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This is the first film I've seen of Tallulah Bankhead's. Her powerhouse personality is rather damped down here, but there's still plenty of allure on display. The hothouse melodrama she's stuck in revolves around a triangle between Charles Bickford, a rough and macho hunter for oil headquartered in a tiny South American village, his wife Tallulah, and Paul Lukas, a German who was Bickford's prisoner during WWI, then his friend and now his assistant. Bickford is the kind of guy who, as the film opens, comes home after a long trip on the river and then a long hike back through the jungle, only to embrace his wife passionately, ending with her face right in his armpit. You can kind of understand how she would, er,"sour" on the guy...especially since Bankhead is such a sultry, elegant presence. Lukas is attractive, but at times a bit difficult to understand with his heavy accent, due to the still not too advanced sound technology. This is also the only time I think you would be able to see rotund Eugene Palette, that staple of 30's screwball comedies, playing a bizarre spanking game (thankfully, fully clothed) in a tavern. I can't remember another female in the whole movie, other than a few in the tavern scene,so Bankhead had the field all to herself and, through it all, she's fabulous, with her "chola" eyebrows, throaty whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, soulful glances and slinky 30's high-fashion wardrobe. This film, and I would think all of her rare film appearances, is worthwhile just to catch her.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Here's a fine cast, Charles Bickford at his most popular, Tallulah
young and on her third talkie and Paul Lukas at his most busy. The
supporting players include Leslie Fenton and Eugene Pallette. How can this
miss? Watch Thunder Below and discover it's so titled for the benefit of
Our story gets off to a bad start with the geography. A map is briefly shown to place the setting in South America, a boat creeps along the river. Hey, it looks just like the Sacramento River. Now the crew has to disembark as the river is too small. Guess they were heading up river. Then our heroes slash through the jungle to the ...ocean? Suddenly, they're at the other end of the river. Then it gets worse.
Bickford plays Walt, an oil man and Joe Tough type. He goes right for his wife (Bankhead as Susan). Straight out of the sweaty jungle, he'll plant a big kiss and then muss-up her hair ('cause she likes it rough). Tells her she should feel privileged to be treated this way. [Hey, scriptwriter, won't this make it difficult for the audience to feel sympathy for this character when he goes blind later]. Lukas plays Ken, and he and Susan have been restraining their mutual 'passions'. Love triangle completed, a doctor arrives to confirm Walt is going blind. Now with the plot mechanics in place, it's time to bring on the emotions. But, honestly, I get more spark out of my soap than Ken and Susan's 'romance'. They say their lines and touch faces and go home and spend their paychecks. Walt swaggers and spouts, with one scene unintentionally funny: Walt tells off Susan's new boyfriend: boyfriend leaves and Walt's still spouting to thin air.
*** SPOILERS *** The climax is illogical, but cleverly filmed. Susan can go home, go off with her new boyfriend or keep romancing Ken in secret. So, what does she do with all these possibilities? She jumps off a cliff into the sea! Camera zooms downward to the rocks, quick cut to sky filling with seagulls in pattern like flower opening. It is done with several quick cuts and is very effective. This transcending moment is ruined when the scene cuts to Walt "oh, something frightened the gulls". The End. What a waste! I think a better title would be "Flatulence A Plenty"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although not the best of Tallulah Bankhead's five (six if you count
MAKE ME A STAR) Paramount films made between 1931-32, THUNDER BELOW
still has a few things going for it. Any Bankhead fan should be pleased
with her look and performance here and the film's Pre-Code sensibility
in it's frank depiction of an adulterous affair doesn't condescend to
