From Paramount studios comes Tallulah Bankhead and a trio of rising male stars who would soon eclipse her in popularity on the silver screen. Above the title billing goes to Miss Bankhead and Gary Cooper while Cary Grant gets co starring status and at the end of the credit sequence with a special billing all his own, “Introducing Charles Laughton, the eminent English character actor in the role of the Commander.”
With a North African backdrop as a military setting, Bankhead, as Commander Laughton’s wife finds herself in a torturous marriage to a man raging with jealousy, assuming his wife beds every officer under his command. It’s a loveless marriage thanks to the strains placed upon her by Laughton in a role where he delivers the ham as he was known to do at times, though indeed he does it well. The First Officer aboard the submarine he commands is a young Cary Grant. Around the officer’s club Grant appears to be her lover and Laughton is sure of it. He takes great pleasure in tormenting her and upon returning to their home in the evening he smacks her and threatens murder. This Laughton is clearly the Laughton I’ve seen in later films. A raving madman.
While she claims there’s nothing between her and Grant, he’ll ruin Cary’s military career to satisfy his need for power and cruelty. Exit Cary and enter Cooper as his replacement.
It’s at this point that Laughton will reap what he has sewed. Bankhead wanders off into the night in a state of mental exhaustion and when she’s caught up in a street mob, a man comes to her rescue. It’s Cooper in suit and tie and he’s her knight in shining armour. She’s mysterious to Coop and this will turn into a long night of passion yet when it’s over she won’t give up her true identity to Coop and leaves him to return to her captive existence with Laughton who is seething upon her reappearance.
Imagine the reactions of all three leading players when Laughton introduces his new First Officer to his wife the following day. This time out Laughton isn’t imagining things and it’s going to send him over the edge of sanity. When Tallulah fears for Coop’s safety she heads to the docked ship to warn him. Laughton is close behind and plots his revenge by ordering the sub to sea with both Coop and his wife on board.
Poor Coop who is a victim of circumstances will at first dismiss Bankhead’s accusations of her husband’s sanity and turns his back on her but will quickly realize that Laughton intends to put the entire ship and crew in harm’s way.
Plenty of on screen heroics are to follow when Coop plays to his emerging persona as a man capable of great feats of heroism when cornered. With the use of model ships and what I imagine was a large pool at the studio, the heroics and drama are heightened for film goers of 1932 looking to the screen for escapism, romance and excitement.
Long aware of Miss Bankhead and that may be mostly due to her name and what I read about her in film history books, this is only the third film I’ve seen her in and the first where she was the desirable woman of the story. Somehow I viewed her here as a Marlene Dietrich wannabe but that’s not necessarily fair looking at their careers eighty plus years later. Still, Tallulah has very few credits to her film career and she’d not appear on camera again other than a cameo until Lifeboat in 1944. The only other title I’ve seen is Fanatic when older women were in vogue for creepy outings in 1965 for Hammer Films.
All three male stars here are essentially honing their skills and the images they’d project for the balance of their careers. Grant touches upon the romantic character he’d come to perfect but without the self deprecating humor he’d also become adept at delivering in his comedies that were yet to come. Cooper was by now a well known leading man but still scored second billing here to the leading lady as he would to Dietrich in Morocco and Hayes in A Farwell to Arms. His time was coming and before long the leading ladies in many cases would be playing second billing to him in both comedy and action fare. Sadly Coop and Grant share no scenes together for the film buffs.
Charles Laughton? He’s over the top here and one could argue let a bit of ham slip into many characterizations he’d take on in the ensuing years. So you might say he’d already honed his craft at this early point in his career. Still he was quite capable of underplaying at times and the more of his films I see, the more I’ve grown to appreciate him. This after hearing my Mother point out for years as I was growing up how much she despised seeing him on screen.
It’s an early pre code talkie with plenty of romantic intrigue and action mixed in to please both the men and women buying a ticket at the theater booth in 1932. Looking to see this one? I picked it up in a collection of early Cary Grant titles, many of which I’ve yet to see. Guess I’ve got plenty of Cary titles to catch up on.