Tallulah Bankhead is one of those actresses that became and icon of classic Hollywood in her own rights. A fantastic woman, she also had a memorable presence on films and, even if some titles are nowadays forgotten, Miss Bankhead isn’t. I first saw her in Lifeboat and, before I started this marathon, it was the only one I had seen. The viewing of this six films that I’m going to present you in this article was done for the Second Marathon Stars Blogathon, which I am currently hosting with my lovely friends Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Samantha from Musings of a Classic Film Addict. The objective was to discover an actor with whom we aren’t too familiar and watch at least five of his or her films. While I add many options and ideas, my final choice was Tallulah Bankhead, and what an amazing choice it was!
Let’s now take a look at the films I watched for the marathon…
Film 1: Devil and the Deep (Marion Gerig, 1932)
Role: Diana Sturm
The hardest thing for this blogathon was to choose which film to see first. I needed a good one to break the ice. After exploring my possibilities, I thought Devil in the Deep was an appealing choice due to its cast composed not only of Tallulah Bankhead, but also Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and even Cary Grant in one of his first films. Here, Tallulah plays Diana Sturm, the wife of Charles Strum (Charles Laughton), a Naval commander. A jealous man, he often suspects her to have affairs with other men and even accuses one of his own Lieutenants, Lt. Jaeckel (Cary Grant). All these accusations are false but, one night, Diana meets Lt. Sempter (Gary Cooper) and falls in love with him. They have a one-night affair not knowing he is, in fact, Jaeckel replacement after Sturm had this one transferred. When this one discovers about the affair the two had (even if it didn’t have the chance to get much developed), he plans a terrible vengeance. When Diana claims her husband is insane, she does mean it.
I loved Tallulah Bankhead’s role in that because she is a woman who is true to herself and honest. However, it’s never in a mean way. Other characters criticize her but that’s mostly because they don’t really know anything about her. Yes, she commits adultery and she doesn’t like her husband, but never in the film, she becomes detestable about it. She’s in full control but does show a certain vulnerability at some point which creates a good balance. If she doesn’t want to dance with someone, she’ll say it (politely) and won’t do it just to please her husband. She’s direct and this is what I kind of expected of Tallulah Bankhead’s type of roles. She and Gary Cooper also create a very sexy couple, and she and Charles Laughton embodied the perfect unhappy married couple. There are also some very appreciable scenes between her and Cary Grant that simply inspire the existence of possible friendship between men and women. The only thing we can regret from this film is the fact that Gary Cooper and Cary Grant have no scenes together. But, in a way, it really is Tallulah’s film, Diana’s story (as much as Charles Laughton is incredible as the jealous husband and surely is larger than life). Would I recommend this film? Totally. It’s not too long, it’s pre-code, it has good performances and an impressively executed scene in a submarine.
Film 2: Faithless (Harry Beaumont, 1932)
Role: Carol Morgan
Faithless was a good occasion for me to also discover another Robert Montgomery film. He could have very well been a suitable candidate for this blogathon as I had previously seen him in only three films. But if we focus on Tallulah Bankhead, this one plays the role of Carol Morgan, a rich and spoiled New York socialite. She’s in love with Bill Wade (Robert Montgomery) and these two get engaged. However, she refuses to live on his salary that is much smaller than hers. Therefore, things get complicated between the two. This is the beginning of the 30s, and what has to happen finally happen: Carol is a victim of the economic crises and loses everything. This is hard, but it will, however, help her see that money isn’t the most important thing in the world. She will become a better person.
I think this role was even more interesting for Tallulah than the precedently discussed one in Devil in the Deep. Here, her character really goes trough and important evolution that allows Tallulah’s acting to be seen on different angles. She is your typical fabulous (but a bit snobbish) rich socialite at first and then completely changes when she becomes the “poor and ordinary Carol Morgan”. It is interesting as Tallulah Bankhead now becomes a woman with whom real-life women of the time, the victim of the crises, could identify with. Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Montgomery work well together. Their characters often get angry at each other, but they are truly in love after all. Therefore, beautiful scenes of complicity are created. The film’s major theme is a sad one but it contains moments of joy and happiness despite everything. It’s a good lesson on how love should win a couple and not money. Lastly, I have to say that Tallulah Bankhead looked absolutely adorable in her women of the depression clothes!
Film 3: A Royal Scandal (Ernst Lubitsch and Otto Preminger, 1945)
Role: Catherine the Great
I must admit I didn’t like this film as much as the two previous ones. Ernst Lubitsch started directed it but, being ill, he had to be replaced by Otto Preminger. I initially thought you couldn’t really go wrong with these twos but, once in a while, we all do a weaker job. I don’t think it was a completely bad film but there was nothing so special about it. I must admit, I appreciated the humour very proper to the Lubitsch touch. And Anne Baxter who plays a supporting role was absolutely delightful. The film was based on the play Die Zarin (The Czarina) by Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel. And, actually, A Royal Scandal itself was a remake of Forbidden Paradise, a silent film also directed by Lubitsch. The film tells the love affair of Catherine the Great (Bankhead) and a young officer, Alexei Chernoff (William Eythe), who constantly worries about the faith of Russia.