Adapted from a novel by Thomas Rourke, THUNDER BELOW is a woman's picture in an all-male jungle setting and the term "thunder below" is what the natives call an earthquake. It's also their word for love. Off the Venezuela coast, oil workers Walt (Charles Bickford), Ken (Paul Lukas), Bill (Eugene Palette) and Webb (Leslie Fenton) return from the fields to the hacienda where Walt's wife Susan (Tallulah Bankhead) idly passes time. American Walt is gruff and plain-spoken while the European Ken is erudite and taciturn and they've been friends for years, working the oilfields and playing the field, until Walt married Susan. Although married nine years, Walt still rushes to her immediately while Ken prefers to wash up first and this doesn't go unnoticed by Bill. Once Susan and Ken are alone together, it's obvious they've been having an affair for quite some time and Ken accompanied Walt on their extended trip to the fields to get Susan out of his system, but no use. Ken asks Susan how she's been and she answers "the bugs, heat and monotony have only increased" and it's easy to see how affairs begin in this climate. When they speak of the books she's read since he's been gone, she says that the Russian author (Tolstoy?) she's been reading knows love the way a woman does. This remark explains Susan's philosophy of life. Ken and Susan go horseback riding along the palm-lined surf and decide to tell Walt the truth before going off together ...but Walt has some news of his own. He's going blind and the home office won't give him his pension if they find out and he needs Ken to be his eyes. Guilt-ridden again, Ken tells Susan their affair must end. She reluctantly agrees but life becomes torturous for both. When Walt sends Ken to the local cantina to enjoy the girls with the other oil workers, Susan breaks down and cries. Meanwhile, Ken tries but can't be with anyone but Susan and when Bill remarks on this a fight breaks out between them. Things come to a head when Davis (Ralph Forbes) arrives from the home office and Susan uses him to make Ken jealous. What the trusting Walt couldn't see between his best friend and Susan, he senses between Susan and Davis and he runs Davis off. At wits end, Susan goes off with Davis to escape her prison. They spend the night in a hotel awaiting a steamship that will take them back to civilization as Ken tells Walt he'll fetch her and bring her back. Susan can't bring herself to leave Ken and tells Davis he's being used. Ken finds her and they declare they can't go on this way, can't live without each other, and again agree to run off together. Walt asks Bill to lead him to the hotel and he meets up with them but doesn't realize Susan is in the room. He tells Ken how much Susan and Ken mean to him and always have. Susan realizes what she must do. When Ken takes Walt back to the hacienda, Susan flings herself from the hotel veranda to the rocks and sea below. She leaves a note to Ken begging him to never tell Walt they had an affair.
Susan is a woman who lives (and dies) for love alone. She tells Ken that love is the most important thing to a woman and at one point tries to convince him of the rightness of it all by telling him that honor among men is not as important as love. When Susan speaks of love, and it's often, she gazes off into space and doesn't look directly at Ken. Tallulah Bankhead's refreshingly natural here and photographs beautifully, especially in the last half of the film. Under bed-netting and behind beaded curtains, she's an exotic white woman in tropical heat languidly smoking, drinking cocktails, horseback riding and even jousting to pass the time. Placing a lone female in an all-male environment is asking for trouble and it usually results in passion, violence and death. Much more could have been made of this overheated situation, a la THE LETTER, but the film seems more like an ultra-civilized drawing-room drama of two noble lovers stoically suffering so as not to hurt an innocent party. MGM and Greta Garbo were filming tragic romance tales just like this around the same time and THUNDER BELOW was Paramount's fourth try (after TARNISHED LADY, MY SIN, and THE CHEAT) to find a niche for their new star. The rights to the novel were probably bought as an (unfortunate) attempt to turn Tallulah into Paramount's Garbo. Charles Bickford hits all the right notes as the rough-around-the-edges but thoroughly decent Yank, Walt, and Paul Lukas' Ken is Continentally suave yet appropriately somber as the Eternal Triangle's third point. Eugene Palette and Leslie Fenton seem under-used and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing in the previous year's Dracula) goes uncredited as the doctor who diagnoses Bickford's blindness.
Not nearly as sexy, dramatically overwrought or as much fun as her next film, DEVIL AND THE DEEP, THUNDER BELOW still has it's moments and is recommended for both Hollywood Pre-Code and Tallulah Bankhead fans. As both, I rate it 6/10.
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