December 26th, 2016

Tallulah

What a name she had: Tallulah Bankhead.

What a voice she had. Even among the many dramatic and flamboyant personalities who used to populate Hollywood and the theater in the 30s and 40s, Bankhead was more unpredictable than most as well as more licentious.

Here’s an example of that latter quality of hers. This anecdote is about something that occurred during the making of Bankhead’s very first film, the aptly-titled “Tarnished Lady,” made in 1931:

Bankhead behaved herself on the set and filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and did not have the patience for it. She did not like Hollywood, either; when she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” Thalberg retorted, “I’m sure you’ll have no problem. Ask anyone.”

Thalberg, by the way, was an extraordinarily remarkable man who basically made Hollywood what it was in its golden age, and did it all at a very young age (with compromised health) while charming the birds off the trees.

I only saw Bankhead in one film, and that was when I was a child: “Lifeboat.” But she made a deep impression on me in it (as did the fact that William Bendix, whom I knew from the TV comedy “Life of Riley,” played a serious role). I had found some great clips from the movie to put in this post, but in the last couple of days they seem to have disappeared, as these things are apt to do. Instead, here’s a documentary about the film, with a brief bit about Tallulah that I’ve highlighted. Note that John Steinbeck had the main writing credit:

You can watch most of the entire film for free here. Unfortunately, though, the last few minutes and the first few minutes are missing. Here’s a $2.99 version; I’m assuming it’s all there.

17 Responses to “Tallulah”

  1. Lee Says:

    I read this about her year ago, and always thought it was a great story:

    Tallulah Bankhead was getting nonsense from an upstart young actress who declared she could upstage Tallulah anytime. “Dahling,” said Miss Bankhead, “I can upstage you without even being onstage.”
    The next night, she set out to prove it.

    While the upstart actress acted a long telephone conversation, Miss Bankhead made her exit – not before placing her champagne glass on the edge of the table, precariously balanced half-on, half-off.

    The audience began to notice the dangling glass, and whisper in a hubbub. The actress was completely upstaged. And Miss Bankhead nowhere in sight.

    Afterward, the secret was revealed: Miss Bankhead had put sticky tape on the bottom of the glass.

  2. Ann Says:

    It just struck me that in her youth, Tallulah looked as if she could have been one of the Mitford sisters.

  3. Matthew M Says:

    Here is an amusing clip from The Big Show (1951 radio show) featuring Tallulah, Judy Holliday, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope and others where Tallulah’s film career is mentioned in a roundabout way.

  4. lynndh Says:

    I had read a long time ago that during filming of “Lifeboat” she did not wear panties. True or not, don’t know.

  5. DNW Says:

    I followed the link and discovered this:

    “In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease.”

    Charming.

    Glancing at the photo of her taken when she was 27 or 8, it pretty much already tells the tale.

    Some of my older buddies used to have a coarse saying which I cannot repeat here, regarding an especially unappealing woman, something to the effect of “I wouldn’t X her with your X on a bet”.

    When you first encounter them, and before looking too close, nihilists sometimes appear to be interesting, in a perversely quasi-philosophical way. They’re so uninhibitedly, outrageously, entropy embracing, and seemingly intellectually so, that you wonder what particular Nietzschean insight it is that they have discovered which remains invisible to most others.

    But to paraphrase Bankhead on the matter, again from the Wiki link “there’s usually less there than meets the eye”: Alcoholic, drug addicted, dissipated mentally-ill libertines are not usually motivated by philosophy or special insights so much as narcissism.

    They don’t see further than most, their sight is shorter.

    Her last thoughts were gibberish. What a way to go.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW:

    Yes, Tallulah burned her candle at both ends, and in the middle, too.

    And it gave quite a light.

    Did you ever watch “Lifeboat,” though? She was awfully good in it. What a personality! She was 42 years old when she made it, and for someone who’d led the life she had led she looked pretty darn good.

  7. Ann Says:

    From a 2005 piece in the New Yorker:

    Tallulah, with her signature “dah-ling”s and her notorious peccadilloes and her endlessly caricaturized baritonal gurgle of a voice—a voice that the actor-writer Emlyn Williams said was “steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning”—would be easy to dismiss as a joke if she hadn’t also been a woman of outsize capacities. As it is, the story of her life reaches beyond gossip and approaches tragedy.

    Tragedy, in fact, struck at the beginning. Her twenty-one-year-old mother—“the most beautiful thing that ever lived”—died of complications following Tallulah’s birth, leaving her father, Will, so grief-stricken that he collapsed into a pattern of alcoholism, self-pity, and absence which lasted for years. …

    Even as a little girl, Tallulah was crazy to perform, and frequently when Will, somewhat the worse for drink, drifted home with his pals, he would lift her up onto the dining-room table and have her entertain the boys with risqué songs. She revelled in it. A plump child with startlingly gold hair, Tallulah was an exhibitionist from the beginning. …

    …at fifteen she convinced her family that she was born to be an actress, and her senatorial grandfather staked her to an assault on Broadway. Chaperoned by her Aunt Louise, she found herself living at the Algonquin Hotel in its early palmy days, and there she encountered the great and the near-great of the theatrical profession, including John Barrymore, who, true to form, tried to seduce her in his dressing room. …

    In her desperation to be noticed, she experimented with alcohol and cocaine, but her main shock tactics involved sex.

