erik lundegaard

Monday January 02, 2023

Movie Review: The Cheat (1931)


Here are the big differences between this version of “The Cheat” and the famous 1915 silent film:

  • Fannie Ward in 1915 was just a spoiled spendthrift but Tallulah Bankhead obviously has a gambling problem
  • Fannie was branded on the upper back; for Tallulah, it’s the upper chest
  • The original villain was Japanese; this one is a white Japanophile

In other words, the movie goes deeper psychologically and bawdily but takes a step back racially.

Or is that a step forward? When the original came out, the Japanese and Japanese-American communities objected so vociferously that when the film was re-released in 1918 the villain was changed from a Japanese ivory merchant to a Burmese one. Which … sure. To the Japanese it’s like: We finally get a big role and it’s a sexual predator who literally brands a white woman? Not a good look. Give it to the Burmese.

At the same time, the actor who played the role, Sessue Hayakawa, became a matinee idol as a result—the first Asian star in Hollywood, and probably the biggest Asian male movie star in America until Bruce Lee came along more than 50 years later. Wouldn’t you want to embrace that in some way? Instead, the controversy may have caused the studio in 1931 to figure, “Yeah, let’s skip all that and go with a white dude.” So there went another opportunity for an Asian actor.

Ah, who am I kidding? They probably would’ve gone yellowface anyway.

Milk funds
Another difference, of course, is that the original was silent, (as was the 1923 remake with Pola Negri), and this one gets into the repartee right away.

We’re among the smart set at the Dunes Yacht Club on Long Island, where a cynical character named Leslie (Porter Hall) good-naturedly chides stockbroker Jeffrey Carlyle (Harvey Stephens) about working too hard to support his wife, Elsa (Bankhead).

Leslie: You know, I take a positively clinical interest in this man
Man: What’s the trouble?
Leslie: He’s in love with his wife!
Man: I know. And after four years, too.
Jeffrey (smiling): Can’t help it, boys. I’m sorry.
Man: Why don’t you do something about it? It’s disgraceful.
Leslie: Worse than that, it’s indecent. Here’s to her.
(They toast and drink)

That’s not bad, but Leslie leaves us too quickly. Porter Hall didn’t even make the credits.

Elsewhere at the club, a speech is delivered by Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel), who, like the more famous Dr. Livingstone, is a world traveler. He’s just spent three years in Asia and has promised to lend his house for the big Milk Fund Ball. Back in 1915, it was a Red Cross Ball to help the poor Belgians during WWI; now it’s the Great Depression and everyone needs milk.

Not Elsa, though. She’s too busy matching coins with the men. There’s a fascinating scene where she’s mesmerized by the gambling table, and, without looking behind her, begins to sit down—and a Black servant moves a chair there for her. That’s lucky but she isn’t. She winds up losing $5K, then goes double or nothing and loses again. And Livingstone is hanging around with a leer. Earlier, we’d heard him philosophizing: “No, the oriental woman isn’t really a slave. She’s simply been well-trained, that’s all.” Now he sees a chance to train another. He and Elsa walk along the beach and she agrees to see his mansion across the water. It has Japanese servants and a Japanese vibe, but each step gets creepier. One room he calls his “holy of holies,” including Yama, the God of Destruction, which frightens Elsa; another room is his “gallery of ghosts,” with branded female figurines. “Once they were lovely women who were kind to me,” he says. The brand is his Japanese crest. “It means … I possess.” “What a strange man you are,” she says.

Then he offers servants playing music, a glass of Saki, and a beautiful, jewel-encrusted Japanese dress, which he demands she wear. That’s when she splits.

Even so, she wears the dress to the Asian-themed Milk Fund Ball. By this point she’s gambled another $10k on a stock speculation her husband wouldn’t touch. I like how, despite the yacht club trappings, the movie doesn’t ignore the depression:

Hubby: You’d think from the way they talk downtown the whole country was going to be put up for sale cheap in six months.
Elsa: Is it?
Hubby: No. When everyone’s blue, it’s time to buy. When the crowd buys, it’s time to sell. I know that and everybody knows it.

