Spoiled socialite Carol Morgan (Tallulah Bankhead) plans to marry up-and-coming sausage marketer (honestly) Bill Wade (Robert Montgomery), but when Bill refuses to live in Carol’s house and live off her fortune, they argue and break up. Shortly thereafter, Carol finds out that she’s dead broke, having squandered her inheritance during the Depression. Carol goes to tell Bill that she’s ready and willing to live on his meagre sausage dollars, only to find that he’s lost his job. She flies down to Palm Beach to mooch off her friends, but when they get wind of the fact that she’s busted, she becomes persona non grata, and is reduced to living as the mistress of vulgar casino boss Peter Blainey (Hugh Herbert).
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, Bill and Carol are reunited and married, and Bill starts a job as a truck driver which lasts for about ten minutes as his truck is run off the road by union thugs and Bill is seriously injured. Now bereft of wages and in need of money for medicine, Carol in her desperation turns to the oldest profession to keep her husband alive.
Faithless starts out like one of those mismatched couples comedies where the hardworking honest man marries the wealthy heiress and back-and-forth bickering about money and integrity breaks out (like Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde (1931)), and even the jaunty music in the early scenes suggests you’re in for a light-hearted 77 minutes of larky fun. Things turn sour pretty quickly, and go from miserable to miserabler as Bill and Carol descend into poverty, despair, and prostitution. Once we’re in melodrama territory Robert Montgomery - one of my favourite actors - starts to seem a little out of place, although he handles the dramatic role with almost as much aplomb as his comedy roles. I’ve never really seen Tallulah Bankhead in anything other than Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), and my only knowledge of her comes from her self-parodying turn as the host and star of The Big Show (1950-51), one of the last attempts at drawing audiences away from TV and back to radio, written by Goodman Ace. There seems to be a consensus among reviewers that she makes for an implausible ruined woman, but I can’t agree, and think she does an excellent job of portraying someone humbled and broken by the vicissitudes of a particularly rotten life. Also worth mentioning is Hugh Herbert, usually cast as comic relief, in a disgustingly terrific turn as the awful casino boss who makes a kept woman out of Gloria.
Despite Faithless’s abrupt change of tone from class comedy to unrelentingly grim melodrama, and despite Robert Montgomery making the world’s most implausible truck driver (to say nothing of sausage marketer), it’s a treat for fans of Depression-era melodrama and precode cinema; and unlike the bloated, soapy melodramas of the 40s and 50s, between the energetic pace and the economical running time (77 minutes) there’s just no time to be bored.
As usual, Warner Archives is where you’ll want to go to track down this gem, which is included in their Robert Montgomery Collection, along with Shipmates (1931), The Man in Possession (1931), Lovers Courageous (1932), But the Flesh Is Weak (1932), Made on Broadway (1933), Live, Love and Learn (1937), and The Earl of Chicago (1940).