I’m about two steps away from completely being a classic movie snob. I’ve loved classic movies pretty much my entire life, but they’ve almost always been secondary in my overall film-watching regiment. When I was single, I’d go to the movies nearly every weekend where I was able to watch almost everything I wanted to see (and when those were watched, I saw plenty of things I wasn’t that excited about). What I missed I would pick up at the video store a few months later. I’d also rent old cult films, bad horror flicks, and films I loved and wanted to watch again. Sometimes, but not all that often, I’d watch a classic film. Even then I generally stayed with the true classics, the most beloved films of all time. I kept a printout of the AFI Top 100 American movies list and tracked which moves I’d seen and which I needed to watch. Eventually, I started watching foreign classics. but I rarely strayed from those films that were seen as the best of the best.
Only recently have I started watching the more obscure classics. These are movies with actors like Cary Grant or Lauren Bacall, and directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang but for whatever reason never made it into the pantheon of revered classics, but are still nonetheless well worth watching.
Streaming sites like the Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime have a large selection of classic films just waiting for you to press play on. Boutique companies like Kino Lorber and the Warner Archive have been bringing these lesser-known classics to Blu-ray for years. This has helped my consumption of classic cinema in huge ways. I’ve gotten to where I’m watching fewer and fewer new films and more and more classics.
Not all of these films are wonderful, but I find them to be so much more interesting than what’s currently showing at the local cineplex. That’s not entirely fair as there are still great movies being made, but classic cinema has a history that I find fascinating. New movies simply don’t have that. At least not yet.
A case in point is The Cheat, the 1931 film directed by George Abbott starring Tallulah Bankhead. It is a film I’d never heard of until Kino Lorber announced they were releasing it. Tallulah Bankhead is an actress whose name I am familiar with and at a guess, I would have said I have seen several of her films, but according to my logs at Letterboxd, I’ve only seen Lifeboat. Nevertheless, I was excited to see it was being released on Blu-ray and excited to put it in my player.
Yet the reality is The Cheat isn’t all that good. Proving that classic movies aren’t always classics. By which I mean, movies made during the classic period of the Hollywood studio system aren’t always that great. And yet, I am so very glad I got to watch it.
The Cheat is the third version of this story to be made into a film. The first version was a silent film from Cecil B. Demille made in 1915; the second was made in 1923 and is considered a lost film. One look at the story and its scandalously salacious plot lines and it is easy to understand why it was so popular with audiences and regularly remade.
In this version, Bankhead plays Elsa Carlyle, a rich society girl who rather likes life on the exciting side. We first meet her at a society dinner where she’s bored stiff at the meal where there is much discussion over the upcoming charity event, and a reintroduction of Hardy Livingston (Irving Pichel), who has been living in Japan, to society. After the dinner, Elsa is excited to gamble large sums of money at cards. When she overhears Livingston talking about his luck overseas, she takes it as a good sign and gambles all she’s got on her only to wind up a loser. She then goes double or nothing on one turn of the cards and finds herself down $10,000.
On hearing that his talk has caused her a streak of bad luck, Livingston invites Elsa back to his house. It is set up in Japanese style including a large statue of the god Yama, the guardian of death, and full of slavishly devoted Japanese servants. With a smile, he shows her a cupboard full of doll replicas of previous sexual conquests which he brands with the Japanese word meaning “I Possess.”
And let’s just stop right here a moment to note that, ladies, if you ever go to a man’s house and find his house full of dolls that took like previous lovers, don’t ask what the Japanese word stamped on their stand means, just run. Run like the wind.
Elsa pretty much does exactly that. She makes quick excuses and says she’s gotta go.
Later that night, her doting, loving, and really rather boring husband Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens) chastises her for spending $1,000 on clothing that week and reminds her that until his big business deal goes through they need to watch their spending. The charity event was a great success and Elsa finds herself in charge of the funds which just so happens to be about $10,000. Hoping to win back her gambling losses, she gives the money to an investor to buy some stocks that he assures her are a sure thing. This film was made in 1931 so you can guess how that turns out.
Desperate, she turns to Livingston who says he can give her the money but for a price. The film isn’t explicit about it, but it is clear that he expects sexual favors in return. Though technically The Cheat was made after the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted, it is generally considered a Pre-Code film as it came out before the Code was regularly enforced. This is on full display with plenty of sexual innuendo, allusions to rape, an actual human branding, and plenty of racist stereotypes.
It ends with a big bit of courtroom drama over who shot who and what for. One of my favorite moments in the film comes during the trial. The crowd remains pretty nonchalant about one man shooting another, but when the victim accuses the other man of cheating at cards, there is shock and awe.
I’m making all of this sound more interesting than it actually is. In a word, this film is dull as bathwater. It takes far too long to get moving and whenever it does it still pauses for long expository scenes that are unnecessary for our understanding of what’s happening. For as salacious as the plot is, the reality is one, long, exasperated sigh.
Tallulah Bankhead is fine, more or less. She has moments of brilliance but the script is doing her no favors. Irving Pichell plays Livingston as an over-the-top sleaze making one wonder why anybody in society would have anything to do with him.
That’s the thing with classic films. They may not all be true classics, but I love checking off another 1930s film on my list and noting that I’ve now seen two Tallulah Bankhead films. There is more pleasure than that than in watching yet another superhero movie.
Extras on this Kino Lorber disk include an audio commentary from film critic Simon Abrams (who spends a lot of time discussing how this film differs from the Louis B. Mayer film) and a series of trailers.
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