From Socialite to Streetwalker

There have been some terrific Pre-Code dramas that were set in the Depression and were actually playing in movie theaters at the time but, for obvious reasons, were not box office hits because audiences wanted escapism, not a reminder of their problems. Still, several of these social problem dramas like William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) were championed by film critics and today provide an invaluable window into that era. Faithless (1932), directed by Harry Beaumont (Dance, Fools, Dance) and based on the novel Tinfoil by Mildred Cram, also belongs in that category, even if it was poorly received at the time, and deserves a revival for its unusual mixture of soap opera, social issues and adult themes like prostitution.

Tallulah Bankhead gets the glamor treatment in the MGM pre-code drama FAITHLESS (1932), directed by Harry Beaumont.

Faithless (1932) was supposed to be the film that made a star out of Tallulah Bankhead. After making five unsuccessful movies with Paramount, the studio loaned her out to MGM which attempted to refashion her image for the public. They softened her appearance, dressed her in stylish clothes by Adrian, and gave her a debonair leading man – Robert Montgomery. They also capitalized on her flamboyant on-stage and off-screen personality by casting her as an uninhibited socialite who lived as she pleased, regardless of the consequences.

A publicity photo of Robert Montgomery and Tallulah Bankhead from the 1932 pre-code melodrama FAITHLESS.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the screen. Faithless became a victim of the emerging reform movement in Hollywood. The story – a spoiled heiress loses her fortune and, through a series of financial setbacks, is forced to prostitute herself for her husband – was originally intended as a tart social comedy that poked fun at the idle rich. After the Hays Office demanded script changes, Faithless became a moralistic melodrama in which our carefree heroine was made to pay for her crimes against noble American values. A last-minute happy ending was also imposed on the film which justified all the physical and spiritual degradation that Carol had endured with an unintentionally subversive twist denouement.

At the time, Bankhead was unsatisfied with her Hollywood career and said to an interviewer that “I don’t want to leave until I’ve made one good picture” and hoped Faithless “will be better than the others. I honestly feel it is good, but then – I may be all wrong.”

Carol (Tallulah Bankhead, right) is assisted by her maid Amanda (Theresa Harris) as she dresses for another posh affair, unaware that she will soon be penniless in FAITHLESS (1932).

For starters, the film is quite unique for a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture and seems closer to a gritty Warner Bros. melodrama as it quickly moves from a sophisticated Pre-Code comedy into a dark and pitiless tale of poverty and despair. It also features sharp dialogue from a screenplay by Carey Wilson, who worked on other memorable Pre-Code movies like Behind Office Doors (1931), Gabriel Over the White House (1933) and Murder at the Vanities (1934).

Bill (Robert Montgomery) and Carol (Tallulah Bankhead) deal with some devastating news in the 1932 pre-code drama FAITHLESS.

In addition, the pairing of Bankhead and Montgomery is inspired (you can almost imagine them on stage in a Noel Coward play) but it almost didn’t happen. Montgomery had become ill prior to filming and the studio wanted to move forward with a new leading man but Bankhead held firm and waited for his recovery. It is also interesting to see supporting actor Hugh Herbert in a serious role as a predatory admirer instead of a bumbling fool or comedic foil as he often is in films like Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934) or Hellzapoppin’ (1941).

The harsh realities of the Great Depression are driven home in the 1932 pre-code drama FAITHLESS, directed by Harry Beaumont.

At the time, MGM executives were so pleased with the rushes for Faithless that they offered Bankhead Jean Harlow’s role in Red Dust (1932) after Harlow’s husband Paul Bern died during the filming under mysterious circumstances. Bankhead was offended by the insensitive offer and turned it down so MGM continued to shoot around Harlow on Red Dust until she was ready to return to work.

Hugh Herbert plays a wealthy suitor who takes advantage of a socialite’s misfortune in FAITHLESS (1932), also starring Tallulah Bankhead.

Unfortunately, the reviews for Faithless were mostly negative. The New York Evening Post panned it outright stating, “The smart-aleck dialogue, the utter lack of distinction in the handling of the theme, works continuously and fatally against the efforts of Miss Bankhead and Mr. Montgomery to bring their roles to life. What they are dealing with is trash and neither is capable of disguising it.” The Variety reviewer was equally critical but sympathetic toward Bankhead, writing, “They pile the suffering on so thick any but the most naïve theatregoers are going to revolt and scoff, instead of reacting in tears. To start with, public reaction to the Big Slump of 1929-32 isn’t favorable. It has done things to the fans, too, and they’d like to forget it when they spend 85c. and an amusement tax. ‘The Crash’ [it was later made into a 1932 film with Ruth Chatterton] indicated something of the sort. That was a problem play ostensibly addressed to the discriminating. This is family story paper stuff directed at the remote neighborhoods. Why Miss Bankhead had to fall into it is just fate.”

