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Midnight at the Oasis

Devil and the Deep (1932)

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This movie is a total hoot!  A hoot and a half, you might even say.  Don’t mistake me, it’s not exactly good.  In fact, it’s completely ridiculous.  But it’s also fun – nutty, only-in-Hollywood fun, with star power galore, a crazy story, and quite a bit of pre-code sexiness.

In a nutshell:  Tallulah Bankhead plays the wife of Charles Laughton, a submarine commander stationed in North Africa.  He is insanely (and I mean insanely) jealous of every man who looks at, speaks to, or breathes the same air as his wife, even though she is faithful to him.

After Laughton falsely accuses her of having an affair with one of his officers (Cary Grant), Tallulah runs off into the night, meets Gary Cooper, and has an evening of passion with him.  Of course Cooper turns out to be one of Laughton’s officers too, and all hell breaks loose when the truth comes out.

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The plot is melodramatic and improbable, but there are so many things to love about Devil and the Deep.  For instance:

* Cary Grant.  He only has a small part at the beginning of the film, but he acquits himself quite nicely and is very young and handsome.  He’s not the Cary Grant we all know and love quite yet, but it’s still a pleasure to see him — especially looking so spiffy in his uniform.

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* Charles Laughton in his first movie role.  Paramount gives him a big, over-the-top introduction in the titles, befitting the big, over-the-top actor he was.  As soon as I saw the below pop up, I figured this movie was going to be the aforementioned hoot and a half and I was not disappointed.

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Laughton chews the scenery like nobody’s business, especially in his final scene of the picture.  I don’t want to spoil things by giving it away, but it’s truly fantastic.  I laughed so hard, even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to.

* Tallulah Bankhead.  She’s mesmerizing to watch, with her husky voice and drawn on eyebrows, slinking around in bias-cut evening gowns that leave little to the imagination.  She even wears one of those gowns while escaping from a submarine at the bottom of the sea!  That’s glamour.  She’s also quite touching in the early scenes with Laughton – you can feel her weariness at putting up with his constant, unfounded jealousy and her helplessness to do anything about it.

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Watching her love scenes with Gary Cooper, I couldn’t help remembering that Bankhead famously said the only reason she came to Hollywood was “to f—k that divine Gary Cooper.”  Asked about her comment by a reporter years later, she simply stated “Mission accomplished.”  She was something else, that’s for sure.

* Gary Cooper, who is so drop dead gorgeous in this movie that Tallulah’s ambition, while vulgarly phrased, is quite understandable.  This is far from Cooper’s best role – in fact he is a bit wooden at times.  Still, it’s still a treat to see him in seduction mode: rescuing Tallulah from being jostled to death by a crowd of Arab men filling the streets for a festival, lingeringly checking out her clingy gown/no underwear ensemble, buying her a bottle of exotic perfume, and leading her off to a desert oasis for a magical night of passion.

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Pre-code movies are so shameless sometimes!  They fade to black, sure, but not before they make certain you know exactly what is going on.  Devil and the Deep is no exception and it’s pretty steamy.  Also interestingly pre-code is the fact that in the end Tallulah is not punished for her illicit behavior.  She’s able to take up with Cooper again once Laughton is out of the way.  Post-code she’d have had to die or lose her lover forever as punishment.

Cooper cuts a dashing figure, whether in his naval uniforms or in his civvies.  He even makes an ascot look masculine and sophisticated instead of foppish.  He filmed this movie shortly after returning from time spent with Countess Dorothy DiFrasso in Europe and Africa.  The Countess had transformed his way of dressing and carrying himself, Pygmalion-style, and it shows in the newly elegant and  easy way he wears his clothes here.  The cowboy from Montana had taken on a dapper, European style.

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* The submarine scenes.  Although the sets and effects were fairly hokey, it still freaked me out to imagine those poor souls trapped at the bottom of the sea under the command of a raving lunatic.  From the time Laughton destroys the ship in a fit of jealous rage until his final hammy moments (glug, glug), Devil and the Deep is nerve-wracking, inadvertently hysterical entertainment.

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I found the movie totally entertaining.  It’s part of the recently released Cary Grant: The Early Years collection, which is a bit misleading.  His part is very small and this is much more Gary Cooper’s movie than it is Cary Grant’s.  Of course the truth is that Charles Laughton steals the show from Gary, Tallulah and Cary.  There’s definitely nothing subtle about his performance.

Check this one out if you get a chance.  It’s kind of fabulous.

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One thought on “Midnight at the Oasis

  1. Pingback: Devil and the Deep (1932) Starring Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead

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