    All very sad to me.

  8. Bilwick Says:

    My favorite Tallulah story involves Groucho Marx. I forget what led up to it, but I believe they were conversing at a Hollywood party, and Groucho said, “Well, what I’d really like to do is have sex with you.” (I think he phrased it in an earthier manner.) “And so you shall, dear boy,” she said. “So you shall.”

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    Bilwick:

    That’s a great story.

    The thing about Bankhead was that she wasn’t just an ordinary slut who slept around unceasingly. It was that she had a droll wit about it. Did she enjoy herself? Who knows. There was obviously a compulsiveness to the behavior. But I like to think that she at least had a lot of fun.

  10. JuliB Says:

    I recall reading a collection of Dorothy Parker reviews from her days as a columnist. Her mention of Ms. Bankhead was that in such and such play, her emotions onstage ran the gamut from A to B.

    Always thought it was the most clever insult.

  11. DNW Says:

    neo-neocon Says:
    December 27th, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    DNW:

    Yes, Tallulah burned her candle at both ends, and in the middle, too.

    And it gave quite a light.

    Did you ever watch “Lifeboat,” though? She was awfully good in it. What a personality! She was 42 years old when she made it, and for someone who’d led the life she had led she looked pretty darn good.

    Well, I’ve watched parts of it a couple of times. Without cheating and looking it up: I recall the Life of Riley guy Bendix, as you mentioned; and a second tier lead named Hodiak, I think it’s spelled, and who played cavalry guys as I recall; and some thin older weaselly guy with glasses I always hated as a kid when I saw him in old movies – he played cranky newspaper men – and some heavy set European guy with a round face, and her.

    I don’t recall any details … just images. What little of substance I remember is that I thought it would be a good thing if they all died. An opinion I admit, which fails the test both of critical appreciation, and maybe of a broad humanism as well …

    So, on your recommendation, I’ll take another look as an adult, and see whether I even have the characters right. Hitchcock … so it should be good, correct?

    By the way, if you like offbeat movies, or like me appreciate viewing the location backgrounds as much as the story on occasion, try “La ragazza con la pistola”.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW:

    Well, with “Lifeboat” there are certain stock characters, some conventional stuff from the era, and of course there’s not much change of scenery.

    And perhaps it’s the sort of thing you have to see as a child (as I did) to really like it. But I really liked it. And Bankhead absolutely made the movie. I found her performance riveting. Bendix was very good too, and Walter Slezak (the German). I’d be curious what you think of it now.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    JuliB:

    That was not about Tallulah. It was about Katherine Hepburn. Here’s an in-depth discussion of the remark.

  14. Ann Says:

    According to that New Yorker article I linked to above, she was “commanding” in Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes:

    In the late thirties, after the failure of her vigorous campaign to secure the role of Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind,” her luck changed. Her commanding performance in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” as a malevolent Southern matron who stands by coldly while her husband dies, riveted Broadway. A month after the opening, in March, 1939, she was on the cover of Life, and the text of the accompanying story was unambiguous: “Somehow it seemed impossible to find adequate parts for this strange electric woman with the languid eyes, the panther’s step and the siren’s husky voice. But now . . . she fills, for the first time, a role carved big and fierce enough for her talent.” Her triumph was unalloyed, except for the fury and chagrin she felt at losing the film version to Bette Davis.

    Too bad she didn’t get to do the movie version.

  15. DNW Says:

    neo-neocon Says:
    December 27th, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    DNW:

    Well, with “Lifeboat” there are certain stock characters, some conventional stuff from the era, and of course there’s not much change of scenery.

    And perhaps it’s the sort of thing you have to see as a child (as I did) to really like it. But I really liked it. And Bankhead absolutely made the movie. I found her performance riveting. Bendix was very good too, and Walter Slezak (the German). I’d be curious what you think of it now.”

    I’ll watch it.

    I should have cheated.

    “Cavalry guy”? Looks like he made a number of movies where he played a GI. Where I got the memory of him playing a cavalryman, I cannot say.

  16. NeoConScum Says:

    Historical Hollywood Legend says that Miss Bankhead teased/tortured Hitchcock during his directing of “Lifeboat” by coyly ‘flashing’ him with pantyless views up her skirt on the boat. Torture..? Fun..? Both..??

  17. Surellin Says:

    Anecdote – Late in life, Tallulah was in a department store elevator. Young woman beside her says, “Aren’t you Tallulah Bankhead?” and she replies, “I used to be, dahling, I used to be”.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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