Everybody knows and everybody forgets.

Anyway, her speculation goes awry, and now she owes $20k, and the bill is coming due. Hubby doesn’t have it but Livingstone does, and, with that leer, he offers a deal. What was oblique in the original is underlined here: “I don’t ask for much in return—only that you be a little nicer to me. And maybe, maybe some evening soon, you’ll come to see me.” But when hubby’s number comes in, she tries to back out of it. He won’t let her. “If you’re trying to appeal to my better nature, it’s hopeless,” he says. “You made a promise, and you’re going to keep it!” When she’d arrived he was branding a doll he’d made of her. Now he breaks the doll and decides to brand her instead. After the deed is done—via shadows—we get the title line, clumsily applied: “You cheat! Now show that to your husband!”

The rest pretty much plays out the same. She shoots Livingstone—wings him--hubby comes across the scene and takes the blame. In court, husband and wife do everything to hide the scandal. They’re basically fighting to keep losing. Once she comes clean, Livingstone looks awful, the mob looks to lynch him, and they win.

The silent movie ended with the couple walking triumphant out of the courtroom. This version gives us a jokey epilogue in a tavern where, at one point, she says “You bet,” he waggles a finger at her and says, “No more betting,” and she swears nothing but double solitaire. Oof.

It’s still a more coherent movie than the 1915 version; but it could’ve used more Porter Hall.

Mad to live
Did Jack Kerouac ever see this movie? At one point, hubby tells Elsa he loves her and she responds:

Even if, at times, I do things that don’t please you? Mad things? Because you know, Jeffrey, I am mad. Mad about living. Things going around—I love them: ferris wheels, train wheels, roulette wheels.

Cf. Kerouac: “…mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing …”

That wouldn’t have been a bad description for Tallulah Bankhead. I’d heard of her, of course, but didn’t know her story. She was a big hit on London’s West End in the 1920s and Broadway in the 1930s. She was also famous for giving days-long parties, with or without clothes. She had a deep voice, a love of cigarettes and bourbon, called everybody “darling,” and was apparently one of the models for Cruella de Ville, but she didn’t translate well to the big screen. Her ‘30s titles were indicative of the roles Hollywood gave her: “Tarnished Lady,” “My Sin,” “Faithless,” “The Cheat.” She seems way more interesting than all that. Her last screen role was Black Widow on TV’s “Batman.” She died in 1968.

I’d never heard of Irving Pichel before but what a life: actor, and then director, and then one of the Hollywood 19—the 19 members of the Hollywood community who were accused of being communists and undermining America and were brought before HUAC in 1947. Well, 10 were brought forward; Pichel didn’t make the cut. He was blacklisted nonetheless and survived by working in B pictures, then in Europe, but—like John Garfield—he died young of heart troubles. Both Wiki and IMDb add that after his death someone fingered him as a communist, or a one-time communist, but no word on how any of it might have manifested itself in his work. Was he undermining America with his narration for “How Green Was My Valley” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” or for the WWII propaganda films “Know Your Ally: Britain” and “December 7th”? How about as director of “O.S.S.” or “Martin Luther”? To look at what he was accused of vs. what he produced is to know the absurdity of the blacklist.

The movie’s director was George Abbott, who only has 15 film credits because he was too busy on Broadway. Among his shows: “Chicago” (1926), “Twentieth Century,” “Pal Joey,” “On the Town,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He lived to be 107. The film’s screenwriter, Harry Hervey, was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, and a world traveler, who wrote books and screenplays, and died young. He was born 13 years after Abbott and died 44 years before him, in 1951, age 50. Don’t know if there’s a lesson there.

Publicity shots have Bankhead branded on her upper back ...

... but the movie reversed it.

Posted at 12:33 PM on Monday January 02, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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