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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THE CHEAT (1931)

The story’s the same, but the thrill is gone in this third iteration of Cecil B DeMille’s 1915 upper-crust shocker, a tale of sexual blackmail that merges tasty bits from Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER with THE SCARLET LETTER. Tallulah Bankhead should be just right as the self-centered society wife who gets over her head in debt and sells herself to a rich ‘Oriental.’ Alas, except for her one-off in Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT/’44, Tallulah was never able to make friends with the camera. Not that it would have made much difference in this watered down telling. In DeMille’s galvanizing original, the suave predator flaunts a racist edge of barbarism that drove audiences wild, and made Sessue Hayakawa America’s first (and only?) Asian matinee idol. Even Pola Negri, who made her Hollywood debut in the 1923 remake, got manhandled by an Indian Prince. And who puts the moves on Tallulah? Irving Pichel, a Paul Muni lookalike with the cultivated tones of an English gentleman. Just what is he supposed to be? Decadent Caucasian with a suspect taste in Asian houseboys & home decor? Talk about throwing a wet blanket on things. And speaking of wet blankets . . . Harvey Stephens, debuting as Bankhead’s mannerly cuckold, cold-cocked his shot at leading man status right from the start. This was also the end of the line for legendary B’way helmer George Abbott. Brought out during the early Talkie craze for theater talent, and with some decent work to show for it, he apparently had had enough and largely stuck to the Great White Way for the next seven decades! (NOTE: Our poster is the cover from the 1931 novelization.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A French remake from 1937, FORFAITURE, has Sussue Hayakawa back in his old role after 22 years. With Marcel L’Herbier helming a cast that includes Victor Francen & Louis Jouvet, where is this curio hiding? Until that shows up you can see DeMille’s 1915 original, one of his early triumphs, on either KINO or IMAGE. Or, to see what Bankhead was aiming for, but unable to pull off, try to see the astonishing, doomed Jeanne Eagles in her only surviving sound film, the recently restored THE LETTER/’29.

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