October 18, 2019 | by Shannon
What do you get when you put Paul Muni and Bette Davis together in a film? You get some fine acting, that’s for sure! Bordertown (1935) is a quite dramatic film. It verges on soap opera status several times. But Muni and Davis are such pros, they keep the film out of soap territory, and we are left believing that this far fetched story could actually happen!
If you missed Bordertown on Monday, it’s still available on tcm.com through Sunday. You can also purchase the film here on Amazon. [aff. link] I really enjoyed Bordertown and definitely recommend it if you want a dramatic and fun way to spend an hour and a half!
Muni plays Johnny Ramirez, a motivated and bright guy working his way to prestige and financial security from the Los Angeles slum he was born in. A mechanic by day and a law student by night, after five years of blood, sweat, and tears, Johnny earns his law degree and sets up his own practice.
Trouble is, none of Johnny’s clients can pay their court fees, let alone pay Johnny. He’s having a tough time making ends meet until a seemingly golden case comes his way: a slightly tipsy socialite, Dale Elwell (Margaret Lindsay), speeding down the street and driving recklessly, hits Johnny’s friend and his vegetable truck.
A Learning Gap and Major Consequences
It seems like an easy case, but Johnny suffers from the huge learning gap between law school and his first time in court. The judge, unfortunately, is unsympathetic to him. (Actually he seems downright biased against Johnny!) And Dale’s attorney happens to be her pompous boyfriend Brook Manville (played to I-want-to-slap-your-face perfection by Gavin Gordon) who was with her in the car when the hit occurred.
Johnny loses the case. Then Brook Manville makes some terrible cracks about Johnny as everyone leaves the courtroom. Johnny physically fights back, knocking Manville to the ground (which we all wanted to see happen!), but unfortunately the consequence is great: Johnny is disbarred.
Disillusioned with the American Dream, Johnny says goodbye to his mother, who’s been his constant support through it all. Johnny still wants to be exceptionally wealthy, he’s just now convinced that he must go elsewhere to make his fortune in ways that society expects of him. Johnny tells his mother:
“A guy’s entitled to anything he can grab. I have found that out. And I’m for grabbing from now on.”
Johnny finds work in Bordertown, a town, well, on the Mexico-California border! He starts as a bouncer in a casino, but the owner, Charlie Roark (Eugene Pallette), soon realizes that Johnny is a great employee. Within a year of moving to Bordertown, Johnny is made part-owner of the casino, and given a 25% interest in the place.
Things can’t be going this well for Johnny without some complication, right? And that complication is Mrs. Roark, played by Bette Davis! Marie Roark is a feisty woman who goes after what she wants, and she wants Johnny. But Johnny won’t accept any of her passes out of loyalty to Mr. Roark, his business partner. So what does Marie do? Why she kills her husband of course! Charlie Roark gets blind drunk, Marie drives him home, then leaves him in the closed garage with the motor running.
“Accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning.”
The police rule. How convenient. Marie gets off scot free, and believes the path is now clear for her and Johnny to get together.
But Johnny has other plans, and intends to keep his relationship with Marie purely professional. He re-vamps the seedy Roark casino, and makes it into an elegant gambling hall for the rich, which Johnny names the Silver Slipper. The money starts pouring in!
Well, guess who shows up at the Silver Slipper trying to get a table without a reservation? Yes, Dale Elwell and Brook Manville!
“My evening is now complete.”
Johnny says snidely. But he still gives them a table. And he proceeds to fall in love with Dale, who seems to return his affections.
If you thought that would sit well with Marie Roark, you thought wrong! And if you thought Marie wouldn’t do something bat crazy to get back at Johnny for being interested in another woman, you were wrong again! Marie goes to the police and tells them that Johnny convinced her to murder her husband. Which is of course entirely untrue. Still, Johnny is taken into custody, and a court date is set.
A Law Degree Comes in Handy When...
Things are not looking good for Johnny until Marie is called to the witness stand. Her answers are complete rubbish and incoherent ramblings. It seems obvious that Marie has lost her mind. Johnny quickly pulls his attorney aside and tells him to ask for a dismissal of the case,
“on the grounds that the sole witness for the prosecution is obviously insane.”
The court agrees, and Johnny is found innocent and released, a free man once more. Yay!
Johnny goes to tell Dale the good news and ask her to marry him. Based on the fact that Dale didn’t bother coming to court to support him, Johnny shouldn’t have been surprised when her answer to his marriage proposal is a flat “no”. But in addition to the “no”, Dale also reveals that she is a classist snob and racist, telling Johnny that
“Marriage isn’t for us, not even to talk about…you belong to a different tribe, Savage….there’s such a thing as equality. Now please don’t be annoying.”
WOW!!!!!! After being such a total and complete jerk, we’re not too sad when Dale, storming away from an understandably frustrated Johnny, gets hit by a car. And dies. Ok, so maybe Dale doesn’t deserve death, but boy, this woman is a SNOB!
Johnny then moves back to Los Angeles to get in touch with his roots, sells the Silver Slipper, and gives the proceeds to his law school. THE END.
