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Thunder Below (1932): Balancing Cake and Bread

Thunder Below (Richard Wallace, 1932)

[note: review originally published 1Dec2008]

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Bankhead: “I…am constipated.”
Lukas: “Have you tried..the Salt Water Flush?”

For some reason, Tallulah Bankhead never made it in the movies. An enduring Broadway star and socialite, Bankhead was famous enough that some of her expressions have entered the cultural lexicon, but no matter how big the movies she was in got (the most famous of them these days is Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful 1944 film Lifeboat), she never hit the A-list in Hollywood. It may have had something to do with her first stretch of films, done under contract to Paramount, generally potboilers produced on the cheap. Thunder Below, from Richard Wallace (a director who specialized in these sorts of pictures; he directed almost fifty between the beginning of his career in 1925 and the release of this one), a pre-code shocker given to melodrama, fits the description exactly.


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“You know, I’m blind, not impotent!”

Bankhead plays Susan, the wife of an oilman, Walt (Charles Bickford, who would go on to be nominated for three Oscars in the forties), who’s working in Venezuela. Trouble is, she’s also having an affair with Ken (Watch on the Rhine‘s Paul Lukas), Walt’s most trusted right-hand man. The two of them get back from their most recent job, and while Walt has a checkup with a local doctor, Susan and Ken go off for a morning ride, deciding they’re going to tell Walt about their affair when they get back, and take off for points north. Walt, however, throws a monkeywrench into their plans when he corners Susan upon arrival and tells her why he had to see the doctor so fast—he’s quickly going blind. Burdened by guilt and determined to help Walt in any way they can, Ken and Susan sublimate their baser intentions and devote their lives to taking care of Ken. Susan, however, is still restless, and when a dashing newcomer, Davis (The Three Musketeers‘ Ralph Forbes), breezes into town, Susan contemplates leaving with him instead.

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“My name is Tallulah. Isn’t it great? Say it. Tallulah. SAY IT.”


Ah, the wonders of pre-code film, when Hollywood was still able to handle subjects like infidelity with tact and heart, albeit also with melodrama and a script that leaves as little to the imagination as Bankhead’s signature drawl. While on the surface, the script is downright awful—imagine the worst melodramatic excesses of the dime novels of the time presented with all the subtlety of a fish hit with a mallet and you’ve got the general idea—the actual subject matter is realistic and well-thought-out, with the characters reacting in ways that one might actually expect in the situations with which they’re presented (however unrealistic those situations may be); this is the kind of character-driven drama that didn’t resurface in Hollywood until the coming of directors like Robert Altman, people who were willing to push the envelope in showing people as they actually were rather than the way Hollywood typically presented them. TCM and other sympathetic organizations have been doing a fine job over the past few years of bringing Hollywood’s pre-code days back into the limelight; if you dip into what was on offer back then, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised. While this isn’t one of the best pre-code flick I’ve seen, it’s certainly worth watching if you don’t mind a little melo with your drama. ***


No trailer, but since it’s the end of January in Cleveland as I am typing this and my work just closed early for a weather emergency, I figured Tallulah singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was an acceptable substitute.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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