Devil and the Deep seems a bit under appreciated. Four major stars, three of them giving fantastic performances, and the fourth, while only around for the first 18 minutes, is nonetheless Cary Grant. Once he drifts away a more established Gary Cooper steps in, and so all but the most devoted Cary Grant fans would be hard-pressed to complain.
Oddly it is Cary Grant whom TCM chose to market their exclusive DVD around, which means there might actually be a bunch of Grant fans who are complaining, but only because the disc isn't being marketed correctly: I understand that you're not likely to release a bunch of Charles Laughton or Tallulah Bankhead films, but at least market this one to the Gary Cooper fans, not the Cary Grant completists.
Only Grant's fifth film, he's still a long way from becoming the Cary Grant we all know and love, so much so in fact that he wouldn't have minded missing out on this one himself. According to Evenings With Cary Grant author Nancy Nelson, whenever journalists would correctly report that Grant starred in 72 feature films, Grant would cross out that number and write in 68 instead (77). Devil and the Deep was one of the four he didn't really count.
Paramount's Devil and the Deep would star Tallulah Bankhead as Diana Sturm and, as the special billing in the credits reads, "introducing CHARLES LAUGHTON the eminent English character actor in the role of THE COMMANDER." That'd be Commander Charles Sturm, Diana's husband, and by all accounts of their peers, other Naval officers and their wives, a sweetheart of a guy!
But as we get to go behind closed doors with Commander Sturm to see his private life it doesn't take long for us to know he's no sweetheart! While the modern viewer will probably chuckle at the idea of Tallulah keeping her mitts off Cary Grant, that's exactly what's happening in Devil and the Deep. But husband Charles is with us, suspicious of Diana's relationship with Grant's Lt. Jaeckel. Still, the Commander keeps up a good public face, charms his friends at their club throughout the evening and is even kind to Jaeckel, who's down in the dumps himself because he's being transferred from Sturm's ship.
The Sturms head home after what appeared to be a pretty decent night, but as they stand silently inside Charles slowly and deliberately approaches Diana and smacks her hard across the face. Laughton really cuffs Tallulah good here, this is no gentleman's slap. It's really more of an open handed right hook than a slap, pretty brutal stuff. Think Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) but then remember we giggle at that because it's little Bette smacking he-man Errol, and as hard as it is, it is a smack. Here we have Charles Laughton assaulting Tallulah Bankhead and it's more shocking that anything else. After lowering his hand he accuses her of being in love with Jaeckel.
In a 1992 interview with Bankhead’s biographer, Joel Lobenthal, Devil and the Deep assistant director Artie Jacobson remembered, "She went right across the set ... We had to fix her makeup each time. You'd see his fingerprints on her cheek. We did four takes and each time the same thing happened" (201). Both Lobenthal and Laughton biographer Simon Callow wrote of Bankhead's irritating Laughton on the set by playing music in between takes. Lobenthal adds that it was so bad Jacobson had to go to Tallulah and order her to turn the music off under threat of being held responsible for interfering with production. Callow's account of their first meeting likely struck a nerve for all-time with Laughton as well, as Tallulah introduced herself by saying, "So you're Charles Laughton. I hear you're going to be in my picture" (59). Oops!
After the smack Tallulah's Diana is stunned. She defends herself, she defends Jaeckel, but Charles breaks into maniacal Laughton laughter explaining to her that he was the one who arranged for Jaeckel's transfer and that what's more he was was having him transferred for ineffiency. Diana is horrified but Charles isn't budging unless she proves her innocence. She must invite Jaeckel over and prove to Charles that she did not have an affair with the young Lieutenant, all without appearing to prompt Jaeckel towards the answers she wants, or else she face her husband's further wrath. And oh, Charles will be out on the veranda eavesdropping and watching what he can of this meeting.
