Faithless, directed by Harry Beaumont and released by MGM in 1932, has one thing going for it right off the bat: it stars Robert Montgomery who, for me, is one of the best things about the pre-Code era. Here, Montgomery is teamed with Tallulah Bankhead, on loan from Paramount in what would be her last screen appearance for more than a decade. I haven’t seen Bankhead in much, I admit (in fact, only in two other films – The Cheat and Tarnished Lady, both from 1931), but while she’s no Carole Lombard or Norma Shearer, she’s kinda fascinating to watch.
Speaking of fascinating, this movie is just that. The more I see it (four times now), the more I’m wowed by the over-the-top pre-Code dramatics – Faithless manages to pack the Depression, class conflicts, premarital sex, adultery, gambling, unemployment, labor disputes, and prostitution, all in the course of just 77 minutes. It’s a wild ride, to say the least. (Watch where you step – spoilers ahead!)
Bankhead plays Carol Morgan, a free-spending, fun-loving heiress who is described by her financial advisor as a “lovely girl, but spoiled. Superficial.” Carol is in love with hard-working ad man Bill Wade (Montgomery), to whom she proposes soon after the film begins. The ink is barely dry on the engagement invitations when Bill learns that Carol plans for the couple to sail on her yacht to Monte Carlo for a three-month honeymoon, after which she wants Bill to quit his job and settle into her Park Avenue mansion. But Bill isn’t going for it: “I’m marrying you and not your bank account,” he declares. “You might just as well make up your mind to one thing: you’re going to live on my income.” Carol scoffs at Bill’s paltry $20,000 a year salary and shows him the door, but a few weeks later, when she decides to give him another chance, it turns out that her timing is lousy – on that very day, she not only learns that her reckless spending habits have left her flat broke, but that Bill’s firm has gone out of business. Bill is relatively unfazed, imploring Carol to marry him and travel to Chicago where the possibility of a job awaits, but Carol is unwilling to even contemplate such a future: “I don’t see anything particularly generous about a man expecting a woman to share his poverty,” she declares.
And here’s where this film – which, up to now, has been merely interesting – kicks into high gear with a pre-Code vengeance. After Carol takes off, Bill seeks comfort over a cup o’ joe with his judgmental, pious younger brother, Tony (Maurice Murphy), who doesn’t hesitate to share his opinion of his ex-future sister-in-law: “She’s no good, Bill. She’s just a cold, mercenary type. Born to be a courtesan. And she’ll end up in the street. Can’t you see that she’s all glitter? And inside, no real character.” Meanwhile, we learn from a series of telegrams and newspaper society notices that Carol has made her way to Palm Beach , staying first with this member of the smart set, and then with another. We’re also shown a promissory note from Carol to her most recent host, Mrs. Blainey, vowing to repay the hefty borrowed sum of $1,500. Things aren’t looking too good for our girl. She has become, in the words of Mrs. Blainey, “a social panhandler.” She’s ordered out of the house, but before she can haul her suitcases out the door, she’s “rescued” by Mrs. Blainey’s lecherous spouse (played by Hugh Herbert), who offers the down-on-her-luck Carol a thousand dollars, with “no strings attached.” But Carol discovers that nothing comes without a price – in classic “back street” fashion, Blainey sets Carol up as his mistress in a swanky apartment, complete with jewels and fancy clothes. And just in case there were any viewers who were unsure of the real nature of their arrangement, we see Blainey walk in on Carol one evening while she’s being powdered and prettied-up by her maid. He makes his intentions clear, but Carol pleads a headache. “Must I pretend?” she asks. “Or else,” he responds pleasantly but matter-of-factly, and with an expression of repulsed resignation, Carol allows herself to be pulled into his arms.
