Bordertown (1935) is a highly dramatic film that frequently verges on soap opera status. But the fine acting of Paul Muni and Bette Davis reels the story back in before all credibility is lost.
You can purchase or rent Bordertown here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot of the film, then behind the scenes with Muni and Bette Davis.
Muni plays Johnny Ramirez, a motivated and bright young man 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 has a tough time making ends meet until a seemingly golden case comes his way: a slightly tipsy socialite, Dale Elwell (Margaret Lindsay), hits Johnny’s friend and his vegetably truck while driving recklessly.
A Learning Gap and Major Consequences
It seems 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—even 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).
Unfortunately the consequence of the fight is great: Johnny is disbarred.
A Disillusioned Johnny Goes to Bordertown
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. As 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 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.
A Complication in Bordertown
Things are going great for Johnny, so we know there has to be a complication.
That complication is his boss/ partner’s wife, Marie Roark (Bette Davis). Marie 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 her husband.
Marie decides to solve that problem by killing her husband.
Charlie Roark gets blind drunk one evening, Marie drives him home, then leaves him in the closed garage with the motor running.
“Accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Is the police ruling on the death.
Marie gets off scot-free, and believes the path is now clear for her and Johnny to get together.
Johnny Keeps it Professional in Bordertown
But Johnny has other plans, and intends to keep his relationship with Marie strictly professional. He re-vamps the seedy Roark casino, and makes it into an elegant gambling hall for the rich. He renames the place the Silver Slipper. And the money starts pouring in.
The Silver Slipper becomes the place to be. So Dale Elwell and Brook Manville show up, of course without a reservation.
“My evening is now complete.”
Johnny says snidely. But he still gives them a table.
He proceeds to fall in love with Dale, who seems to return his affections.
Marie notices Johnny’s feelings for Dale. And she doesn’t like them.
So of course she does something crazy to punish Johnny for being interested in another woman.
Marie goes to the police and tells them that Johnny convinced her to murder her husband. It’s entirely untrue, but Johnny is taken into custody, and a court date is set.
A Law Degree Comes in Handy in Bordertown
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.
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 be surprised when her answer to his marriage proposal is a flat “no”.
But in addition to refusing Johnny, Dale also reveals that she’s 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.”
After being such a jerk, we’re not too sad when Dale, storming away from an understandably frustrated Johnny, gets hit by a car.
Maybe Dale doesn’t deserve to die, but the woman was a total snob.
Johnny then moves back to Los Angeles to get in touch with his roots. He sells the Silver Slipper, and gives the proceeds to his law school.
And that’s the end of the film.
Getting Into Character for Bordertown
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 in bringing Johnny Ramirez to life further evidences 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 hoped 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, the couple 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.
The Davis Shows Her Dramatic Range in Bordertown
Paul Muni was already an established star by the time Bordertown began filming. It was Muni, not Bette Davis, who was the big star on the Bordertown set.
Bette Davis wasn’t even 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.”
Bordertown certainly allowed Bette the dramatic ranged she’d been looking for.
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, and Bette took full advantage of the opportunity.
Bette Holds Her Ground on Bordertown
Bette Davis’ sister Bobby struggled with mental illness, so Bette had exposure to the condition. 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—the 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?”
Mayo and the studio executives left her alone, and decided to 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.”
Well done Bette.
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 ensure that Bette got equal star status on the film, such was his respect for her.
Bette Davis Analyzes Paul Muni
As Muni’s co-star and contemporary, Bette Davis later shared some interesting insights with Muni biographer, Jerome Lawrence, on why Paul Muni never became an acting legend.
In Bette’s opinion, Muni “wrecked” his career by being too much of an actor, and not enough of a personality on screen:
“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.”
To say Paul Muni “wrecked” his career by being more of an actor than a personality is surely an overstatement. But Bette has a point: perhaps if Muni had allowed audiences to see more of himself in each of his roles, his name and great talent would be better remembered and appreciated today.
That's it for Bordertown
That’s it for Bordertown.
Read the rest of the articles in my Paul Muni series below:
Paul Muni: America’s First Actor
The Life of Emile Zola (1937).
(Read my Bette Davis series here.)
Excellent article: informative, respectful, honest, and humorous. Great photo selections too!
Thank you for reading Ken, and for your kind words!
Biased against, not ” biased toward” Johnny. Just as Johnny’s lack of proper preparation lost the case ( admittedly in a system that is slanted against him), writers really need to understand that they are not Humpty Dumpty, ignoring the meaning of what they write.
You’re right Belle, thanks for catching that!