SPOTLIGHT: Bold Pre-Code Bankhead (VI)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion 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 featured them all right here on That’s Entertainment! So far we’ve covered Tarnished Lady (1931), My Sin (1931), The Cheat (1931), Thunder Below (1932), and Devil And The Deep (1932). Today…

 

Faithless (1932)

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A spoiled rich girl is wiped out by the depression. Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Robert Montgomery, and Hugh Herbert. Screenplay by Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by Mildred Cram. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

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Paramount loaned Tallulah out to MGM for what would be her final Pre-Code, Faithless. And while it took Paramount five tries to find a picture in which Tallulah could actually do something substantial (Devil And The Deep), MGM was able to do it on a single try. Filmed with that MGM gloss, this otherwise bleak tale is still quite a departure from all of Tallulah’s prior screen work. Finally she’s in a role suited to her with a script that not only features sparkling dialogue, but a premise that trucks along believably and entertainingly. It could very well be her best Pre-Code, as this film, though not brilliant, works. It works well. As usual, we turn our sights first to the premise.

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“Carol Morgan, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy New York banker, refuses to accept the fact that she no longer has any money because the Depression has forced her late father’s bank into receivership. Carol is in love with Bill Wade, an advertising man whom she wants to marry, but who doesn’t want to live on her money. Not realizing her true financial position, she thinks his $20,000 a year salary is an impossible amount on which to live, and they break their engagement. A few weeks later, when Mr. Carter, her financial advisor, tells her that everything is really gone, she goes to Bill, but learns that he has lost his job because his company is bankrupt. Faced with the possibility of poverty, she still refuses to marry Bill, who doesn’t understand why she values money above love. While Bill goes to Chicago for another job, Carol goes to Florida to live off some of her rich friends. Some time later, after moving from friend to friend, she signs a promissory note for $1,000 to Mr. Peter M. Blainey, with whom she is staying, and from whose social-climbing wife Carol accepts $1,500 so that the papers will print a story that she is their guest. When Mrs. Blainey throws Carol out, Mr. Blainey suggests that she teach him to be a gentleman. She refuses, but before she leaves he gives her $1,000. There are no strings attached to his gift, but Blainey knows that she will be back for more. She soon becomes his mistress, even though she is disgusted by him.

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“One night, while she and Blainey are drinking, Bill comes to see her, and Blainey lets him know what their relationship is. Heartbroken when Bill leaves, Carol walks out. After desperately trying to find work, Carol winds up selling her shoes to her landlady for a dollar and one week’s room rent. One night, in a cheap restaurant, she runs into Bill, now working as a truck driver. Bill still loves her and they marry. Bill loses his job when the company goes bankrupt, then, after four months in and out of work, he gets employment at a trucking company. After being injured on his first day in an accident caused by strikers, Bill can no longer work, and a desperate Carol turns to prostitution to earn enough to buy medicine to save his life. One night she runs into Bill’s younger brother Tony, who thinks she is a tramp and turns her in to the police. Carol begs the policeman not to take her to jail because of Bill’s illness and the kind-hearted man gets her a job as a waitress when she promises not to hustle again. Several weeks later, after Bill has regained some of his strength, Tony comes to see him and tells him about that night, unaware that Bill and Carol are married. When Carol comes home, she sees what has happened and tells the shaken Bill that she will go away, but he won’t let her go because he knows the sacrifices she has made for him. She finally agrees to stay and Bill tells her that he just got a new advertizing job for $60 a week.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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As you can see, this topical tale of socialites and sausage magnates as they go from privilege to poverty is quite a wild ride. Unlike all of the other Bankhead films we’ve covered, there’s enough story to cover the entire running time. It’s never slow, it’s never dull, and it never forces Tallulah to be passive. She’s an active presence here — and that’s key to the success of both the story and her performance. Of course, it’s undeniably Pre-Code. The heiress who loses her wealth and resorts to walking the streets: that’s a classic set-up. And, by and large, it doesn’t disappoint. Sure, much of this is telegraphed from the opening scene, but the way in which the story unfolds remain unique and engrossing. Perhaps my favorite sequence is the one in which Tallulah becomes a “kept woman,” a millionaire’s mistress, drinking fancy champagne and gowned in the finest of clothes — drunk and suppressing her sorrows. That occurs right in the middle of the film, and the second half of the picture takes on a darker tone. Tallulah gets Montgomery, but things go from bad to worse financially, especially when he gets sick (have to up those stakes and also keep our leading lady’s actions justified). This dissent into darkness is what makes the film rewarding, and why many fans argue that this is a Warner Brothers picture in an MGM package.

But the MGM style is evident throughout. And while I can sort of agree that occasionally it is perhaps counterintuitive to the story (at least in the second half), I really appreciate the quality that the studio brings to the production. I think my bias towards Metro has been evident on Film Fridays — most of the stars and films we’ve covered are under Leo’s reign — but the simple fact of the matter is that the people there produced excellent films. It really was a factory: a dream factory. And the magic is certainly at work on Faithless. The script is better than anything Bankhead’s gotten in her screen career. The dialogue is sharp, it’s funny, it makes sense. I laughed (and that’s no easy feat). Furthermore, the cinematography is better and Tallulah is made to look beautiful. Really, truly beautiful. Had she started at MGM, things could have been very different for her career wise. She’s stunning — taking ahold of every scene, captivating her audiences at every frame.

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Of course, a lot of this is in her performance, which is mesmerizing. The role suits her. It’s multi-dimensional, active through a whole string of situations, and malleable for quirks and nuances. Naturally, she’s brilliant during the scenes of wealth — the life of EVERY party with her oft-imitated husky voice and infectious bravado. It finally feels like we’re getting to see a little bit of what London theatergoers got to see. And it’s marvelous. But there’s a subtlety too, most evident in the second half of the film, when her character does whatever she can to keep her man alive. Sure, she’s more believable rich than poor, but I never doubted the integrity of what she was playing. Her arc was motivated and entertaining. Great performance. And she and Montgomery share fine chemistry. Nothing sexual about it, but the interplay is playful and romantic. He plays another blah role (his forte), but he makes the most of it — accepting Tallulah for her wicked ways, because, after all, she did it for him.

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This Pre-Code film is for all Pre-Code fans. It’s a hallmark of the genre. Well-written script, beautiful visuals, and fun performances. A very entertaining film that’s recommended highly.

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