"My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine."—Tallulah Bankhead.
My upcoming visit to San Francisco promises to reward me with cinematic treasures. First in line is Elliot Lavine's "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films For a Nasty-Ass World!", reeling at the Roxie Theater from Friday, March 2 through Thursday, March 8. As detailed in the Roxie film notes: "It's been nearly fifteen years since the last great Hollywood Pre-Code Festival at the Roxie Theater but ... the Roxie is proud to announce its exciting return to blatantly profane pre-code motion picture entertainment.... Hollywood films produced before early 1934 were often marked by an unwholesome indifference to delicate sensibilities. Filled with erotically charged images, dangerous, graphic violence, and bizarrely aberrant behavior, these are films that over seventy-five years later continue to batter us with an arsenal of artistic bravura!"
As a huge Tallulah Bankhead fan, I am delighted to have the chance to watch my foghorn-voiced diva in this Pre-Code vehicle The Cheat (1931), directed by Broadway mogul George Abbott and co-starring Harvey Stephens and Irving Pichel in a B&W 35mm Studio Archive Print. Having seen the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille version with Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward, I'm intrigued to see where Bankhead and Abbott will take this provocative tale of white slavery and miscegenation.
In her eponymous autobiography (1952:191), Tallulah Bankhead candidly admitted that all three of her 1931 ventures with Paramount Astoria—Tarnished Lady, My Sin and The Cheat—were banal. Despite their talent, these films "fizzled". "Why?" she mused, "For the same reason that though the eggs, the cracker crumbs and the salt used for the soufflé may be topnotch the resultant dish may be rancid." Paramount was teetering on bankruptcy and their "corporate jitters were reflected in their products," she surmised. "Patched, scissored, and victimized by all sorts of hocus-pocus", these "operas" (as she termed them) ended up messes.
The December 12, 1931 review in The New York Times granted reprieve from Bankhead's own disappointment, however, praising the film as "a most satisfactory production", no masterpiece but captivating, and noted that it was gratifying to observe the "handsome and talented" Bankhead—"who has been somewhat unfortunate with her previous screen vehicles"—at last appearing in one that "really merits attention."
At DVD Verdict, Daryl Loomis offers that "this remake of the even more bizarre 1915 Cecil B. Demille original has shocking moments even today. Tallulah Bankhead was a phenomenal actress and her lead performance, guilty and innocent at once, is dripping with sexuality. ...[T]hose interested in early 20th Century America's fixation on Oriental culture will [find] a lot to sink their teeth into."
Glenn Erickson adds at DVD Talk: "The script equates 'Asian' with 'perverse'. Pichel has spent a good deal of time in the Orient, and his mansion is decked out in Japanese style. For a party, he dresses Bankhead in an elegant Chinese outfit, like a trophy. The script gives him some barbaric Eastern ideas about sex—like a secret cabinet with dolls fashioned after his female conquests. When Bankhead refuses to play ball at the last minute, he brands her with a hot iron, to claim her as his possession! Like a demented version of The Letter, further complications involve a shooting and a rather hilariously exaggerated trial, where, of course, the 'truth burned into the flesh' must be publicly revealed. With Bankhead overdoing most of her scenes, it gets pretty sticky. The Production Code specifically rules out branding as acceptable subject manner; almost certainly with this film in mind."
At The Sheila Variations, Sheila O'Malley asserts that "Blue Velvet has nothing on the perversity shown in 1933′s The Cheat." To illustrate same, she cites the film's opening sequence where a tuxedoed Hardy Livingstone ("played with stiff creepiness by Irving Pichel") makes a welcoming speech to the wealthy party-goers attending a fundraiser. "His first line of the speech is something like, 'I suppose anything I say right now will seem rather banal…' And there is a snicker around the table, and one guy calls out, 'Careful, there are ladies present!' and someone else says, 'Nice word!' What I am trying to say is that the movie opens with a joke about anal sex—in the midst of a chi-chi fundraiser. Laughter runs around the room, and Livingstone, the creep, continues, 'As I said, it might be banal…' Another burst of knowing laughter. It takes a dirty mind to hear the word 'banal' and immediately think of assholes—but that is what the movie does. Everyone in the scene is in on the joke. It's not a 'code'. It's out in the open."
O'Malley provides a thorough narrative scene-by-scene synopsis of The Cheat, describing Bankhead's character as "a woman who knows how to handle men. She's got the banter down, she has an air of plausible deniability, and yet she also projects a smoldering kind of wild sexuality." Of Bankhead herself, O'Malley writes: "There's something about Tallulah that could never seem young. I am sure she was a child at some point, but she probably had a middle-aged soul from the beginning."