Tallulah Bankhead looks absolutely majestic as Catherine the Great but, unfortunately, her performance is a bit forgettable and has tendency to be overshadowed by the one of the supporting cast, especially Anne Baxter, Sig Ruman, and Charles Coburn. Her acting fitted the character alright and she did the job but it lacked a bit of nuance in my opinion. Also, as much as I love Bankhead and I’m glad I’ve chosen her for a subject, I must point out she was not very good at crying! It sounds a bit fake when she does it, which spoils her credibility a little. But it’s not THAT bad either. I think the film starts strongly but it could have been much better. Some dialogue scenes are very repetitive and seem to go anywhere. And Vincent Price’s French accent is terrible. To come back to Tallulah, this might have just been a faux pas in her career as, the year before, she delivered what might be one of her very best performances in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. In conclusion, I lost a bit of focus when watching A Royal Scandal, but I think it’s the kind of film some could enjoy despite its flaws. So, if you want to see it, don’t let me stop you!
Film 4: My Sin (George Abbott, 1931)
Role: Carlotta/Ann Trevor
With this film, I was glad to get back to a more “typical” type of Tallulah’s film. In my opinion, pre-code with a simple structure fitted her better than something like A Royal Scandal. Precisely because it allowed her to showcase her talent without being buried with something too sparkling. Tallulah Bankhead had the talent to make a film worthy by her acting only. My Sin could have been very ordinary without her and Fredric March, who was also a top-class actor and another reason why I was looking forward to seeing it. The story is about Carlotta (Tallulah Bankhead), a nightclub hostess with a questionable reputation who is charged for murder after killing a man during a struggle in self-defense. Her defender is Dick Gravy (Fredric March), an alcoholic lawyer. However, when the time comes to defend Carlotta, he puts the bottle aside and does an effective job. Therefore, Carlotta is proved innocent. Due to his success, he is given a job by Roger Metcalf (Harry Davenport). On her side, Carlotta isn’t doing well and attempts suicide, but she is stopped by Dick just on time. They together decide that she must begin a new life in order to get away from her troubles. So, she becomes Ann Trevor and heads for New York. A few months later, Ann is now a successful interior decorator in the big city and Dick, on his side, has come to realize that he is in love with her. He has to see her as soon as possible but things are challenged as there is a new man in Ann’s life, Larry Gordon (Scott Kolk)…
In My Sin, you might see Tallulah Bankhead at her loveliest. When she is introduced to us as the club hostess, she is singing a fun song with a bunch of fellows. If you are someone who prefers to see the positive aspect of a person, the first thing you’ll think about when watching her is not “Ah, what a sinful woman” but “She looks like a fun person!” Her life is sad, of course. We don’t have all her background story but we suspect she probably was this type of person with a difficult childhood and who could easily get herself into trouble. However, Carlotta/Ann is also a clever and good person and truly wouldn’t hurt a fly. She shows a lot of courage for everything she has to go through and give us hope that we can always “get up”, even in the darkest times. I know some of you will say “but it is just a film”. Well, maybe but, sometimes, connecting films and reality could be more useful than we think. What I might have liked the best about My Sin was Tallulah’s teamwork with Fredric March. I think they both had beautiful chemistry with tenderness, support, and comprehension for each other. We also love the scenes with Harry Davenport and Margaret Adams who plays Paula, Larry’s friend. My Sin isn’t necessarily as thrilling as Devil and the Deep, but if you love Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, I would definitely recommend it. And if you want to see well-developed characters, it is another good reason to watch it. Despite presenting a complicating situation, the film is quite short, so it is organized into a simple narrative structure that doesn’t completely mixes you up.
Film 5: “The Celebrity Next Door”, Episode from The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (Jerry Thorpe, 1957)
I was looking for more Tallulah Bankhead’s films to see, when I discovered that she had appeared in an I Love Lucy episode, or, more precisely an episode from The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, a collection of thirteen 60-minutes episodes airing from 1957 to 1960. Like many guess celebrities who appeared on I Love Lucy, such as William Holden, John Wayne or Van Johnson, Tallulah plays her own role. And with the Ricardos, we know this might be hilarious. In this episode, Tallulah is Lucy and Ricky’s new neighbour. It’s pretty exciting to have a celebrity next door and Lucy tries her best to make a good impression, but things don’t turn out as expected.
This episode allows us to see Tallulah’s comedic side and watch her in all kind of different… situations… (Lucy’s clumsiness playing a major role in that). Faithful to herself, she’ll always greet someone by telling him or her “Hello Dahling“. I mean, what else would you expect from Tallulah? That was her trademark! Some of her reactions are priceless. And, of course, even if she’s playing her own role, she’s still acting after all. Tallulah was larger than life. One of my favourite moments from the episode is when she’s discussing with Ethel (Vivian Vance), whom Lucy has “hired” as a maid, and she’s telling Miss. Bankhead how much she admires her and how she thinks that Lifeboat is the saddest movie ever (*can’t stop crying*). This is pretty absurd since, yes, Lifeboat has its sad moments, but it’s normally not exactly the first title that will come to our minds when thinking of “the saddest film ever made”. Finally, Tallulah makes this episode sparkle by shooting some of the best punchlines you’ll ever hear on television such as:
“When Miss Bankhead is bored, Miss Bankhead will let you know.”
– Lucy Ricardo: Let me tell you something, Tallulah Bankhead, I’ve been thrown out of better places than this!
Tallulah Bankhead: You have never BEEN in better places than this!
– Ricky Ricardo: I’m terrible at remembering names.
Tallulah Bankhead: Oh, so am I. That’s why I call everybody “darling.”