After Jaeckel arrives Diana maneuvers him over towards the veranda and chatters nervously hoping Jaeckel will somehow inadvertently prove what her husband needs to know. She finally point blank asks him why he's been so good to her and while Diana immediately regrets the question, sure that Jaeckel is going to see her opening as an excuse to profess his love, he surprises her by telling her she's not going to like his answer much. Relieved she begs him to tell her and he responds by explaining that he thinks she's misunderstood by others and that while he's not in love with her he looks upon her as something akin to a lame dog, someone he's feels obliged to treat well.
Off goes Cary Grant, out of the Sturms lives and out of Devil and the Deep, while Tallulah's Diana looks exhausted but happy climbing the stairs to claim victory to her husband. Charles isn't giving up that quick though. He begins his rambling by saying "He knew I was listening" before winding himself towards repeated cries of "I'll kill you!" with a little more violence thrown in for good measure as he tries to shove Diana down the stairs. She only stumbles down a few steps but is soon collapsed in a heap on the floor, more in exasperation than sorrow. When she finally rises it's to leave the house out into the North African night where the people have filled the streets to celebrate a feast that evening.
Worn, Diana slinks through the throng eventually finding herself practically pinned against a wall by partying natives when she faints. An arm reaches out and pulls her back up into view and consciousness. As her exhausted features suddenly light up, the camera pulls back to reveal Gary Cooper, smiling rakishly and leading her into the quiet of a nearby bazaar where Paul Porcasi insists on interrupting their flirtatious how-do-you-do by hawking his useless trinkets to them. Eventually Porcasi's bazaar-man cons Coop into buying a small bottle of perfume, which Diana will eventually spill on herself, before giving our sex-starved young couple directions out of the back door which leads them to a vast oasis and ... sex.
Without even exchanging names they part the next morning with Diana's mind made up that they shall never see each other again. "The magic would disappear if we meet again," she tells him. "Risk it," says Coop, as confidently as Gary Cooper will ever deliver any line. They declare their love for each other (must have been a hell of a night!) and reluctantly part. Diana comes home and Charles is burning. She tells him he's lost his right to know where she's been to which he replies with a catty comment about how cheap her new scent smells.
Now here's where it all comes together and I cut off this set-up before I get you in too deep. Next morning Diana is humming, happy as can be be, comes out of her room and hears Charles telling his same old jokes, but this time to somebody who chuckles in honest appreciation; someone new who leans forward and reveals himself to be--yes, you guessed it: Gary Cooper is actually Lt. Sempter, the Commander's replacement for the jettisoned Lt. Jaeckel. As Sempter and Diana intimately shake hands the paranoid Commander's suspicions are instantly aroused. Pretty soon our young couple is completely busted, even if they don't know it until the final act of Devil and the Deep, one involving Commander Sturm's submarine and the potential loss of many lives as Laughton's Commander Sturm lives up to the Devil of the film's title in seeking his revenge.
Reviewer Wood Soames wrote that "Students of acting, if they are wise, will join the romance-seekers ... this week for it is a rare September day that brings as fine a technical performance of a madman as that of Charles Laughton, the English actor, who is specially featured ... in Devil and the Deep. Callow, in his Laughton biography published 1987, riffs on the opening credits that "Eminent English Character Acting, is, on the whole, what we get ... No doubt the wheel of fashion has turned to Laughton's disadvantage in this film, but now it is the uptight naval commander teetering on the brink of insanity who seems banal and obvious, while Bankhead's doomed chain-smoking beauty ... is startingly real" (49).
Soames, despite his 1932 review centering on Laughton's mastery, puts a finger on why Callow's later claim came to pass when he writes that, "Laughton, for all his skill, is chiefly on display in this film as an exhibitionist. Unlike Emil Jannings he does not reach the sympathies of his audience. It is difficult to lay a finger on but it seemed to me that the attention is captured and held more by the expression of the actor's emotion than the emotion itself."
