If imitation is a form of flattery, than Universal Studios Home Entertainment is flattering Warner Home Video's money-making talents by issuing its first Pre-Code Hollywood Collection as part of the new Universal Backlot series. It follows closely the third set in Warner's Forbidden Hollywood series of pre-Code selections, which must have been selling well enough for Universal to take notice. That's fine by me because I dig the pre-Code stuff, but I notice that Universal imitates Forbidden Hollywood very closely in its emphasis on women's pictures. Warners themselves are getting away from this a little with the third set's focus on William Wellman and the inclusion of tougher material like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes For Sale. But "pre-Code" seems to signify liberated womanhood, at least in the minds of marketers, so all the items in the Universal set have a heavy femme interest, starting with George Abbott's sleek 67-minute melodrama.
The 1931 version of The Cheat is Paramount's second remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 shocker, a film that made Sessue Hayakawa of a pioneer Asian Hollywood star (42 years before Bridge on the River Kwai) and gave C.B. his early reputation as a slick sleaze merchant. A 1923 remake starring Pola Negri is considered a lost film. The original screenplay was a racial bombshell in its portrayal of an Oriental forcing himself on a white woman, but I suppose it's also one of the first films to be touched by what you could call political correctness. Hayakawa's character was, like himself, a Japanese in the original release. When Paramount re-released it in 1918, Japan was America's ally in World War I. It was thought unseemly to make an allied national look villainous, so title cards were altered to identify Hayakawa's character as Burmese. In the 1923 version, the villain has a double identity as Claude Mace and Prince Rao Singh, and is played by Charles de Roche, a white man.
The talkie departs further from the original screenplay. This time the villain has no double life, but is just plain Hardy Livingstone, to the extent that anyone played by Irving Pichel is "just plain" anything. Pichel was a busy character actor who took up directing early on, sharing credit with Ernest B. Shoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game, co-directing She for Merriam C. Cooper, and later making Destination Moon for George Pal. As an actor he's most likely best known for playing Sandor, the fatalistic and creepy servant of Dracula's Daughter. In that film he's done up in pale makeup that made my younger self wonder whether Sandor was a vampire himself. In The Cheat he's glammed up as much as possible, and demonstrates that he contributed the creepiness to Sandor.
But let's take the movie from the beginning. Our heroine is Elsa Carlisle (Tallulah Bankhead), the loving but irresponsible wife of Jeffrey, a struggling young businessman. They've been married four years, and Jeffrey's cronies find the fact that he still loves her "disgraceful" and "indecent." After what we'll see, "saintlike" seems a better word. One of the first things we see is Elsa losing $5,000 at the card table of a society party. She bet on impulse after overhearing Mr. Livingstone mention that tigers are lucky animals. On impulse, she makes a double-or-nothing bet with the dealer and loses. Now she's ten grand in the hole. Multiply that by at least ten to put that in modern perspective. And this is the Depression; money isn't that easy to recover. As Jeffrey says, "You'd think from the way everyone talks downtown the whole country was going to be put up for sale cheap in six months."
Depressed and ashamed, Elsa takes a walk on the beach. Livingstone follows her and learns that he's indirectly responsible for her loss. To cheer her up, he invites her to his house to inspect his collection of Oriental curios. In his shojo room, his "holy of holies," he parts a Buddha panel to reveal Yama, god of destruction. In another cabinet, he displays his gallery of ghosts: dolls modeled on past lovers, with his personal crest (the Japanese character for "I possess") branded on the base of each. Behind a sliding panel, Japanese musicians perform. This is clearly not a Burmese person. This may all be very impressive, but when Livingstone comes on a little too strong, Elsa demands to be taken back to the party, and he complies.
I'll try to condense the plot down. Elsa has to repay her gambling debt, but doesn't want Jeffrey to know why she owes money. He hasn't any to spare because he's having a hard time closing a business deal, and she's already run up a huge tab on clothes. When she hears an insider stock tip from one of Jeffrey's friends at the local speakeasy, she tries to make a quick killing, but needs funds. So she embezzles the money that's being raised for the Milk Fund Ball and invests it in United Copper, which tanks despite the tip. Now she has to pay her gambling debt and restore the Milk Fund money, but still can't bear to tell Jeffrey what's happened. Her only choice is to turn to Livingstone, who wants her to wear a special Siamese costume to the Oriental-themed ball and "be a little nicer to me" afterward. She agrees, and wouldn't you know? The morning after, before she has to fulfill her end of the bargain with Livingstone, Jeffrey's ship comes in, and the Carlisles are rich. Whew! Elsa thinks she can just return the check Livingstone wrote for her and that's that. But Livingstone doesn't roll that way. He's not expecting any money back.
