulations were not part of their family dynamic. It got worse: de Havilland didn’t tell Fontaine of their mother’s death for weeks. At one time Fontaine told a reporter something along the lines of ‘I married first, won an Oscar first, and she’ll be mad if I die first!’
De Havilland was offered the lead in Ivy but turned it down since she felt the role was too much like the one she had just played in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror. Fontaine, never missing a trick, said, “I’ll take it!” Fontaine certainly took it, but the film never really took off with audiences or critics. Yet Muller praised the film, stating “To me, this movie is as noir as anything filmed in 1947.” The film boasts two of the greatest costume designers in Hollywood history, Orry-Kelly and an uncredited Travis Banton, was photographed by Russell Metty, and produced by William Cameron Menzies.
Ivy is a “gaslight noir” whose title character Ivy Lexton ravenously seduces men even though she has a husband (Richard Ney). As to the similarity of Fontaine’s characters in both Ivy and Born to Be Bad, Muller calls the latter “reincarnation noir.” You know from the moment you see Una O’Connor emerging from the shadows as a fortune teller in the film’s opening that you’re in for a treat.
Born to Be Bad was a film that didn’t come about easily. Fontaine bought the rights to the novel All Kneeling by Anne Parrish and went through seven screenwriters before getting the approval of Howard Hughes at RKO. At the time, Fontaine was married to producer William Dozier, who was looking for work. Hughes said that he would give Dozier a job if Dozier would let him have his way with Fontaine. (See? The Harvey Weinstein situation is nothing new.) Fontaine told him to forget it. When things finally started looking up for the film, Paul Stewart (one of my favorite actors) wanted to direct and was turned down, upsetting him so much that he left Hollywood for the theater for years until finally returning to film in 1949 for Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window. Born to Be Bad was eventually directed by Nicholas Ray, a favorite of Hughes, who guarded and protected him. (Who knows why?)
Muller described the film as “Horrible nasty characters doing horrible nasty things to each other” and “a bitchy, catty noir,” which seems right on target to me. It really does seem like the character from Ivy has been reincarnated into 1950s San Francisco. After the film ended, we were treated to a very interesting alternate ending (which is available on the Warner Archive DVD). I highly recommend both films.
Photos: Ratocine, TCM, IMDb