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In Los Angeles, Johnny Ramirez, a poor Mexican, graduates from Pacific Night Law School, having worked days as a mechanic. Although Johnny is convinced that he will be a great lawyer, earning lots of money, his clients are all poor people from the neighborhood. When he loses his first court case against socialite Dale Elwell because he's poorly prepared, he angrily punches the opposing lawyer, Brook Manville, thinking he has been patronized and discriminated against. As a result, Johnny is disbarred. His dreams of being the Mexican-American Abe Lincoln shattered, Johnny leaves behind his adoring mother and hitchhikes to a border town in Mexico, determined to return as a rich man. He does very well, working his way into a partnership in a successful night club, whose owner, Charlie Roark, admires Johnny, as does his wife Marie. Thinking that her husband is all that stands between her and Johnny, Marie locks a drunken Charlie in the garage, leaving the car motor running. Johnny, in partnership with Marie, remodels the club into a stylish night club designed to attract the wealthy. One night Dale visits the club with some friends. She playfully starts a flirtation with Johnny, who, misunderstanding, falls in love with her. Sick with jealousy, Marie publicly accuses Johnny of murdering Charlie, but at his trial, she breaks down on the witness stand, having gone insane with guilt. Free at last, Johnny drives to Los Angeles to propose to Dale, who tells him their differences make any marriage impossible. To escape Johnny's anger, she runs into the street, where she is hit by a car. Once again, Johnny must reassess his life. He sells his club, endows a law school with the money, and returns to Los Angeles to live with his own people.
Bordertown was made when Paul Muni was Warner Bros.' biggest star, and Bette Davis was just another contract player slogging through one bad film after another. After major success on Broadway, Muni had gone to Hollywood and scored in such films as Scarface (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). He earned $50,000 per film, and had story and script approval. Known for his meticulous preparation and his ability to immerse himself in the character, Muni chose the novel that was the source of Bordertown, and hired a young Mexican man as his chauffeur so he could study and imitate his speech patterns. Muni did not, however, have co-star approval, and although he wanted either Carole Lombard or Lupe Velez to play Marie in Bordertown, the studio chose up-and-comer Davis, who was just getting noticed for a film she'd made on loanout to RKO, Of Human Bondage (1934).
In her autobiography, The Lonely Life, Davis claimed that Bordertown was made before Of Human Bondage. As she recalled it, seeing the rushes of Bordertown convinced Jack Warner to loan her to RKO for Bondage, and he held back the release of Bordertown to capitalize on the anticipated publicity for Bondage. However, studio records show that Of Human Bondage began principal photography in February of 1934, and Bordertown did not begin shooting until August, by which time there was plenty of buzz about Davis' tour de force work in the former. Clearly, Warner was aware that Davis had become a valuable commodity. And it is true that the ads for Bordertown did refer to her spectacular performance in Of Human Bondage.
If there was any delay in the production of Bordertown, it was because the film industry had recently begun enforcing the Production Code, its self-censorship program, and began requiring studios to submit scripts for approval. The script for Bordertown was one of the first to undergo the scrutiny of the Code, and went through several revisions because of material unacceptable under the Code. In the original story, Ramirez had been disbarred for committing murder, and had an affair with Marie. The studio revised the script so that Ramirez does not kill, and rejects Marie's attempts at seduction.
In spite of the watering-down of the script, Davis pressed for realism in her own performance. Buoyed by the positive reaction she was getting for Of Human Bondage, she argued with Bordertown director Archie Mayo. In one scene, she was supposed to get up in the middle of the night and rush out into the street. She showed up on the set with cream on her face, and her hair disheveled. When Mayo told her she couldn't appear on the screen like that, she insisted that this was exactly how a woman looks when she wakes up. In another scene, the mentally unbalanced Marie was supposed to go to pieces while testifying in court. Mayo wanted old-fashioned, bug-eyed, hair-pulling, screaming hysteria. Davis insisted on playing it more subtly, with nervous eye movements, facial twitches and tension. When head of production Hal Wallis saw the rushes, he wanted the scene re-shot, saying that audiences wouldn't know Marie was insane. Davis agreed to re-shoot if preview audiences didn't understand the scene. Audiences understood it just fine, and no re-shoots were necessary.
While critics praised the performances of both stars in Bordertown, most of them thought that Davis, fresh from her stunning turn (and an Oscar® nomination) in Of Human Bondage, stole the film. Andre Sennwald wrote in the New York Times that Davis "plays the part with the ugly, sadistic, and utterly convincing sense of reality which distinguished her fine performance in Of Human Bondage." Muni complained to Jack Warner that Davis' performance was too egocentric in their scenes together, that she "didn't stay within the framework of her role," and that he didn't want to work with her again. The real problem, more likely, was that the equally egocentric Muni was annoyed that Davis got most of the attention and critical raves. They both appeared in Juarez (1938), but they had no scenes together. Davis always spoke admiringly and respectfully (if not warmly) of Muni's talent in interviews over the years.
Director: Archie Mayo
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenplay: Laird Doyle, Wallace Smith, based on a novel by Carroll Graham, adapted by Robert Lord
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editor: Thomas Richards
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Paul Muni (Johnny Ramirez), Bette Davis (Marie Roark), Margaret Lindsay (Dale Elwell), Eugene Pallette (Charlie Roark), Soledad Jimenez (Mrs. Ramirez), Robert Barrat (Padre), Gavin Gordon (Brook Manville).
BW-91m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri
The film's pre-release title was New Bordertown. Film Daily notes that Miriam Hopkins was considered for the lead opposite Muni. According to Daily Variety, the studio did not intend to credit Carroll Graham because they felt the script was so different from the book. Although credited to different writers, portions of the 1940 Warner Bros. film They Drive By Night closely resemble scenes in this film. Modern sources note that the opening scenes were shot in Los Angeles' Olvera St. According to modern sources, Muni hired a Mexican chauffeur named Manuel and studied his accent and gestures as part of his preparation for the role.