Saturday, May 16, 2009

THE CHEAT (1931/1915)

Harvey Stephens is a businessman on the verge of making a big deal that will make him rich, but until then, he has to warn his wife, Talullah Bankhead, about her reckless spending. Unfortunately, one night at a charity party, Bankhead overhears adventurer Irving Pichel talk about luck and takes that as a sign that she'll be lucky at the gambling tables, but she winds up losing $10,000. Pichel, just back from the Orient, takes Bankhead home to see his collection of dolls, representing former lovers, all of which are branded with his symbol of possession. He's a little scary but she seems titillated, though the evening ends with no hanky-panky; however, at another charity ball, Bankhead agrees to wear an elaborate Oriental dress loaned to her by Pichel. Soon, Bankhead, who has been entrusted with $10,000 of charity money, uses the cash on a sure-thing stock tip, hoping to make enough to pay her debt, but loses, so now she's out $20,000. She finally gives in to Pichel, agreeing to take money from him in exchange for sex, but when her husband's deal goes through, making them rich, she tries to pull herself out of Pichel's perverse web. When she won't have sex with him, he brands her on the breast; she shoots him, though doesn't kill him, and her husband tries to take the rap for her. But a scandalous event in the courtroom changes the outcome.

This pre-Code melodrama, which I saw as part of the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, is a remake of a silent film by Cecil B. DeMille which I caught on TCM just a couple weeks after seeing this version. The 1931 film is slow going, worth seeing mostly because of Bankhead. A legendary performer on the stage (and as a wit and raconteur), she only made a handful of movies--though not long before her death, she appeared as a villainess on the 60's Batman TV series. She's OK here, though I can’t help but think that Claudette Colbert or even the pre-Code Norma Shearer would have been better. Pichel is fine, appropriately oozing decadence throughout, though he suffers by comparison with the leading man in the DeMille film.

The silent film, from 1915, has the same plot line, with one important difference: the adventurer is a Burmese ivory merchant, played by Sessue Hayakawa, which adds what would have been, in 1915, a distinct frisson of forbidden miscegenation--and apparently in the first release, he was identified as Japanese, but because of protests, his character got a different name and nationality in a 1918 re-release, which is the version which exists today. This is a half-hour shorter than the sound film but it's also the better version. Hayakawa is an ardent companion of the wife (Fanny Ward) from the beginning, and he's a stronger figure than Pichel is. For a film that is almost 100 years old, it still plays well. There is some nice stuff done with darkness and light, especially in two scenes which involve shadows behind a paper screen. Some of the acting, especially by Ward, is full of the big gestures and eye-rolling histrionics that mar silent films for today's viewers, but Hayakawa is excellent. I'm glad to have seen both. [DVD/TCM]

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