Stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68 pneumonia) was never a fully-fledged movie star, but she left, at least, a few interesting performances on celluloid.
Tallulah was more of a force of nature, a personality, witty and bisexual, she was a woman who liked to talk and talk.
“I’ve just spent an hour talking to Tallulah for a few minutes,” quipped one of her pals.
Using the biography Tallulah, Darling by Denis Brian, who met with Tallulah, plus me having watched all of her movies worth viewing – and we have this article.
Someone said he timed how much Tallulah talked each day and worked out it was 70,000 words a day. About the length of the average novel. Tallulah would do anything for a laugh or to shock the shockable. She was also a loyal friend, a vociferous enemy and loved children, animals and Democrats. Funny, witty and outspoken, she especially loved dogs, apparently setting fire to one when dropping a cigarette in a semi-comatose state.
Over the years, gossip columnists and others quoted her and misquoted her and today it is hard to separate fact from fiction. While Dorothy Parker (1893-1967 heart attack) was the height of wit, Tallulah wasn’t far behind.
In a public toilet, devoid of tissue, Tallulah called to the woman in the next stall: “I beg your pardon, darling, do you have any toilet tissue?” “No,” replied the woman. “Well, then, darling,” Tallulah said, “Do you have two fives for a ten?”
Many a critic had a fine time trying to find words to describe her voice. Someone called her “a blithe spirit with a rusty voice”. Certainly, it was a smoky voice from the countless cigarettes she smoked during her lifetime.
Tallulah was also quite short and you can see it when she stands beside Gary Cooper (1901-61 prostate cancer) in the film Devil and the Deep (1932). She reckons she stood five foot and three inches. She also called herself “pure as the driven slush.”
When asked why she called everyone “darling” Tallulah said it was because she met so many people and couldn’t remember their names.
She smoked almost non-stop and drank whenever she wasn’t talking. She took cocaine and lovers.
Alfred Hitchcock called her a woman without inhibitions, while another friend said the key to Tallulah was that she was at least seven different women and all of them complex.
She thought Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68 assassin’s bullet) “divine” and died six months after his assassination and weeks after Republican Richard Nixon was elected as President. I don’t think she could stand to see him sworn in.
Tallulah was born in 31 January 1902 and three weeks later her mother died of sepsis as a complication of her birth. Her father William Bankhead (1874-1940 heart attack, depending on source) was an Alabama politician, a Democrat elected to Congress in 1917. He would become Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Tallulah and her older sister were then brought up by their father’s sister in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was obvious from kindergarten that Tallulah was a performer. She could imitate and remember songs. She idolised her father and cried when he left her at boarding school in New York aged ten. But the nuns there couldn’t tame her and she would go to several schools.
It was still as a teen that she sent her photo to Pictureplay magazine and was surprised upon buying a copy to find it on the back page. With her aunt as chaperone, she went to New York and was soon staying at the Algonquin Hotel, the hub of the world she wished to conquer. It was there The Round Table, as it was known to friends, met – critics and producers. To non-friends it was known as The Vicious Circle.
And at sixteen she was left alone in New York barely able to pay her Algonquin bill. She met an older actress Estelle Winwood (1883-1984 in sleep) who took a motherly interest in her. Winwood was rumoured to be lesbian although theirs was apparently not a sexual relationship and the pair moved in together so Tallulah could save money.
Tallulah’s first Broadway appearance was a walk-on role in 1918. She immediately made two silent movies on Long Island entitled When Men Betray and Thirty a Week. Now forgotten. Then her appendix burst – she survived and went on holiday with Winwood and met stage great John Barrymore (1882-1942 cirrhosis, kidney failure, pneumonia). Tallulah was infatuated with him but resisted his advances while Winwood flushed Tallulah’s cocaine and marijuana joints down the toilet. “Don’t make such a fuss,” said Tallulah, “All the girls take it.”
Later she was found kissing a young woman at a party. When her father had warned her to stay away from men as it would lead to trouble – she took him literally. And while she took cocaine, she had also never taken a drink as a promise to her father. One night she broke that promise with a bottle of port with a new housemate…
She met the infatuation of her life Lord Napier Alington (1896-1940 killed in action during the Battle of Britain), an English cad by all accounts… she went to England to conquer him and the stage. It was 1923.
