Faithless (1932) Blu-ray Review: Tallulah Bankhead Makes It Worth Watching

The story goes that as a teenager Tallulah Bankhead won a contest in the Picture Post magazine which sent her to New York City and gave her a minor role in a play. That was enough to set her sights on an acting career. She quickly moved to the famed Algonquin Hotel and became a part of the storied Algonquin Round Table. Her father warned her to stay away from boys and alcohol to which she later quipped, “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.”

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She found great success in the theater and tried her hand a few times making movies in Hollywood. She made good money there and found plenty of work, and some success, but she didn’t like the tedium of making movies or the Hollywood scene (though she did once remark that the only reason she took a role in Devil and the Deep was to “to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”) In 1933, she returned to Broadway and remained a theatrical actress for most of her career. She only returned to Hollywood in 1944 to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the biggest and most successful film of her career.

Her name is something that became familiar to me as I became more and more of a classic movie fan. Fans tend to speak of her in breathless terms. Yet before this film, I’d only seen two other of her movies (the aforementioned Lifeboat and The Cheat). I’d never bothered to wonder why until now. Turns out after giving Hollywood a try in the 1930s, she disappeared back into the stage for nearly a decade, before Hitchcock called her back out. Looking her up for this review, I’ve learned what a fascinating person she was, and now I’m even more intrigued to watch her work.

Faithless isn’t a great film, but Bankhead is great in it. Made in 1932, it is one of those Hollywood dramas where they tried to make some sense of the Great Depression but wind up not knowing what to do about it. I get that. People all over the country were suffering and movies (when they could afford them) were a great way to forget about your troubles, at least for a little while. But there must have been a pull at the time to try to make some films about what was happening in the country. But if you make the film too depressing, too real, then nobody wants to see it. They’ve suffered enough. Make it too glib and that rubs everybody the wrong way. We’ve seen a little of that lately with the pandemic. Shows like Staged found an amusing way to deal with lockdowns whereas that celebrity sing-along to “Imagine” led by Gal Gadot was just awful.

Here, Bankhead stars as Carol Morgan, a spoiled New York socialite engaged to advertising man Bill Wade (Robert Montgomery). They get into a row because he wants her to live off of his (relatively modest but still quite handsome) salary. She’s having none of it and they split. The early problem with this film is that this argument comes so early that we’ve hardly seen anything of him and what we’ve seen of her isn’t pretty. We’ve just heard her on the telephone with her financial advisers, and she tells them to stop giving money to a charity that helps women stay off the streets and out of prostitution because they deserve to be there anyway. Something that doesn’t warm us to her, and foreshadows things to come. His argument essentially robs her of any autonomy, forcing her into a lifestyle she doesn’t want.

Before you know it, she’s lost all her money (it is the Depression, after all) and she’s forced to scramble. She uses her celebrity name as a socialite to stay with a wealthy woman in Florida and borrows off of as many friends as she can before she’s found out. Then she becomes the mistress of a rich, brutish man who keeps her well-styled but paws at her all the time. She runs into Bill during this period and embarrassed as to what she’s become, she quits the rich jerk and tries to make it on her own, eventually finding herself on the street, selling herself.

Throughout all of this, she keeps running into Bill and for most of it, she keeps finding ways to not wind up with him. Only when she’s plummeting towards the bottom does she accept his love for what it is and find happiness. Well, even that takes some time as he gets injured forcing her into prostitution to pay for the doctor’s bills.

If I sound like I’ve given the entire story away, I guess I have, but that much is given away on the back of the Blu-ray jacket. But there are a lot of details and developments I’ve left out. Honestly, it is all a bit much. No doubt any number of rich socialites found themselves in similar situations during the Depression, but Faithless never makes us truly feel the horror of that fall. It does make us feel more of it, and is way franker about where she winds up than any film would be able to do just a few years later when the Production Code was strictly enforced, but it still feels a little glossed over. It is a message picture and the message is rather muddled.

But Tallulah Bankhead makes it all worth the watching. She makes the “spoiled rich girl” scenes sparkle with an energy that makes you forgive her for being awful. When she falls low, there remains an energy forcing her to survive. Montgomery is a bit dull as Bill and neither of them gives the relationship the sizzle that it needs. But, my God, is Bankhead brilliant.

Warner Archive presents Faithless with a new 1080p transfer from preservation elements and it looks quite good. Extras include three shorts from the archive. Rambling ‘Round Radio Row #1B is from a long-running musical variety show that essentially makes narrative excuses for various people to sing some songs. The Trans-Atlantic Mystery and The Symphonic Murder Mystery are pretty fun little murder mysteries that run about 20 minutes each.

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Mat Brewster

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