Out of the blue, having learned of Carol’s whereabouts, Bill shows up with plans to whisk her away – that is, until Blainey makes it clear that, contrary to Bill’s declaration, Carol is no lady. “This apartment happens to be my apartment,” he informs Bill. “If you know what I mean. And I think you do.” Bill’s no dummy, and he promptly leaves Carol behind. But the encounter with her former love has opened Carol’s eyes – she decides that any life would be better than the one she’s living — she rips off her jewels and slinky gown and heads for the door, determined to make her own way. But finding a job isn’t as easy as Carol might have imagined – she’s unflagging in her quest, but she’s woefully unsuccessful (as we see in an unintentionally humorous montage that starts with a shopkeeper explaining to Carol that “we don’t need employees, we need customers,” and ends with a guy opening the door to the “Invincible Employment Agency” and simply telling her, “Scram!”). Carol winds up in a bread line and is eventually forced to sell the shoes off her feet to her landlady, just so she can buy a meal. (I love the scene where the landlady, played by the great Louise Closser Hale, literally snatches off Carol’s shoes, jams them on her own feet, and then limps to the door.). At the local diner where Carol is weakly trying to down a bowl of soup, fate steps in when Bill pops up again – he vows to forget about the past, Carol admits that she is a changed woman, and the two finally get married.
But in the words of Al Jolson, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! From here on out, it’s a non-stop roller coaster ride of pre-Code goodness. For a while, Bill – now an out-of-work truck driver – and Carol are happy, despite the fact that they’ve moved to a one-room dump and Bill steals cream for their coffee. But their life together takes a nose-dive when Bill is seriously injured after refusing to join in a strike against a trucking firm where he’s just been hired. After failing to convince the owner of a restaurant to hire her (“I’ll do anything. I must have money. I can’t let him die. I’ll scrub floors. Wash dishes. Anything!”), Carol decides to earn the cash the only way she knows how – on the street. (And she’s helped out by her kindly new landlady, who suggests she put on some powder and lipstick before heading out: “Funny, ain’t it – all the real things us women do for our men. We can’t ever tell them about it,” she says as she gives Carol a reassuring hug.)
For a while, Carol manages to keep home and hearth together with her, shall we say, “night job,” but fortune frowns on her again one evening when she unwittingly propositions none other than Bill’s brother, Tony, who calls her a tramp and tells her: “I always said you’d end in the gutter.” It looks like Carol has completely hit rock bottom – especially when, just seconds later, she’s stopped by a police officer, who announces his plans to haul her off to the hoosegow. But Carol shares her tale of her ailing husband and promises never to “hustle” again (even kissing the cop’s cross as proof of her good intentions), and the soft-hearted officer takes her instead to the diner owner she’d originally approached, coercing him into hiring her as a waitress. Bill’s health gradually returns, but here comes that roller coaster again – and this time, Bill’s brother, Tony is on it! Turns out he’d been searching for his brother all this time, and now that he’s finally found him, he can’t wait to tell him that Carol tried to pick him up – not knowing that Bill and Carol are married. (“Say, who do you think I ran into the first night I got into town? That girl you almost married. I always said she’d end up in the streets, and she sure did.” Jerk.) But Bill doesn’t have quite the reaction that his brother had expected. “Yes, it is terrible. But it’s wonderful, Tony. I owe my life, I owe everything that life may mean to me, to Carol. We’ve been hungry together. She’s cooked my food, washed my clothes. Taken care of me. And now . . . and now this. I’d wondered where the money was coming from. It must have taken a lot to keep me alive.”
When Carol returns home and learns what has happened, she reveals that she’d do the same again if she had to, but she insists that she’ll leave. But Bill is even more insistent that she stay. “You can’t go. I couldn’t live without you. This never happened. It doesn’t exist.” And the kicker? Bill tells his wife that if she’s cries, he’s not going to share his good news: “I’ve got a job, a real job.” Hurray! All’s well that ends well.
Did I tell you? What a ride!
(Faithless isn’t on VHS or DVD, but it does pop on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. If it does, don’t miss it! You know why, don’t you? Because you only owe it to yourself!)