Upon scoring a role in a play, she heard a roar come from the stage after her first appearance. She went back to her dressing room to cry but an actress said: “They love you.” From then on admirers would line up for 30 hours at a time to ensure they would get a seat. Tallulah was suddenly a star!… And Napier turned up at her door. She was fascinated by his rakishness while he’d disappear for months on end, often to Swiss sanitariums where he was treated for tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, it is said, mean playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) denied her the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain on stage. She half-heartedly tried suicide with aspirin as a result but woke the next day to playwright Noel Coward’s (1899-1973 heart failure) phone call offering her Fallen Angels.
She partied and had love affairs with unlikely people… and she had her first stalker who sent a letter threatening to kill her. English Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) saw Fallen Angels on stage five times and she loved him too.
By 1928, appearing in the play Her Cardboard Lover, audiences would leap to their feet calling “Marvellous”, “Ravishing” and “Tallulah, you’re Wonderful”… All before she had uttered a word! So, with years of success in London and the British Isles under her belt, in 1930 she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. She would return to America aged 29 in January 1931 – a country which would never be the same again due to The Great Depression, the economic turndown which marred the world.
Rumours preceded her upon her arrival that she seduced Eton schoolboys and didn’t pay income tax. The latter was true but she hoped the $50,000 for ten weeks’ work for Paramount would pay off her bills. The film which she screen-tested for at Paramount’s Long Island studios was Tarnished Lady (1931).
Tarnished Lady opens with a copy of magazine Vanity Bazaar – a mixture of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar – with an illustration of a topless woman followed by the Tallulah Bankhead screen credit. We get a kind of idea of what Tallulah was like from this film. One of the first lines in the film is: “I’ve got a hunch it’s going to be an awful flop,” which wasn’t far wrong.
Tallulah is fettered with a script where she loves her husband and not his money in the end, despite leaving him when he goes broke in a stock market crash in the beginning.
The opening photo hinted to an audience that wanted to see more of Tallulah as she was known to strip off at private parties… and she also did nude art photography – but, of course, there was no way such behaviour could be accommodated in a film at the time even though Tarnished Lady is a Pre-Code movie.
Later in the movie, after Tallulah has married a man for money, there’s her picture in the paper almost like the illustration at the beginning but clothed and then it cuts to Tallulah in a low-cut dress with her folded newspaper held across her chest as she reads it. That’s as close as audiences would get to an undressed Tallulah on screen.
Tarnished Lady is adult entertainment and that a woman will marry for money while her real lover has a dollar in his pocket is perhaps not a new notion. Actor Clive Brook (1887-1974) is the rich man Tallulah is forced into the bedroom willingly – they are married – as the door closes behind them. All very Pre-Code.
“If only I had the money of my own,” laments Tallulah to her mother under the direction of famed “woman’s director” George Cukor (1899-1983 heart attack). It was his first solo directorial effort along with Tallulah’s first sound movie. Paramount screwed Cukor of his credit on his next film and he left the studio and went on to great success.
Tallulah briefly leaves her husband for her writer lover, only to find him in bed with another woman – and one she knows!
“It would have to be you,” says Tallulah, who retires to a bar with her brother played by Psycho actor Anthony Perkins’ father Osgood Perkins (1892-1937 heart attack).
Tallulah suffers admirably for her crime of choosing money over love and then love over money… and has a hard time of finding a job before finding she’s pregnant!
“I hope you two will be very, very unhappy,” says her husband’s girlfriend upon his reconciling with Tallulah. Cue the violins… The end.
George Cukor said: “I have a very warm and loving feeling about her. And I am very grateful for the enormous amount of fun I had with her. She was enormously diverting and touching, too. Tallulah would do anything to get a laugh.”
Tallulah got caught up in Paramount’s assembly line when next she would work with famed stage director George Abbott (1887-1995 it’s true, a stroke) on the movies My Sin (1931) and The Cheat (1931).
My Sin is set in Panama with Fredric March as “a beggar, a tramp and a university graduate” whose life has gone to pieces in the heat and monotony of the semi-tropics. March is a lawyer and a drunk “past redemption” whose “name smells to heaven down here”.
It’s a great Pre-Code opening. March was a well-known stage actor like Bankhead, but whereas her career fizzled shortly after, March would win an Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).
