Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Cheat (1931)

Director: George Abbott                                  Writer: Harry Hervey
Sound: Ernest Zatorsky                                  Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Pichel, Harvey Stephens and Porter Hall

Tallulah Bankhead didn’t have a lot of luck in Hollywood, though it seems curious why not. She’s radiant onscreen, not only in her few early thirties pictures but even later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. She made only seven films between 1928 and 1932, and then nothing until Stage Door Canteen in 1943. Clearly she’s not a classic Hollywood beauty, but her determined manner and assertive personality could have been a template for Katherine Hepburn. Still, she had a very prolific career on Broadway and travelling in touring companies, and managed to define success on her own terms. The Cheat is an early sound film for Paramount that teams her with the great Irving Pichel, fresh from one of his earliest acting roles in An American Tragedy for Josef von Sternberg and just prior to his directorial debut in The Most Dangerous Game at RKO.

The story has Pichel playing a world explorer by the name of Livingstone. He is the featured guest at a party in a gambling club. Bankhead is in attendance, waiting for her workaholic husband, Harvey Stephens. When Stephens arrives he has a lengthy chat with Porter Hall, telling him that even after four years he’s still deeply in love with his wife. Meanwhile Bankhead has lost ten thousand dollars at the card table and, feeling down, goes with Pichel to his house to drink some sake. She accepts, but knows exactly what he’s up to, refuses his advances, and goes home still despondent about where to come up with the money. Though her husband won’t have it until his big deal comes through, she is holding fourteen thousand for her women’s charity fundraiser and uses it for a bad investment, which eventually drives her to Pichel and his offer to give her the money. Ironically, Stephens closes his deal but, rather than solving all her problems it only manages to make everything worse, much worse.

The film is a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film of the same name from 1914. That film had a much different slant, however, as the wife, played by Fannie Ward, was selfish and greedy and had no qualms about investing the charity’s funds. But the man she goes to in her desperation to avoid a scandal is Sessue Hayakawa, a non-white, which makes the threat to her virtue even more perilous in the public’s eye. And in that sense, the original is perhaps more scandalous than the pre-code remake. For director George Abbott, who had a much more successful career as a writer, this was one of his last directing jobs, and with good reason. There’s little in the way of interesting camerawork, other than some moving shots on the dock at night. Tallulah Bankhead does a nice job, but is saddled with a less than interesting part as a “silly” housewife who makes bad financial decisions. Ultimately The Cheat is great for fans of Bankhead and Pichel, but has little else to recommend it.

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