Tarnished Lady (1931): Cukor’s First Solo Film, Starring Tallulah Bankhead

tarnished_lady_posterAfter the success of The Royal Familyof Broadway, George Cukor’s status at Paramount changed.  His “apprenticeship” formally ended with his next assignment, marking his debut as a solo director. The film was Tarnished Lady, a wannabe breezy comedy written by Donald Ogden Stewart from his short story, “New York Lady.”  (Stewart abd Cukor collaborated on better films in the future, including The Philadelphia Story).

Conceived as a vehicle for the stage actress 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 theater actress. After a successful debut on the American stage, the young Bankhead went to London and quickly became the toast of the town. The Brits 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.”

She returned to the U.S. to make films, but Bankhead the stage idol, like Ina Claire before her, was never to achieve film stardom.  Cukor found her to be an exhilarating stage actress, but from the start he realized that the qualities which made her exciting on stage did not translate well to the screen. Bankhead had interesting moments, but she was not at ease in front of the camera.

tarnished_lady_3Bankhead wanted to look like Garbo–high cheekbones and all–but she did not have that kind of face.  Her presence was striking, but her face lacked the kind of animation the camera loves. For Cukor, being photogenic was a question of movement, how the face projects under the piercing scrutiny of the camera. Despite her enormous talent, when Bankhead spoke, her mouth didn’t appear graceful, and her eyes never lit up. “Movies were never easy for her,” Cukor later said, “she wasn’t born for them.”

Truth to tell, Bankhead was basically miscast in Tarnished Lady.  The narrative centers around 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.

tarnished_lady_2Bankhead handled the story’s moments of high comedy brilliantly, but she was not creditable in scenes that demanded vulnerability and helplessness.

Bankhead was slightly more established than Cukor at the time, though, as she recalled: “Here was I, a stage actress, with a stage director and stage writers on my first film. We were all swimming without waterwings, and we have never been in the water before.”

Bankhead found Cukor to be a gallant and kind director. “If you’re tired or not up to snuff,” she told an interviewer, “he understands and makes things easy for you, instead of acting as if you’d contrived the complete feminine anatomy as a personal affront to him.” When Cukor had a correction to make, instead of bawling it out over the whole set to assert his authority or relieve his nerves–as other directors often did–he took the time to walk a few steps and say whatever he had to say into her ear. “It’s not a minor thing,” she explained, “Try being bellowed at for eight or ten hours a day, six weeks on end, and then tell me how you feel about it.” All of the performers who worked with Cukor over the years singled out this quality, one of his most consistent throughout his career.

tarnished_lady_1Bankhead’s notorious flamboyant temper flared only once, when she refused to put on a shabby dress that she thought was inappropriate for her character. But Cukor had the final word, commanding her to wear it. Bankhead said that Cukor was the only director to have ever talked to her in such manner. In later years, both joked about this incident, which contributed to Cukor’s reputation as a director who could handle Hollywood’s most eccentric and strong-willed stars.

Tarnished Lady launched one of the most enduring friendships in Cukor’s life. In l981, celebrating his golden anniversary as a filmmaker, Cukor recalled his solo directorial debut with a typically self-deprecating humor: “I could have fallen flat on my face–but with Tallulah’s help it was quite a success.”  Bankhead and Cukor never worked together again, but they remained close friends until her death, in l968.

Cukor once again found himself in Astoria, N.Y. 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 solo director, Cukor was the one to take the solo blame.

Detailed Synopsis

Bankhead plays Nancy Courtney, a once wealthy socialite, is struggling to maintain her prosperous lifestyle her father’s death. Although she loves writer DeWitt Taylor, who is indifferent to money, her mother urges her to marry stockbroker Norman Cravath. Nancy succumbs to her mother, but she is miserable in her marriage. DeWitt is courting Norman’s former girl friend, Germaine Prentiss, Nancy’s long-time rival, and his affair quickly changes him into a social climber.

Nancy leaves her husband, unaware of his financial bankruptcy. She goes with her friend Ben to a speakeasy and gets drunk. Returning home, she encounters Norman, who’s waiting to discuss a business transaction with Ben. Seeing his wife in disreputable state, he discards her.

Nancy tries to live on her own, but unable to find steady job she becomes destitute. When she discovers her pregnant, Ben offers a place to live, and later hires her to work in his department store.

When Norman and Germaine come in to the store, he is shocked to see Nancy. Realizing that her husband still loves her, Nancy asks for another chance, and Germaine walks out, leaving Norman with his new family.


Tallulah Bankhead ….. Nancy Courtney

Clive Brook ….. Norman Cravath

Phoebe Foster ….. Germaine Prentiss

Alexander Kirkland ….. DeWitt Taylor

Osgood Perkins….. Ben Sterner

Elizabeth Patterson ….. Mrs. Courtney