Review: 'The Cheat' a Showcase for Tallulah Bankhead, not Much Else

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 26, 2021

Tallulah Bankhead made very few feature films and, with the exception of her most famous Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," the majority of her starring vehicles were produced in the pre-code period of 1931-32. One of these works, "The Cheat," was a remake of a 1915 silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, which was then remade as a Pola Negri vehicle in 1923. The third version was helmed by George Abbott, who would go on to become one of the great American stage directors of all time.

Bankhead plays Elsa Carlyle a charming married woman with a gambling problem. Her attentive husband (Harvey Stephens) has no idea she owes $10,000, thanks to a reckless wager. She decides to "borrow" what she owes from the money raised from a charity, but then loses that when she invests it in a stock that immediately depreciates. Her only way out is to capitulate to the wily wants of rich playboy Hardy Livingston (Irving Pichel), who pays off her debts but wants sexual favors. (Livingston also has this odd doll fixation you must see to believe.)

This all sounds like a daring and exciting plot, but, as written by Harry Hervey and Hector Turnbull, it's sadly not. There just isn't much there.

Bankhead's line deliveries are priceless, and she looks fabulously in peril, but this is way too self-deprecating a role for such a formidable talent. One can easily understand why she grew bored with filmmaking. It also didn't help that her leading men were not very good. Stephens was certainly handsome, but his acting skills were nil. Oh, and the courtroom ending is a serious WTF?

Paramount should be applauded for championing their female actors back then, but Bankhead, like Mae West, suffered from the production code taking over and running roughshod over the industry for decades to come. What to do with strong women who radiate sensuality? We can't have that!

The film has some nice moments, like the many scenes that were filmed along the ocean front and on the water — before the days of the forced evil backdrops.

The Blu-ray presentation is not very good, with fuzzy or unfocused images throughout (mostly in the long shots). The sound quality is mediocre, as well. Perhaps the actors were poorly miked, since it was the early days of sound? If this was the best Kino Classics had to work with, then at least we have the film, but it's a disappointment.

A speedy audio commentary with critic Simon Abrams gives some good background (although not much on-set info seems to exist), but not enough about Bankhead herself. He also challenges the notion that Abbott directed most of the film, which is interesting.

"The Cheat" is a curiosity, and recommended if only to see Tallulah Bankhead, one of the great grand divas of the 20th century.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Critic and Author Simon Abrams
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English Subtitles

    "The Cheat" is available on Blu-ray on October 26, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.