Getting Into Character
By the time Paul Muni was approached with the Bordertown script, he had a well-deserved reputation for being a consummate pro. Muni’s dedication to his craft was already legendary, and his research and work to bring Johnny Ramirez to life was further evidence of this dedication.
Muni had never played a Mexican American before, and he jumped at the chance to play a character so unique from anything he had ever done. To bring Johnny to life, Muni, with his own Eastern European heritage, reportedly said,
“I have to go swimming in tequila.”
To begin his crash course in Mexican culture, Muni started spending his time on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, the city’s oldest Mexican neighborhood. Muni also travelled to Mexicali with Carroll Graham, the author of the book Bordertown was based on. The trip gave Muni the taste of authentic Mexican culture he’d been hoping for.
Muni also began taking Spanish lessons to better grasp Johnny Ramirez’s native tongue and accent when speaking English. Probably the biggest contributor to Muni’s mastery of his character’s authentic speaking voice was a young man named Manuel. While driving with his wife Bella one day in the San Fernando Valley, Muni and Bella came across this young man, Manuel, selling flowers. Muni was captivated by Manuel’s beautiful accent.
“I’ll buy all the flowers in your pails if you’ll just keep talking to me.”
Muni said. Manuel agreed, and became Muni’s inspiration for Johnny Ramirez’s voice. Furthermore, Muni and Bella were so impressed with Manuel, they hired him on as their chauffeur! Manuel became a trusted friend, and worked for Bella and Muni for nine years.
Davis Shows Her Dramatic Range
So Paul Muni was already an established star by the time Bordertown began filming. It was Muni, not Davis, who was the big star on the Bordertown set. Davis was not the initial choice for the role of Marie Roark—other bigger names had been thrown around, including Carole Lombard. But in the end, Davis got the part. According to Bette,
“I might just as well have been any of the stock girls under contract. Until Bordertown, in which I was allowed some dramatic range.”
Indeed she was! In the 1930s, it wasn’t every day that a young actress had the chance to play a character that literally goes insane during the course of a film. It was a great role, especially after Marie murders her husband. And if that weren’t enough, the scene at the end of the film where we see Marie on the witness stand at Johnny’s trial, having completely lost her sanity, was indeed a golden opportunity. Davis took full advantage.
Bette Holds Her Ground!
Bette Davis’ sister Bobby struggled with mental illness, so Bette knew first hand how a mentally unstable person acted. When director Archie Mayo told Davis she wasn’t playing the courtroom scene “big” enough—he wanted Bette’s acting to be over the top with hair pulling and bulging eyes—Davis quickly told him off:
“If you want me to do it obviously, silent picture style, then why don’t we bring back silent picture titles, too?
AWESOME. Mayo and the studio executives left her alone, and let Bette play the scene her way on the condition that if trial audiences had a hard time interpreting Marie Roark’s insanity from Bette’s underplaying, the scene would be reshot with Bette playing it Mayo’s way. Well, after the trial previews, in Bette’s own words,
“I was never asked to do a retake.”
Bette’s strength and confidence on the Bordertown set impressed Paul Muni. So much so, that when Muni and Davis were paired together for a second time in 1939’s Juarez, Muni insisted that Bette’s name be next to his above the film’s title. This sign of respect was particularly great because, according to Muni’s contract at the time, only his name could appear above the title of any film he made! Muni broke the terms of his contract to see to it that Bette got equal star status on the film!
Bette Davis Analyzes Paul Muni
As I close my Bordertown post, I want to share Bette Davis’ really interesting analysis on why Paul Muni, despite his immense talent and amazing screen portrayals, never became a widely known or legendary star. Davis told Muni biographer Jerome Lawrence that Muni “wrecked” his career by being too much of an actor and not enough of a personality on screen. In Bette’s own words,
“Unless there’s some label of the personality for the public to recognize [in each role an actor plays], you’ll never be a big star. They’ve got to find you each time—someone they know…you cannot disguise your personality completely. I’ve worn millions of make-ups, but always there was the personality [underneath]. Why did Muni start hiding so? Because he wrecked his career with it.”
Interesting thought, isn’t it? I wouldn’t go so far as to say Muni “wrecked” his career by not giving the public a bit of himself in each role, but I think Bette has a point that Muni could have been a mega star if he would have put a little of himself into the roles he played, something that we the audience could identify as Muni in each character, to convince us that we knew or recognized him in some way. As I watch more and more Muni films this month, I marvel at how utterly different he is in each role—from appearance, voice, cadence, EVERYTHING. It is truly amazing. But it does leave you wondering, who was Paul Muni? Bette Davis may well be right that Muni’s completely chameleon quality kept him from superstardom.
But I don’t think Muni ever wanted superstardom to begin with. Researching Muni’s life last month, I think his ultimate goal was to disappear behind each role: Muni didn’t want us to see him in the characters he played. So in a sense, the fact that he never became a legendary star was a goal achieved.
Interesting food for thought from the very perceptive Bette Davis. Do you think Bette has a point with her analysis?