In a way, the role of Val in “Bad Sister” was setting a precedent for the kinds of slick gangster roles Humphrey Bogart would take on throughout much of the ’30s. But his voice is thinner, he’s uncomfortably fresh-faced, and he lacks the presence so familiar to fans of “Casablanca.” If anything, he’s of a piece with much of the movie’s relative blandness, bringing a bit of life but not quite selling the bad boy routine.
His relative lack of presence is just one reason the movie didn’t do well. But Bette Davis, per Whitney Stine’s “Mother Goddam,” thought she was bad too and cried over her career ending on her way home from the premiere.
Like Bette Davis, Bogart came up through Broadway and New York theater before going to Hollywood in 1930, where he found mostly small roles waiting for him. Per A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s “Bogart,” the early days of sound cinema required extensive diction lessons for the actors who had come up in sound film. Bogart’s theater experience meant his early directors would ask him to assist the lead actors, much to their chagrin. But that didn’t mean he got top billing.
In her memoir “This ‘n’ That,” Davis recalled Bogart being fired from Universal like she was after the failure of “Bad Sister” (as well as two other Universal movies she did later in 1931). But Bogart was actually under contract to Fox, having been loaned out for the production of “Bad Sister.” For him, the movie was just another small role in a flop. Shortly after, he returned to Broadway.