"We didn't make that kind of bargain," he protests. He made a pre-Code type bargain, and he accepts no substitutes. "If you're trying to appeal to my better nature it's hopeless," he growls, "for I haven't any." Faced with the Fate Worse Than Death, Elsa starts to like Death. "I'll kill myself," she says. Livingstone calls her bluff, takes a pistol from a drawer and gives it to her. Suddenly she's not so eager, but by now Livingstone is more disgusted than lustful. He smashes the statuette he had made of Elsa in Siamese costume, and decides to let her go -- "but you'll carry my mark on you!"
Livingstone, you mad fool! Did you ever consider that a person might not like to shoot herself, but could be perfectly happy to shoot you, especially after you've branded her? Offended womanhood strikes back!
Unfortunately, Elsa only wings him before fleeing. An already-suspicious Jeffrey stumbles upon the scene, only to be discovered by Livingstone's servants, to whom he admits shooting their master. Elsa goes home to bed, and it's not until tomorrow morning paper arrives that she learns that hubby has taken the rap for her -- and that Livingstone is perfectly willing to let him. Like I said, "saintlike." But men were somehow expected to do things like this in those days. It was part of putting women on pedestals, I guess. But Elsa doesn't play by the rules, and despite the men's coincidental collusion in framing Jeffrey, Elsa has a bit of evidence up her sleeve -- way up -- that could change the course of the trial....
Abbott's Cheat almost completely reversed my expectations. Before I realized that the film would have a white villain, I was expecting a riot of anti-Asiatic racism, but Harry Hervey's screenplay comes across like a satire on Oriental stereotypes in American culture. A superficial reading of the film might interpret Livingstone as someone corrupted by the Orient, but you could just as easily see him as someone with a corrupt view of the Orient, someone who might just keep a Yama idol hidden behind a Buddha panel. Some of the first words out of his mouth are asinine comments on the East: "The oriental woman isn't a slave," he tells fellow guests, "she's just very well trained." That's not the movie's judgment on the Orient. It's Hervey and Abbott's way of telling you early that Livingstone is a creep.
My other evidence for the film's satirical intent is the Oriental ball, a goofy parade of every "Oriental" cliche in circulation. Revelers strut around in characters ranging from samurai to shieks, while a troupe of Balinese dancers provide a typical pre-Code distraction in their diaphanous blouses. In telling contrast, the one Oriental character that has a real speaking part is Livingstone's head servant, who testifies in court wearing modern dress and speaking fluent albeit heavily accented English. This is Hanaki Yoshiwara in what was apparently his only film role. His dignified appearance exposes the "Orientalism" of the idle rich and stupid for the idiocy the filmmakers probably understand it to be.
This is the youngest I've ever seen Tallulah Bankhead, who I know from Hitchcock's Lifeboat, various radio shows, and her final role as a Batman villain. She looks pretty good, but the character of Elsa Carlisle is hard to stand, as is the notion that men were meant to bear crosses like her and sacrifice their freedom and careers for her. It's one thing to give her first place on the lifeboat, another to go to jail for her harebrained misadventures. Perhaps ours is an unchivalrous age and I'm a mere modern cad to think as I do, but the unthinking (dare I say samurai-like) reverence Jeffrey displays for Elsa is probably a harder sell for modern audiences than any of The Cheat's Orientalisms. For all that I think Bankhead played the character well once she got at least one archetypal "darling" out of her system.
I remember seeing George Abbott on talk shows in the 1980s and 1990s showing off his mind-boggling longevity. The man lived to be 107, but didn't do too many movies. He had a burst of activity in the early talkie days, but went back to Broadway after The Cheat, returning only for a 1940 movie and Damn Yankees! in 1958. I'd be interested in seeing more of his work from 1929-31, because this one has stylish art direction and efficient storytelling in its favor. It always astonishes me how Hollywood could once tell a complete story in just over an hour without the audience feeling, well, cheated. Abbott's film is a good example of how it's done, as well as being a fairly representative bit of pre-Code salaciousness. It's a good start to the Universal collection (which consists entirely of Paramount films, by the way) and makes me look forward to the rest of the set.
Here's a second opinion from a blogger who got to see it on the big screen last year, and a third from just last week.