Exactly, Mr. Soames, as it's that Eminent English Character Acting bursting across the screen that you're appreciating, and it is all at once both wonderful and distracting. Perhaps even appropriate with such a self-centered character. Laughton's cackling, his rapid fire delivery, his cruelty, Laughton as absolute fascist in the home and at sea. There's a lot of Commander Sturm in his better remembered Oscar nominated performance as Captain Bligh in the later Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), but Sturm is, whether driven by insanity or not, a man of total self-interest. Bligh puts his service above even himself, Sturm puts himself above all including his duty to service. Laughton may even put himself above all of that, but he is nonetheless fascinating to watch!
Meanwhile as Sturm's unlikely wife Tallulah Bankhead spends Devil and the Deep outfitted in skin-tight, low-cut gowns, shuffling in that Tallulah way, oblivious to others, disdainful of their disdain. The solution to Diana's strange pairing with Charles is dropped in a single line when she mentions how he'd been generous to her father before they were married. She does later say she actually loved him at the time of their marriage but that he managed to, even worked to, kill that love. She moves and behaves like a trapped woman and so it's no wonder that she basically flowers upon wilting into the arms of Cooper's Lt. Sempter during the excitement of the native's feast.
Tallulah Bankhead would make just one more film under her Paramount contract, Faithless (1932), before happily leaving Hollywood behind to return to the stage. After completing Faithless MGM tried to lure her over to replace Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932). Red Dust was in production at the time of Paul Bern's controversial suicide and Louis B. Mayer felt that removing Harlow, Bern's widow, from the picture might save a rash a negative publicity. Bankhead was appalled by the offer and wrote in her autobiography, "To damn the radiant Jean for the misfortune of another would be one of the shabbiest acts of all time. I told Mr. Mayer as much" (201). Despite some lurid publicity of her own, that Tallulah caused herself (Declarations of "I want a man!" in print), both Paramount and MGM still made offers to her. Reduced offers. Bankhead wouldn't return to film until her wonderful performance at the helm of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat in 1944.
Directed by Marion Gering, at times Devil and the Deep takes on the feel of a novel from his Russian birthplace. Laughton's strict manners also steer it in that direction, his character reminding me at least of Basil Rathbone's Karenin in 1935's Anna Karenina. Gering was brought to Paramount by Sylvia Sidney after he directed her on Broadway in Bad Girl, and he would direct 15 movies at that studio from 1931-37 including starring vehicles for Carole Lombard and George Raft and notably six films starring Sidney. These included titles such as Madame Butterfly (1932) and Thirty Day Princess (1934), both of which co-featured Devil and the Deep's Cary Grant.
While most of Devil and the Deep progresses as though it were a stage play, Gering deftly handles the big action sequence at the end, waking up anyone who's been bored by the previous hour of intense and professional acting by the three main participants as well as the expert camera work by Charles Lang, who'd already received the first of his eventual 18 Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Lang would only win the Award once, in 1934 for A Farewell to Arms ). Gering deserves credit for letting Tallulah give such a relaxed performance, I agree that it plays extremely strong today almost 25 years after Simon Callow wrote the same in A Difficult Actor, though at the same time I wouldn't be surprised if Tallulah's understated play drove Gering crazy while he was making the picture and everyone was falling over themselves in appreciation of Laughton's still stunning, but very different, performance.
Bankhead, Tallulah. Tallulah: My Autobiography. University Press of Mississippi: 2004.
Callow, Simon. Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor. Grove Press, New York: 1987.
Lobenthal, Joel. Tallulah!: The Life and Times of a Leading Lady. HarperCollins, New York: 2008.
Nelson, Nancy. Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best. William Morrow and Comapny, New York: 1991.
Soanes, Wood. Fine Acting to be Seen in State's Film. Okaland Tribune, 1932 Sep 2: 26.
You'll surely notice, once again, that this article is illustrated not with screen captures but vintage movie collectibles. Well, in the case of Devil and the Deep the movie was not stranded on my DVR as Wanted Woman previously was, no, I have the actual DVD as released by TCM. Or should I say DVD-R--I put the disc in my desktop to grab my screen caps and all it did was spin. So that's two in a row without proper illustrations and with the accompanying invitation to shop the Immortal Ephemera Store for vintage movie cards and collectibles like those shown here.