When I think of my favorite pre-Code actresses, I must admit that Tallulah Bankhead is not one of the first names that springs to mind. In fact, I usually don’t think of her at all – and that’s a real shame. She only appeared in 24 films during her career, and her acting had a tendency to be a bit stagy, but she possessed a unique beauty and was absolutely fascinating to watch, as she demonstrated in one of her best pre-Codes, The Cheat (1931).
In this rather seedy feature, Bankhead stars as Elsa Carlyle, a young socialite who, by her own description, is wicked, selfish, and spoiled.”
Her favorite pastime seems to be gambling away money that she can ill afford – even when we first meet her at a Long Island yacht club party, she’s playing some sort of game for pennies with a man seated next to her at dinner. Elsa is married to Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), an ambitious – if slightly boring – businessman who worships the ground on which Elsa treads: “I didn’t begin to live until I met that girl,” he tells a friend. “And there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her.” In fact, Jeffrey’s not Elsa’s only admirer – another partygoer admits that he doesn’t “care much for [females] as a race, but she’s pretty nice.”
In the area of gambling, however, Elsa is not only a borderline addict, but she frequently operates impulsively – a disastrous combination. On the night of the yacht club shindig, while playing a game of blackjack, she overhears a conversation between two guests, during which one of the men says that a tiger brought him “luck.” The mere mention of the word seems to be a sign to Elsa, and she promptly bets – and just as quickly loses – a cool $5,000. Then, just minutes later, in a reckless double-or-nothing bet, she increases her debt to $10,000. Meanwhile, as a “climax to the evening’s indiscretions,” and in an effort to briefly escape her mounting financial woes, Elsa accepts an invitation from one Hardy Livingstone (actor-turned-director Irving Pichel) to visit to his nearby estate. It turns out that Livingstone is a local resident who’s recently returned from three years in the Orient. His trip apparently made quite an impression on him – he has Asian houseboys, Oriental furnishings and décor, serves Japanese wine, and has a room he calls his “Holy of Holies,” which features a life-size statue of the Japanese God of Destruction. He also has a cabinet he refers to as his “Gallery of Ghosts,” filled with elaborately clad dolls who represent the women of his past. Each doll stands atop a wooden block, onto which Livingstone has burned a mysterious image. “That’s my crest. It’s a Japanese character,” he explains. “I brand all my belongings with it. It means ‘I possess.’” (Bom, bom, BOM!!!!)
It doesn’t take long to pick up on the creep factor that surrounds Livingstone like a cloud. We become even more wary of his motives (even if Elsa seems blind to them) when he offers Elsa a jewel-encrusted gown that was owned by a Siamese princess – “You must wear it for me,” he says. “Let me see you in it.” Although Elsa initially refuses the gift, she later agrees to borrow it to wear to a lavish, Orient-themed ball to be held in Livingstone’s mansion. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
In a desperate effort to raise the $10,000 to pay her gambling debt, and at the same time keep her idealistic spouse from finding out, Elsa uses money raised through a local charity to buy stock she’s been assured is a sure thing. Unfortunately, her luck continues to sink faster than a paper boat in a storm drain – the stock turns out to be a bust and she’s now $20,000 in the hole.
Fast forward to the ball; when Livingstone learns of Elsa’s monetary misfortune, he generously offers to give her $10,000 – but for a price. “Nobody will know,” Livingstone assures her. “I don’t ask much in return. Only that you be a little nicer to me. And maybe, maybe some evening soon, you’ll come to see me.” And if you don’t know what THAT means, baby, you just haven’t seen enough pre-Codes!
Speaking of seeing pre-Codes, make sure that this is one you don’t miss. Tallulah Bankhead is riveting, the direction by legendary Broadway producer George Abbott sails along at a proper clip, and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Trust me – it’ll make you remember Tallulah next time.