SPOTLIGHT: Bold Pre-Code Bankhead (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation 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! Last week we covered Tarnished Lady (1931). Today…

 

My Sin (1931)

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A woman exonerated for murder in Panama returns to the U.S. with a new identity, hoping to begin again. But things are soon complicated by the return of the recovering alcoholic lawyer who argued her case. Starring Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March. Based on the play by Frederick Jackson. Adaptation by George Abbott. Screenplay by Owen Davis and Adelaide Heilbron. Directed by George Abbott.

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Tallulah’s second film, much like the first, casts the already half-legendary stage actress in a picture well beneath her talents. Though paired ably with Frederic March, and with competent direction by the equally legendary George Abbott, My Sin suffers from an inferior script. And even though this is film, the play is STILL the thing. Here’s the synopsis…

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“In Panama, notorious nightclub hostess Carlotta kills a man in self-defense and is arrested for murder. Defending her at her trial is Dick Grady, a lawyer who has wasted his talent on alcohol. When he proves Carlotta’s innocence, however, he regains respect and employment. Dick goes to Carlotta’s apartment to thank her, and arrives just in time to keep her from committing suicide. He agrees that while the persona of Carlotta must die, the woman inside must go on and start anew. Loaning her his advance money, Carlotta and Dick create a new identity for her as “Ann Trevor,” and she moves to New York. Through various letters and repayment checks, Dick learns that Carlotta is happy and successful and falls in love with her. He relocates to New York, where Carlotta is employed as an interior decorator and is engaged to wealthy Larry Gordon. Carlotta is happy to see Dick again, but is dismayed to learn that he is in love with her. Dick believes she is deceiving Larry because she does not intend to tell him of her past. Carlotta is introduced to Larry’s family and discovers that Larry’s uncle is Roger Metcalf, Dick’s employer from Panama. Dick visits at the same time and tells Carlotta’s story, but informs them that Carlotta “killed” herself. Unable to conceal the truth any longer, Carlotta confesses her past, and although Larry and his mother try to be understanding, the engagement is broken. One year later, Carlotta is assigned to decorate the house that Larry originally bought for their marriage and finds that Dick has purchased it. Carlotta finally admits her love for Dick, and after accepting his marriage proposal, they enter their new home together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The picture begins in a smoky nightclub in the exotic Panama, preparing the audience for what looks to be a romantic and tropical rendezvous for seedy gents and low-class dames. There’s immediate action as Tallulah kills the menacing man trying to steal her dough. And because of the inferences about her proclivities, the only person willing to take her case is March as the alcoholic who hopes to clean himself up. Cut to her getting exonerated and going free. Before she can kill herself, March steps in and suggests that she only figuratively kill herself — create a new identity and begin again, leaving the past behind her. From there the action shifts to New York City and the film changes dramatically. Tallulah goes from Dietrich to Crawford as the story now becomes about her romance with a wealthy client (she’s an interior decorator now, not a reprehensible saloon singer), whom she hopes never learns of her past as Carlotta the killer. Naturally, March is thrown in there as the one true love who sticks by her through it all. It’s all very predictable from the time she gets to New York, and nothing really of note happens until the very end, when she finally confesses her past.

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And that’s a major problem for Tallulah, whose persona was already being crafted by the studio as a woman of excitement and modernity. She is ill-suited for a picture that doesn’t give her a lot of action. And while she’s much more in her element as the free-loving Carlotta than as the emotionally haunted Ann, one can’t help but feel like even the former is a stretch. Tallulah is not an exotic specimen, she’s a southern belle who learned her craft on the London stage. Paramount, as evidenced by this film and Tarnished Lady, simply wasn’t putting her in the right pictures, especially since their marketing campaign was all about how captivating a screen presence she was. And it’s fascinating, because, when Tallulah’s film career never took off, historians and critics (and even Tallulah herself), maintained that she simply wasn’t meant for the camera. While she doesn’t have the soft beauty of a young Joan Crawford or the sex appeal of the dynamic Miriam Hopkins, Tallulah is unique — someone on whom the eye wishes to focus. And she’s stunning in several moments — particularly at the unfortunate dinner party where she comes clean about her identity.

But in addition to the problems with casting Tallulah in a role that fails to match her personality, the film suffers because the story doesn’t have high enough stakes. In the picture’s attempt to justify Tallulah’s crime by making it seem like self-defense (or, if it wasn’t defense, at least that the man deserved to die), the audience is completely on her side and never feels like she has done anything wrong. So it’s hard to understand why the picture makes such a big deal about Tallulah’s not wanting to reveal the truth to her lover, who we have no reason to believe will not understand and accept her. The crime either needed to be more severe, or it should have been built up and been a surprise to the audience. The element of suspense coupled with the notion of leaving the scene to our individual imaginations would have given us more reason to watch. Fortunately, we understand a little more of Tallulah’s hesitance when we meet her snobby potential mother-in-law, but before that, the conflict isn’t large enough.

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But there are two things in particular that I like about this picture. First, Tallulah and Frederic March share good chemistry — at least, believable chemistry. It’s so believable, in fact, that we have no doubt that the two will end up together. They seem comfortable with each other, establishing a natural camaraderie that also manages to run parallel with the subtle undercurrent of sexual tension — which climaxes, as it should, near the end of the film. Secondly, George Abbott, best known for his stage work, does an admirable job of directing, letting everything play simply and seamlessly. There’s a charm to his work, and while there’s never really any WOW! visual moments (save some shots of Tallulah at the dinner party), everything is very aesthetically pleasing. And with a better script, one gets the impression that Mr. Abbott could have done more as well. Thus, My Sin is recommended for diehard Tallulah fans only.

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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! 

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