SPOTLIGHT: Bold Pre-Code Bankhead (III)

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! So far we’ve covered Tarnished Lady (1931) and My Sin (1931). Today…

 

The Cheat (1931)

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A compulsive gambler will do anything to pay off her debt – including turning to a wealthy businessman behind her husband’s back. Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Harvey Stephens, and Irving Pichel. Written by Harry Hervey. Based on a script by Hector Turnbull. Directed by George Abbott.

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Tallulah is sexier than ever in this gritty remake of a DeMille silent, gorgeously shot by George Abbott and featuring a shockingly daring story that won’t disappoint even the most ardent of Pre-Code lovers. But premise and visuals aside, this picture never manages to break free from the shackles that bind it to mediocrity. With a chemistry-less cast, a nagging pace, and a trite courtroom finale, The Cheat is one of those pictures that you desperately want to be better than it actually is. And when there’s a leading lady like Tallulah, sometimes you can almost convince yourself of its high quality… before you succumb to the truth.

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But first, the premise: “In Long Island, New York, beautiful Elsa Carlyle is a compulsive gambler. Her husband Jeffrey, a struggling stockbroker, loves her despite her exorbitant expenditures at the gaming tables. At the yacht club, Elsa overhears Hardy Livingstone say the word “luck” just as she is about to toss the dice, and on a hunch, she bets all her chips. She loses and owes the club $10,000. Later that evening, Elsa accepts Livingstone’s invitation to his house, and they motor over in his boat. Livingstone, who has just returned from three years in the Orient, shows Elsa his house, which is designed in an Oriental fashion. He also reveals to her the cabinet of his “past,” in which he keeps dolls made in the likeness of his former lovers. The bases for the dolls are stamped with his crest, which means “I possess.” Livingstone then attempts to give the dress of a Siamese princess to Elsa to wear to the “milk fund” society ball, which he has offered to host. Sensing hidden implications, Elsa refuses to take the dress. When Elsa goes home, she is unable to confess to Jeffrey her debt, and he lets her know he is jealous of Livingstone and does not want her to spend time with him. When Jeffrey’s friend Terrell tells them of a hot stock tip, Elsa is unable to resist the temptation to earn more money and puts money she had been entrusted with from the milk fund bazaar into the stock market. Giving in to his apparent kindness, Elsa wears Livingstone’s princess gown to the ball, but is horrified when she receives a phone call from Terrell that she lost all the money.

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“Overhearing her conversation, Livingstone offers to give her the money. In exchange, he expects her to visit him, and be “a little nicer” to him. Elsa is unwilling to confess her troubles to Jeffrey and accepts Livingstone’s check with which she repays the milk fund the next day. That night, Jeffrey arrives home elated, informing her that the deal he has been working on succeeded and they are now millionaires. She finally confesses to her gambling debt, which Jeffrey has already paid. When she asks for another $10,000, he reluctantly gives it to her, then secretly follows her to Livingstone’s. Elsa gives Livingstone the check and believes her debt is paid, but Livingstone has already made a doll in her likeness and intends to possess her. When she refuses, he brands her with his crest and calls her a cheat because she welched on their bargain. Elsa shoots him and, horrified, runs home. Jeffrey finds Livingstone and takes the blame for the crime. At the court trial, Elsa is unable to repress the truth and shouts it out, then boldly displays her “tattoo” for all to see. The indictment against Jeffrey is dismissed, and Livingstone, who survived the shooting, is taken away for his crime against Elsa. Later, Jeffrey urges Elsa to forget the horrible incident, and she vows to play nothing but ‘double solitaire.'” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The best thing about the picture, of course, is its daring premise. A spendthrift dame with a penchant for excess behaviors — mostly gambling — must make a bargain with the metaphorical devil to repay her debts and keep her husband from learning of her mistakes. But when she intends to repay her debt without fulfilling her end of the lascivious bargain, the madman “brands” her in a scene that clearly alludes to rape. It’s some pretty intense stuff — lewd and dangerous and infinitely exciting. (The only real qualm about the premise is the potential offense modern viewers could take to the film’s linking of oriental customs with sexual depravity. It’s readily apparent, and not appealing.) But the exoticism of the story, which is nevertheless lessened from the original 1915 picture, works in its favor, giving the film a tone and a flare that’s distinctly erotic. It’s superb.

But I should like to give a healthy amount of credit for the picture’s delightful grit to legendary stage director George Abbott, who makes his second picture with Tallulah and photographs her in a way that shows her unique physical attributes to their best advantage. And while Tallulah sizzles — more than in anything we’ve seen with her yet — the entire film is lusciously shot. Without the gloss or glamour of MGM, this Paramount East picture is ripe in its focus on visuals that not only beguile its audience, but work in tandem to tell the story and present the characters. Beyond that, much of the cinematography is aesthetically magnificent: certainly the best we’ve seen from a Tallulah film.

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However, the story and the style are unable to overcome the picture’s numerous shortcomings. My principal complaint is the cast. While I, naturally, adore Tallulah, and think she gives an appropriate and measured performance for about 85% of the picture, I think she shares little chemistry with her co-stars. Sure, she and her husband get to play scenes in which they physically or emotionally connect (like the one on the pier) but there’s no spark between them. They don’t fit. The same can be said of her interactions with Pichel. They’re tense because of the scripting and the directing; when it comes to the performance, the scenes fall short. There’s no sexual chemistry between the two. And while the story does a good job of making us believe it’s present, the truth is that it’s no more than implied. And that’s a big hinderance.

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Also, the film has a problem with pacing. Though running under 68 minutes, the picture drags for much of its length. Essentially, we’re waiting for something to happen. And nothing really gets going until the Milk Fund Ball. And once we get there, we only have a little bit of time (basically the scene in which he brands her and she shoots him — the film’s best) before the picture evolves into the cliched courtroom finish, in which the heroine can no longer stand the pressure and ‘fesses up to the crime, saving her husband, and earning the sympathy of the room. Tallulah’s acting goes off the rails and the story loses its excitement. And the film is capped with a bizarre happy ending that belies its miraculously Pre-Code building blocks. It’s, again, a letdown. Yet, I would still recommend this film to Pre-Code lovers, simply because of the story. And, of course, it’s essential viewing for Tallulah junkies too.

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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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