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), My Sin (1931), and The Cheat (1931). Today…
Thunder Below (1932)
A woman forgoes happiness with the man she loves to care for her blind husband. Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Bickford, Paul Lukas, and Ralph Forbes. Written by Sidney Buchman and Josephine Lovett. Based on the novel by Thomas Rourke. Directed by Richard Wallace.
While all of the Bankhead pictures we’ve covered here so far have been severely flawed in several major ways, Thunder Below is, I think, the least successful. An exotic locale and capable actors aren’t able to overcome to triteness of the “been there, done that” plot, the lack of chemistry between the leading players, and the stale and static cinematography. Bankhead has three men after her, but without a good script, she has nothing…
“In Central America, oil man Walt returns early from an expedition in the jungle to the camp base of the Petroleum Corporation of New York. With Walt at the base are his wife of nine years, Susan, and his best friend, Ken, whom Susan loves. At Walt’s suggestion, Ken takes Susan to the ocean, where she tells him she can no longer stand the separation they imposed on themselves after giving in to their desires four months before. Although they had been unwilling to betray their loyalty to Walt, they promise to confess their love to him that afternoon. When they arrive home, however, they learn that Walt returned early from the jungle to meet a doctor who has diagnosed him as going blind. Ken and Susan convince Walt to stay on at the base and stick by him as he completely loses his sight. When a group of company men go to a local cafe, Ken goes along and stays out late with a strange woman. Although Walt tells Ken he needs a woman, when Susan gives Ken an ultimatum to choose between Walt and her, he chooses Walt.
“A stranger named Davis then passes through the base, and Susan, desperate for a diversion, befriends him. After Susan and Davis compete together in a horse-riding contest, Walt accuses Davis of trying to steal his wife, and Davis and Susan run away together. While at the coast, Susan tells Davis she loves Ken, and Davis leaves without her. Walt, sorry for his accusations, asks Ken to retrieve Susan, and the lovers finally spend the night together. In the morning, Ken and Susan vow once again to tell Walt, but when he arrives and, unaware Susan is in the room, tells Ken how much he feared losing Susan to Davis, Ken doesn’t have the heart to tell him. Susan promises to go back to Walt, but after the men leave, she writes a goodbye note to Ken and jumps to her death into the sea.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Before we delve into what disappoints about Thunder Below, the first picture Tallulah filmed in Hollywood, let us first address what manages to succeed. It must be said that all of the performers are talented individuals, and their presence in a picture is usually a blessing. So the first thing that the film has going for it is that it’s well cast. (Of course, that means higher expectations.) Another thing that I like about the picture is the inherent feeling of suffocation, dissatisfaction, and “trouble in paradise,” all of which are themes throughout the narrative. From a directorial point-of-view, if this were a theatrical piece (and I think it would be more successful on the stage), these slight touches would be a tremendous benefit. Additionally, though audiences of the time seem to have already tired (by 1932, even) of the exotic jungle locales in which studios continued to set their pictures, I am of the opinion that a good tropical setting is never a hinderance. The only thing that stands to keep a cool location from benefiting a story is not having a quality script to go with it. Red Dust (1932) is an example of a picture set in one of these locations — French Vietnam — with a script that both calls for and benefits from the wilderness. While Thunder Below lacks the writing to ever be uttered in the same breath as Red Dust, I do appreciate this film’s nature-intensive setting.
Tales of passion always do well outdoors, and frankly, after several pictures in which Tallulah struts around New York City (despite some brief moments of exoticism here and there), I’m pleased to see her in this South American clime. Many critics both then and now decried Paramount for its attempts to mold Tallulah’s onscreen persona into another Garbo or Dietrich, mysterious figures whose pictures were set in strange and foreign lands. And since she is nothing like the two aforementioned divas, many believe her pictures should have been set in the bustling streets of New York City (or London, where she was better known), which seems like a better fit. But I believe that her metropolitan air is exactly WHY her pictures benefit from exotic motifs and less civilized locations — she’s the fish-out-of-water. And the contrast has the potential to produce great drama and strong visuals. So, I think, Thunder Below automatically gives itself better odds.
Unfortunately, every single strength is matched with a weakness. While the cast is supremely talented and has individually demonstrated their skills elsewhere, they don’t seem to gel together. The trio of Bickford, Bankhead, and Lukas, in particular, don’t have the fun camaraderie (or even sad camaraderie) necessary for the picture’s conflict to really make complete sense. More disastrously, Bankhead and Lukas have absolutely no chemistry — their love scenes are unbelievably stilted and forced. Naturally, this is a huge flaw, for their passion is what drives the story. On the other hand, Bickford and Bankhead, though opposites in many ways, have a relationship that has more tension, more understanding, and more sexuality. This last part is crucial to the film, for while the premise concerns itself with adultery — and quite explicitly too — the tone of the film is MUCH too clean. But since Bankhead and Bickford are more entertaining, why would we care at all about Lukas?
While some of the directorial choices seem like good fits for the narrative, the visuals that are actually delivered leave a lot to be desired. With a location such as this and with characters such as these, you would think that the images themselves would be varied and much more exciting than they actually are. So the film isn’t a real treat to look at. (Bankhead gets several nice gowns though.) Furthermore, while the setting is let down by the cinematography, it is also let down by the script. It’s lifeless. The characters lack nuance — distinction. They are placeholders in this dime a dozen love triangle. The husband’s blindness is the melodramatic twist that prevents two points on the triangle from being together. But even that feels like stuff that we’ve already seen before (even in that 1932 mindset). And the beat about Tallulah going off with the third guy — that’s as cliched as they come. The script is a big disappointment. A big disappointment.
However, I shall end today’s post on a more positive note — giving Tallulah credit for a strong performance in the final moments of the film, in which her character does something drastic once she realizes that happiness is something that she’ll never be allowed to have. You can watch that scene above. As for viewing the rest of the picture, it’s for hardcore Tallulah fans only, I fear. There’s not enough here to keep the rest of you entertained.