Nutshell Review: The Cheat (1932)
Director: George Abbott
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, Harvey Stephens, Irving Richel
Viewing: DVD Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. Universal Home Entertainment
Plot: Jeffrey Carlyle (Stephens) is a milquetoast stock broker madly in love with his gambling addicted wife Elsa (Bankhead). After significant gambling losses at their posh club, Elsa must embezzle $10,000 from her women’s charity in order to meet part of her debt (she also loses $10k on a get rich quick stock bet that goes bust). Mysterious millionaire Hardy Livingstone, fresh from 2 years in the Orient and clearly smitten with Elsa, offers a potential way out, but she must prove herself to him first. She agrees to go to his home, discovering his obsession with all things Japanese, including a collection of dolls that are branded with the character "I possess", fighting off his clumsy advances. Livingstone's request of her, dripping with menace, is to wear a beaded gown & headdress to a charity ball he is hosting, appropriately themed in an Asian motif. Convincing her puppy dog husband that Livingstone only means to help raise money takes a little bit of doing, as Jeffrey is slightly concerned that Livingstone’s intentions may not be pure, which they clearly are not!
At the party Livingstone ogles Elsa, finally luring her to his office to offer her the $10,000 to cover her remaining debt…only if she “treats him nicer” and to return to his home at a later date to express her “gratitude”. She reluctantly accepts, desperate to avoid personal humiliation and her husband’s public disgrace. As luck would have it the following morning Jeffry strikes it rich and money is no longer a problem for the couple. He even pays off her gambling debt and agrees to give her more if she needs it. Unfortunately, having already taken Livingstone’s money, she must return to his house than evening…
Once there (with Jeffery tailing her) she offers to give Livingstone his money back, but he’s already branded an Elsa look-a-like doll with the possessive symbol, signifying ownership. When she denies him the “favors” he has paid for he insists on branding her as his own! Pulling the red hot brand from the smoldering coals, he burns the initials on her upper chest and proclaims her as his own. Stumbling across the room, Elsa grabs a gun and shoots Livingstone, fleeing the house in a panic, just as Jeffry arrives on the scene. Seeing Livingstone on the floor with the gun beside him, Jeffry wipes it clean just as servants open the door. Jeffry proclaims his guilt as Livingstone struggles to speak, uttering only 2 words, “your wife.”
In Court Jeffry is ready to take the fall, convinced no court will convict him, a love sick puppy to a fault. As things are clearly going against him, Elsa races to the stand, proclaims Jeffry’s innocence & bears the branding that Livingstone has burned into her flesh! The court erupts, Jeffry is freed and the couple are allowed to live happily ever after, with Elsa proclaiming “no more betting!” How the scar on her breast is dealt with is never addressed because Jeffry insists on staring deeply into his wife’s eyes only.
To say that a film where a human being is branded is salacious is a bit of an understatement. It’s crazy to watch, however, because the idea of it is planted in an earlier scene (when he shows the dolls to Elsa) and the initial reaction has to be that it can’t really happen. When Richel, in a wonderfully twisted performance, brands the Elsa doll, it initially placates the viewer’s expectations. It’s creepy enough that he views sexual conquests through possession, but to inflict physical disfigurement into the equation really kicks it up a notch. By couching his proclivities in the “other”, by making him an Asia-phile, for instance, removes the question of insanity and into the realm of cultural prejudice. His party serves merely to reflect & exploit every gross American idea of Asian Stereotypes. It's an odd underlying motif to be sure.
The courtwroom scene at the conclusion has all the trappings of 1930's melodrama, but after the verdict is rendered an "all hell breaks loose" mania comes over the crown as they leap at Livingstone, pummelling him into submission. Perhaps the sight of the uppper breat of a lovely lady, albeit one who has just admitted infidelity, is enough to drive the men crazy!
See Also: Bitter Tea of General Yen, A Free Soul
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