Silver Screen Standards: Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead was more famous during her lifetime as a stage actress than a movie star, but she’s on my mind perhaps more often than any other icon of the classic era because I live in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and here she’s almost omnipresent in my daily life. My house sits just a few blocks from Bankhead Parkway, which was named for the powerful male politicians in her family, and my regular walks through our historic cemetery take me by the grave of her mother, Adelaide Eugenia Bankhead, who died shortly after Tallulah’s birth on January 31, 1902.
Downtown there’s a marker noting the house where Tallulah was born, just across the street from the courthouse. It glosses over the scandalous habits that made Tallulah infamous rather than merely famous, but it rightly notes her importance as a leading actress of her day. Her legacy, however, reaches far beyond her stage career, her 19 film appearances, and her own self-destructive behavior, and every classic movie fan ought to know more about her.
I won’t call her “Bankhead” – she was that rare, first name only kind of famous. She was also fiercely possessive of her distinctive name and her fame, which led her to sue Prell Shampoo in 1949 for its jingle about “Tallulah, the tube of Prell.” She had been named for her maternal grandmother, who was named for Tallulah Falls in Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia. If Prell had thought about it, they would have seen the lawsuit coming, because Tallulah was a force to be reckoned with all her life. She got her start as an entertainer singing and behaving badly to get the attention of her alcoholic, widowed father, but luck gave her a wider audience for those talents when she won a photo beauty contest in Picture Play and escaped Alabama for New York City, where her prize was a bit part in the 1918 silent film, Who Loved Him Best. Soon she was acting regularly on the Broadway stage and wreaking havoc at the Algonquin Hotel, where theater friends introduced her to cocaine and other habits that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Determined to be a star, she relocated to London, where she got attention from the audience by turning cartwheels on stage. Although she would eventually become a huge theater star, success in the movies eluded her most of her career, with her best Broadway roles in the original productions of Jezebel, Dark Victory and The Little Foxes earning critical raves and Oscar nominations for Bette Davis instead.
Luckily, we have an enduring example of her talent in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 psychological thriller, Lifeboat, in which Tallulah leads an ensemble cast as one of the survivors of a German U boat attack. Her casting as Connie Porter was intentionally incongruous – imagine the epitome of worldly glamor and sophistication in such a spot! – but she’s perfect in the role, fierce and determined but never naïve about the situation. She suffered through motion sickness and pneumonia on the shoot, scandalized the crew by neglecting to wear underwear, and gave a performance that tantalizes us with what might have been had she enjoyed the Hollywood success of rivals like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Lifeboat is the best known and easiest to find of her dramatic films, although you can track down copies of The Cheat (1931), Devil and the Deep (1932), and A Royal Scandal (1945) if you’re persistent, patient, and willing to spend some money. Several of her film appearances were cameos where she simply played herself, as she did in Make Me a Star (1932), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and Main Street to Broadway (1953).
While her own addictions and recklessness undermined her chance at movie stardom, they also made her a larger-than-life figure whose legacy endures. She wasn’t the inspiration for Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), as much as she would have liked to be, but she definitely was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney’s original, animated adaptation of 101 Dalmatians (1961), in which fellow Southerner Betty Lou Gerson gives the iconic villain Tallulah’s cadences and her penchant for calling everyone “darling.” Cruella’s mad driving around London recalls Tallulah’s days terrorizing other motorists in the city when she wasn’t on stage. Long after her death in 1968, her ghost would be resurrected on Broadway multiple times. Kathleen Turner played her in Tallulah in 2000, and Valerie Harper resurrected her for Looped in 2010, which dramatized her disastrous effort to loop her lines for Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), a hagsploitation horror that would be Tallulah’s last appearance on the cinema screen. Fictional versions of Tallulah also turn up in TV productions like Z: The Beginning of Everything (2015-2017) and Hollywood (2020). It turns out that you don’t have to live in Tallulah’s hometown to find that she’s almost omnipresent.
I can only offer a brief glimpse of Tallulah’s story in this post, but there are many biographies where you can plunge deep into the history of her rise and fall. Try Joel Lobenthal’s Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady (2004), for a more recent book that is readily available, or read the section devoted to her in Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (2015), which also discusses contemporaries like Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. Once you’ve sampled her work in classic movies, catch her famous guest star turn on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957) and her final TV bows as Black Widow on Batman (1966-1968).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.