Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Cheat (1931)

The release of the pre-Hays Code ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ DVD box sets has meant the chance to see some previously unheard-of gems (by me anyway) from the era before various religious and financial institutions caused the imposition of restrictions on what was deemed ‘inappropriate material’ to put on film during the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood. The Hays Code and its effect on horror cinema is worthy of a long essay in itself but for now let’s concentrate on THE CHEAT.
Tallulah Bankhead (who I had previously seen only in Hammer’s DIE, DIE MY DARLING and while much younger here definitely comes across as someone more worldly wise, cynical and scary than her age at the time ought to have suggested) plays Elsa Carlyle, who is happily married to Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens, obviously not the one from THE OMEN) but has a problem. She’s addicted to gambling and is utterly hopeless at it. 
       Losing $10 000 one night at the turn of a card, the next day she is entrusted with the $13 000 plus that the ladies’ Milk Fund Charity (whatever that might be) has managed to raise to help starving orphans. Rather than simply use it to pay off her debt she invests $10 000 of that in something really very hopeless indeed, only finding out that she has lost everything when she is attending an orientally themed fancy dress party the following evening. There she is, on the phone, wearing a hat that’s ten times bigger than her head and about one thousand times smaller than her chances of her husband forgiving her if he finds out how much money she’s managed to lose. 
       Luckily for absolutely no-one in this film at all she has already met rich Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel, looking a lot healthier here than he would in a couple of years’ time as Gloria Holden’s henchman Sandor in Universal’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER). Hardy loves all things oriental, including clothes, servants, and dolls, of which he has a collection locked in a cupboard to remind him of past lovers. He shows Tallulah these in a scene reminiscent of the pulp horror stories of the time. Each doll has been branded with his mark to show he owns them. He offers to give Tallulah a cheque to help her with her debt in return for ‘special favours’ we can all guess the nature of. Tallulah accepts the money but lo and behold lovely, unsuspecting, ever forgiving hubby has paid her debts off for her. She tries to return the cheque but Hardy’s not happy and just to prove it he burns his mark into her chest with the branding iron he has handily heating up in the brazier in his living room. Understandably upset at this Tallulah shoots him just as Jeffrey arrives to take the rap as the servants come running in.
       The rest of the movie’s short running time is taken up with the court case. Hardy has only been wounded and tries to discredit Jeffrey but Tallulah breaks down in front of everyone and confesses which somehow makes everything all right (??) and the film ends with the happy couple tucking into no doubt another outrageously expensive meal that the average Depression-suffering moviegoer  of the time could probably ill afford to buy but could just about pay to look at.
For a movie made in the early 1930s THE CHEAT doesn’t feel that dated at all. Its attitude to the subject matter is deliciously lurid and the branding scene is quite surprising. Not all of the movies in the box set this is a part of are quite as rewarding but anyone interested in Hollywood’s treatment of some pretty lurid and taboo subjects before its hands were tied certainly won’t feel cheated by this.


  1. Recently, I discovered an on-line calculator which tells you the buying power of an historical dollar in today's money. It's probably specific to US currency in many ways, but here we have a fair comparison. Mrs. Carlyle has, in current funds, lost $147,986.18, and must come up with that before her husband finds out. Or, possibly, it's over twice that, as she's already lost that before she's lost the charity's money as well.

    I'll have to seek out this, as well as some of the other salacious titles of that set. Hooray!

  2. Very well calculated, sir! You should seek out these films. They're...interesting, to say the least.