Life goes from bad to worse for Bill (Robert Montgomery) and Carol (Tallulah Bankhead) in the Great Depression melodrama FAITHLESS (1932).

The New York Times, at least, acknowledged the talents of Bankhead and Montgomery, saying “Whatever may be said against the lengthy and tangled story of “Faithless,” this film at least has the distinction of capable portrayals by Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Montgomery. Yet, as well as they do here in the various phases of the narrative, it is obvious that both would be better suited to a smart comedy than to this lumbering species of drama.”

Excessive drinking, gambling, adultery and other adult issues are prominent in the 1932 pre-code melodrama FAITHLESS starring Tallulah Bankhead in a rare film for MGM.

More than 72 years later, Faithless enjoyed more favorable reappraisals starting with Joel Lobenthal’s comprehensive biography, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, who stated that the movie “is one of the most honest films about the reasons why women go into prostitution. It is impossible for Tallulah’s Carol Morgan to find any other job. In an exquisitely lit and photographed scene amid the gloom of their tenement apartment, Tallulah exhibits some sublime pathos as she prepares to undergo her first foray into prostitution, and does so again as she returns, numb with humiliation. Her eyes certainly do not appear “dead,” but rather large, luminous and communicative. It must be noted, too, that Tallulah in all her films uses her eyelids as expertly as her eyes. Few actresses have evinced such skill at using them to flash a fast and curt rebuke, or slowly lowering them to denote thought or comprehension.”

Other more recent assessments of Faithless also rank it as one of the more compelling Pre-Code dramas. Danny Reid of the website calls it “… a movie which takes a fairly standard dramatic plot and keeps pushing it forward, a go-for-broke attitude in a fairly heavily established genre… Weird thing is that Faithless succeeds because it pushes the matter… This may not have been how The Great Depression ever was to anyone, but this is how it felt to many– a long series of indignities chipping away at you, payback for something you did that you didn’t even understand once upon a time. Now, after the fall, the only thing we have is each other.”

Carol (Tallulah Bankhead) goes wild while her lustful suitor (Hugh Herbert) looks on approvingly in FAITHLESS (1932).

And the website Shadows and Satin deems it “fascinating” and adds, “The more I see it (four times now), the more I’m wowed by the over-the-top pre-Code dramatics – Faithless manages to pack the Depression, class conflicts, premarital sex, adultery, gambling, unemployment, labor disputes, and prostitution, all in the course of just 77 minutes. It’s a wild ride, to say the least.”

Robert Montgomery, one of MGM’s most debonair and popular actors, makes a well matched leading man opposite Tallulah Bankhead in FAITHLESS (1932), a rarely seen pre-code drama.

After Faithless, Bankhead clearly wasn’t interested in a contract with MGM or a Hollywood career. Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t meet her salary demands anyway and realized she was a public relations nightmare due to her offscreen promiscuity. Indeed, Bankhead could be unpredictable, hilarious and uncensored in press interviews like the time she said to a reporter regarding the Code, “I have followed Mr. Hay’s advice and have taken up a completely sexless, nun-like, legs-crossed existence.”

Simply put, Bankhead refused to play the Hollywood game, called it quits and returned to the stage. She wouldn’t appear in another film for eleven years – a cameo in Stage Door Canteen (1943). However, you can still get a glimpse of the wit and feistiness Bankhead was famous for in the early scenes of Faithless.

Tallulah Bankhead plays a survivor of a torpedoed merchant ship in the WW2 drama LIFEBOAT (1944), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

She was always a stage actress first and foremost and preferred that venue over making films as she once stated to Silver Screen magazine, “Put me on a lighted stage before a crowded house and I’m myself.” The actress did make a few more films including a starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), which is probably her most famous screen role, even if it isn’t one of Hitchcock’s more successful films. Her final on-screen role was Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) aka Fanatic, a Gothic thriller in the style of other grand dame chillers like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963). In it, she played a religious nutcase who imprisons her late son’s finance (Stephanie Powers) and torments her in a memorable scene-chewing performance.

Faithless is not available as a solo feature on DVD or Blu-ray but you can see it in The Robert Montgomery Collection from Warner Archives, which released the set on DVD in February 2012. The 4-disc, 8-film collection also includes Shipmates, The Man in Possession, Lovers Courageous, But the Flesh is Weak, Live, Love and Learn, Made on Broadway and The Earl of Chicago.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other links of interest:


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