Kicking off the second pre-code set to come out this year, we’ve got THE CHEAT (1931, another in the “rich ne’er do well offers to ‘help’ married woman” genre. This one’s good for its kind, with a heavy accent on the exotic. Irving Pichel is the ne’er do well, a nut for “orientalism” who keeps a cabinet of dolls representing his “conquests” (each with his “brand” of ownership burned into their base). He also has dancing girls from Cambodia (below), a giant menacing statue composite of Shiva, Kali and the great God Tao, sitar and Chinese lute players in the perfumed garden. In short, he’s got the all the goods that re pre-code manna for the discerning collector. It’s always the bachelor-seducers who have the cool pads in these films. The “proper” father (the naive husband’s dad or her dad) lives in a world of gaudy flower bouquets and marble. The bachelor is all tapestries, Asian artifacts and for servants usually just one or two very wise and discreet–Leporello-esque even–butlers
What’s so sordidly pre-code about it all is that the “cheat” of the title refers not to Tallulah cheating at cards, or cheating on her husband via infidelity, but rather cheating on Pichel–our lonesome bachelor– by trying to back out of their deal after he’s already paid off her gambling debts. In other words this sort of deal was–in the pre-code universe–as valid and holy (pr unholy) as the state of marriage itself. She’s just being “gay and modern” to toss a fuck poor Pichel’s way, but backing out of the date makes her the titular lady of dishonesty.
(spoiler alert) Bankhead as a sex object is a little hard to buy; she’s got the mannishly slumped shoulders of Greta Garbo and the off-kilter stringency of Bette Davis but neither of their humor. But that doesn’t excuse her welching! Since the Tallulah doll he’d had made ready for the evening is now useless, Pichel uses the brand, already hot in the fire, on the real Tallulah’s alabaster breast!
We can understand he’s mad–after all he went through the trouble of bathing, dismissing the servants, hiring the sitar and lute for his garden, uncorking his best champagne; but branding Tallulah Bankhead with a hot iron? Mr. Pichel, such things just aren’t done to rich white women! Naturally, there’s a shot, a scream, and a courtroom scene. Poor Pichel’s sadistic nature is exposed and a horrible scandal will inevitably ensue.
“The Woman’s Film” apparently had only two plot outlines to its name: the “Indecent Proposal” (the millionaire playboy usually gets shot and someone takes the rap to protect someone else’s honor) and the “gangster moral double-cross” (she shoots her bootlegger ex in order to protect her true love, the D.A.). There’s almost always a trial at the end, with a hostile sea of masculine eyes all pulling our heroine one way or another. Can you see her now, your honor? Rapid edits to reporters and judges and jurors, their eyes blazing with hostility? Her crying softly on the witness stand, dragging the tearful confession out unto the last possible second?
The witness stand’s ubiquitousness in these films indicates its holy importance in the pre-code universe. It’s perhaps the single most unassailable podium a woman can find from which to lash out. She’s safe, yet surrounded by attentive males, and allowed to say whatever unseemly truths she wishes without fear of misinterpretation. No condescending boyfriend or father can censor or belittle her once she’s been sworn in (unless he’s cross-examining) and no one can take twist her words or patronize her contribution to the crime being tried as irrelevant. For better or worse, she makes the whole circus possible through her impulsive behavior; each new outrage, once plainly spoken in front of witnesses, becomes repressed no longer. Viva l’scandale! Nothing perhaps was more rewarding to the depression era women audiences than seeing the phoniness of their anointed marital bars and codes stripped away by the unstoppable juggernaut of sin and sizzle!