Tarnished Lady: Starring Tallulah Darling in Failed Sound Film

tarnished_lady_3After the success of The Royal Family of Broadway, George Cukor’s status at Paramount improved substantially. His “apprenticeship” formally ended with his next assignment, marking his debut as a solo director.  The film was Tarnished Lady, a would-be breezy comedy, written by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on his short story, “New York Lady.”

Conceived as a star vehicle for Tallulah Bankhead, Paramount had high aspirations for Tarnished Lady–it was her first sound film. The studio hoped to cash in on the acclaim and notoriety Bankhead had earned as a stage actress.

tarnished_lady_1After a successful debut on the American stage, the young Bankhead went to London and quickly became the toast of the town. The English were absolutely fascinated by her. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the witty English actress whom Cukor admired, once said, “Watching Tallulah Bankhead on the stage is like watching somebody skating over very thin ice–and the English want to be there when she falls through.”

But Bankhead was miscast in Tarnished Lady. The narrative centers on a popular heroine at the time: a socialite who marries for money when her family loses its fortune, but is tormented when she falls in love with a poor writer.

This classic set-up, however, suffers from a weak and untenable climax. When she happens upon her lover talking–and only talking–with another woman, her trust is completely crushed. Bankhead handles the story’s high comedy brilliantly, but she was not creditable in scenes that demanded vulnerability and helplessness.

tarnished_lady_2Cukor once again found himself in Astoria, New York for the filming of Tarnished Lady. About half of the scenes were shot on location, giving the film a ring of authenticity, which was innovative. Bankhead’s proposal scene, for example, was shot on the actual terrace of a NY apartment. Cukor also attempted to keep the interior scenes from becoming too stagey.

The film, however, was criticized for its inferior photography and production values. Though more cinematic than The Royal Family of Broadway, Tarnished Lady failed to draw audiences. Credited as sole director, Cukor was blamed for the failure.

Mordaunt Hall of the N.Y. Times observed, “Bankhead acquits herself with considerable distinction, but the vehicle to which she lends her talent is no masterpiece. In fact, only in a few spots is the author’s fine hand discernible.”

The trade publication, Variety, called it a “weepy and ragged melodrama that has little outside its cast to be recommended. The cast, as a whole, deports in a manner suggesting they were under orders to give way before Bankhead.  Clive Brook suffers the most. Ordinarily a fine actor, he slumps here in trying to get over some of the silly dialog.”


Tallulah Bankhead ….. Nancy Courtney

Clive Brook ….. Norman Cravath

Phoebe Foster ….. Germaine Prentiss

Alexander Kirkland ….. DeWitt Taylor

Osgood Perkins….. Ben Sterner

Elizabeth Patterson ….. Mrs. Courtney