As March cadges drinks in the front bar, in the backroom Tallulah sits on the bar and sings to the ‘in’ crowd. “I’ll just have to be a little bit drunker to sing those words,” says Tallulah when asked to sing the naughty verse. She sees a face at the window, something which scares her much more than pink elephants. Tallulah is the type of woman who thinks, when her hands are full, they are with the two most important things in life – money and alcohol. I guess you keep the cigarette between your lips.
“I’m drunk or crazy or bored,” she says, fleeing the bar with the “willies” and brushing off March as he grabs her…
The script by Seattle-born Adelaide Heilbron (1892-1974) among others is based on a play and dense with good dialogue in the opening scenes.
…It seems Tallulah has a dark past with a gangster after her life savings. This face at the window is later shot and killed by Tallulah.
“You’re in for it this time baby,” says the law.
It had been the usual struggle and the gun went off scenario but we didn’t see it.
Tallulah, this “drunken entertainer” is “a good girl, a nice girl” to others. And suddenly March sobers up to defend her… all in the first quarter hour!
Found not guilty… but upon her release still suffering guilty pangs, this is one of Tallulah’s best performances, seemingly attuned to her stage persona. It is a play after all and director Abbott a stage director.
“I hate to think of you so alone,” says the landlady who kicks her out of her room.
If anything, Tallulah’s movie career was killed by the introduction of the Production Code in the Hollywood film industry. Also, the general weakness of most of her starring vehicles.
There was no Production Code for My Sin, as with a cigarette and alcohol laced with what looks like laudanum, Tallulah raises a glass to the mirror and says; “So long.” This sort of thing was totally taboo a couple of years later. March saves her and now a success stakes her money to start again in New York. She does and works as a decorator for the rich and is about to marry a rich man when her life collides with March again when he’s in New York.
The second half of My Sin isn’t as interesting, rejecting March and her old life for a new one… wearing dresses without brassieres in front of her new man’s mother. Her previous identity is sprung by the young man’s uncle, who at dinner with the family hints at “dark secrets” and Tallulah’s new life seems doomed. This climactic dinner party is a bit of a classic. And Tallulah declares her former self dead but we know she lives.
My Sin is a bit pat but as Tallulah’s second failure to turn her into a star… It ain’t bad.
Then came the often-remade film The Cheat which was first filmed in 1915 with Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973 pneumonia) and directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959 heart attack). In this case, it features future director Irving Pichel (1891-1954 heart condition) as an Asian man who helps Tallulah out of a financial tough spot in return for a “favour”. When she refuses to do what he wants, once her husband has a million dollar windfall, Pichel brands Tallulah on the chest with a branding iron.
“You cheat, now show that to your husband,” and she shoots him.
There’s more to it than that and the fact that Tallulah is branded on her upper breast more or less meant the film couldn’t really be remade in the United States under the Production Code. Although it was remade in France in 1937. What must have thrilled audiences in 1915 isn’t so thrilling in 1931 and The Cheat while not a bad movie didn’t do big box office.
Director George Abbott was more of a business-like man who was surprised upon visiting Tallulah at home. She asked him to pour a huge can of milk into her bath and said to him that she only loved cads. Abbott thought he didn’t qualify and left. Yet she would rest her head on his lap between shooting scenes, sharing confidences – but in private she stayed away.
“She was a wild creature,” said Abbott. “She had a background but she was not what a lady would call a lady.”
Paramount decided to ship her to Hollywood for movies. Upon meeting film star Joan Crawford and new husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on the train to Los Angeles, Tallulah said: “I’ve had an affair with your husband. You’ll be next.”
Poor Joan, who claimed to have no sense of humour at this point, said the line “scared the bejesus” out of her.
Friends say Tallulah was sexually omnivorous and that her use of drugs and alcohol were partly responsible for her lesbian affairs. Psychiatrists used to use the old adage that it was a form of self-love and emotional immaturity. Anyway, it’s just everyday life these days.
Crawford added: “We all adored her” about Tallulah’s queenly attitude, how she loved to tease and taunt people and her flair for the gift of the gab. “I think she was one of the most exciting actresses we’ve ever had,” said Crawford.
