Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the grand Southern diva of the American theatre, Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968). For two years in the early ’30s, Bankhead tried her darndest to become a silver screen sensation, starring in five pictures for Paramount and one for MGM. Several of these pictures are quite hard to come by, but we will be featuring them all right here on That’s Entertainment! Up first…
Tarnished Lady (1931)
A woman chooses to marry for money rather than love and soon regrets it. Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Clive Brook, Phoebe Foster, Alexander Kirkland, Osgood Perkins and Elizabeth Patterson. Written by Donald Ogden Stewart. Directed by George Cukor.
Tallulah’s first talkie also happens to be the first film in which George Cukor is credited as the sole director. However, neither of these two talents, whose careers would hit their peaks in about a decade, can save this picture from the mediocrity in which it seems determined to wallow. Yet despite the inferiority of the picture — largely because of its stilted and soapy premise — the film still has moments that verge on captivation, and I must admit, there are a few surprises. But first, the plot…
“Since her father’s death, Nancy Courtney and her mother, once wealthy socialites, have had to struggle for every penny while maintaining a veneer of prosperity. Although Nancy is in love with writer DeWitt Taylor, her mother urges her to marry wealthy stockbroker Norman Cravath, who is in love with her. Subsequently, Nancy breaks up with DeWitt, imploring him never to alter his indifference to money. Already exhausted by the constant war between money and love, Nancy marries Norman, but despite the fact that he does everything to please her, she is miserable. In the meantime, DeWitt has taken up with Norman’s discarded girl friend, Germaine Prentiss, who has been a long-time rival of Nancy. At a dinner party, Nancy notices that DeWitt has indeed changed, now playing the social games she deplores. Nancy works up the courage to tell Norman she is leaving him, unaware that his firm has just been barred from the stockmarket and he has lost everything. Norman throws her out, angry at her selfishness. Nancy rushes to DeWitt’s apartment, only to find Germaine there.
“Crushed, she goes to a nightclub, where she reads of Norman’s bankruptcy in a paper and meets up with her kindly friend, Ben Sterner. Nancy and Ben go to a working class bar, where she gets drunk and brings the patrons to Ben’s home to continue the party. Norman is there waiting to discuss a business transaction with Ben and vows that he never wants to see Nancy again. Nancy disappears and lives on her own, trying to prove to herself that she can work for her money. Lacking job skills, however, she is unable to find work and becomes completely destitute. One day she runs into Ben and collapses, later discovering that she is pregnant. Ben takes her in and, after the birth of her child, hires her at his department store. There Norman and Germaine come in to buy a fur coat, and Norman, unaware that he has a son, is shocked to find Nancy in a menial position. Germaine warns Nancy not to interfere with her happiness, but Nancy realizes Norman still loves her and goes to him, asking for one more chance. Germaine bows out and Norman happily discovers he has a son and a loving wife.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Before we talk about what this picture DOES have to offer, we must address the reason why it can’t honestly be considered great cinema. As I mentioned above (or which you may have guessed by reading the above synopsis), the plot, based on a popular short story, is illogical and has its characters behaving completely without motivation. Things are fine in the beginning: formerly wealthy gal must marry a rich suitor to keep both herself and her mother in luxury, forsaking the man whom she truly loves. Great conflict; we’re on board. After seeing her one true love at a party (and learning that her mother is now financially stable), our heroine decides to leave her husband and reunite with the lover. Good, perfectly understandable. But when she finds out that her love has been carrying on with her catty rival, our heroine forsakes the lover and falls into a depression. Okay, I can see that happening. Of course she would be upset. Now our heroine yearns for her husband (who has just lost his wealth) to want her back, because maybe she does love him after all. Huh, what? I thought she loved the poor writer.
This is the biggest problem with the film — Tallulah’s character changes her passions nonsensically. When Scarlett decided she loved Rhett, Margaret Mitchell and screenwriter Sidney Howard gave us a moment where we could see “the lightbulb go off.” There’s no such moment here, and given how desperately our heroine pined for her lover, it’s impossible to believe that she actually does love her husband. Even after secretly bearing his child and going to work for herself — there’s nothing that would make the audience understand this change of heart. It’s actually a major flaw, and sort of ruins the whole rest of the film, which, despite this lack of logic, is nevertheless more interesting than the first half. (The second half is largely better than the first because of the wonderful parallel — and this is where the storytelling actually succeeds — of Tallulah’s insufferable treatment of the saleslady at the beginning to her ultimately having to become a groveling saleslady herself at the end.) But without us ever truly understanding Tallulah’s motivations, we are unable to invest in the drama that she attracts.
Meanwhile, Cukor’s direction (and a lot was made of the picture actually being shot on location in New York) is perfectly well-suited for the story. There’s nothing fancy or gimmicky; at no times are we aware of some great mastermind manipulating the image. All we’re aware of are the events that are transpiring. And if this was a better script, that would be a marvelous feat. But since it’s lackluster, the direction helps to illuminate the story’s shortcomings. Regardless, he did manage to get strong performances out of his actors — especially the bitchy Phoebe Foster, who plays Tallulah’s rival. Good casting — all around, actually.
Of course, Tallulah is the best thing about Tarnished Lady, and one of the surprises I referenced above is her performance. It’s shockingly understated. For someone who really developed her acting chops on the London stage in the 1920s (and was even known then for her scenery-chewing), Tallulah never resorts to anything hammy or artificial in her performance. She underplays everything to great effect, and as a character who’s constantly either trying to suppress her longings or swallow her pride, the absence of her notorious histrionics comes across as entirely fitting and mildly brilliant. And while the script never leads us to understand why her character suddenly falls in love with her husband, Tallulah does subtle things in the scenes opposite him to try and illustrate (and perhaps make it more believable) that she is developing feelings for him. She’s great here, and the comments about her being not photogenic are only partly true. She has sharp features, to be sure, but it’s not her appearance that’s holding her back; it’s the material. So this film is recommended to Tallulah junkies. Cinemaphiles and Pre-Code lovers, you can skip this one. You’re not missing too much.
Come back next Friday for another Tallulah Bankhead Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!