Having no success with starring in women’s pictures, she began to make more man-centric movies with Thunder Below (1932). With its other main stars being men – Charles Bickford (1891-1967 pneumonia and sepsis) as the husband going blind and Paul Lukas (1894-1971) as her lover – Tallulah had to leave behind the apartments of New York as the backdrop of her films. Directed by Richard Wallace (1894-1951 heart attack), who was a former medical student, he took Tallulah to the morgue one night to show her how peaceful the corpses were. He was probably trying the shock the shocker and it was the most memorable thing Tallulah remembers about the film.
For me, it is the ending when Tallulah jumps of a cliff, symbolised with a close-up of her face and a flock of seagulls suddenly taking flight. Meanwhile there is dialogue like: “There are only a few real things in the world and love is the most important, it’s the only real happiness there is,” says Tallulah rapturously about love. Thunder Below is underheated and yet overcooked. The men are good actors but far from sexy and Tallulah overdresses for a life out in the far reaches of civilisation. Tallulah is a martyr for both love and the search for petroleum as it suggests her two men carry on… together, after her leap from a cliff.
Tallulah’s performance is a little stilted and melodramatic and while, yes, she is beautiful, there is not enough wattage to carry the film. Once more, it’s not a bad movie though.
Actor Tony Randall (1920-2004 pneumonia) said of Tallulah’s last film at Paramount entitled Devil and the Deep (1932) “If you want to see how bad Tallulah could be – see this film”.
It’s another man-centric thing with Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton (1899-1962 bowel cancer, renal by other reports) as the stars and Cary Grant (1904-86 stroke) in a small role.
Tallulah was quoted as saying the only reason she came to Hollywood was “to “f#*k that divine Gary Cooper.”
She is given a few tart lines in the beginning of this film about a suicidal submarine captain, his wife and his crew.
“I don’t attack women,” says a gallant commander after being caught bitching about Tallulah.
“Except behind their backs,” exacts Tallulah.
She plays her jaded persona well as usual but the film lacks pace and after you know Cooper and Tallulah have balled you don’t care anymore. That is until the action-packed finale which has them all trapped in the submarine at the bottom of the ocean thanks to Laughton’s jealousy. Will Tallulah don an air mask and try to make it to the surface wearing pearls and an evening gown? Audiences of the day didn’t care and it was her last film at Paramount where she was apparently getting $6000 a week. There seemed to be no indication why British audiences had so canonised Tallulah.
She did one more film during this period, this time at MGM, and it was entitled Faithless (1932). She plays “a social panhandler” according to one socialite she borrows money from. Tallulah never looked so beautiful. Perhaps it was the MGM treatment, the make-up and the lens. Certainly, she lit well, like Dietrich, whose shadow cast itself long at Paramount while Tallulah was there.
The reality of Faithless is The Great Depression and what becomes of the rich who didn’t jump out of their skyscrapers once the stock market crashed… Tallulah is ruined…
“Nothing matters when you haven’t eaten for two days,” she says sick in bed inside her bedsit. She sells her last set of high heels for barely a dime which gives her a meal of soup and crackers… if only she hadn’t said: “No” to Bill played by Robert Montgomery (1904-81 cancer)… but they meet again and she says: “Yes” as they live in a five dollar a week room, only he crashes a truck he’s driving and suffers internal injuries and they can’t afford a doctor…
With the freshly coiffed Tallulah suffering on the breadline, it shows that beauty isn’t all, especially in times of poverty, and it won’t get you by if you have nothing at all. I guess it meant well to the masses out of work at the time. Beauty is transitory anyway. And some use it to prostitute themselves.
“I always said you’d end up in the gutter,” says a former co-worker of Montgomery, when she approaches him for money. And as a result, she is arrested for procuring men… but the policeman is a nice guy and instead of carting her off to jail he gets her a job as a waitress. Montgomery thinks she’s a streetwalker but he forgives her anyway.
The last line in the movie is: “Sausages, sausages, sausages.”
Faithless could have been named after Tallulah’s seemingly godless behaviour at private parties in real life. It could also be her lack of faith in her potential husband at the beginning of the movie. Something which can only lead to poverty and ruin. Well, for some.
Despite the MGM treatment, Faithless didn’t set the world on fire for Tallulah’s acting career and MGM offered her a contract for less than half of what she was earning a week at Paramount. Hollywood wouldn’t be her home.
Tallulah returns to Hollywood before her sad decline in PART TWO.