All About Tallulah! (Never Mind “Wardrobe, make-up, or hair”)

Well, Tallulah Hallelujah! How could I pass up the chance to pass on this anniversary double treat? On this day, 16 November, in 1950, Tallulah Bankhead grabbed the microphone to entertain the multitude, first in a recreation of her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Two year later, she was heard in the part that might have gone to Claudette Colbert (had she not given her all to make sure that Three Came Home) but is now almost exclusively thought of as belonging to Bette Davis: All About Eve (previously discussed here in its pre-filmic radio version). When I featured clips from these performances in first adventure in podcasting, I was unaware that both “Lifeboat” and “All About Eve” were broadcast on the same day, two years apart.

Now, la Bankhead is more often thought of as a legend than an actress; that is, she is foremost a star, and only secondarily a performer. We generally do not have access to the stage appearances of Hollywood stars of the studio era, a couple of stills and reviews aside. Radio theatricals, however, can give us an inkling of those ephemeral performances. So, once again, I am conjuring up the Tallulah spirit, as I did when last I placed her image on my Quija board.

Bankhead’s performance in the Screen Directors Playhouse production of “Lifeboat,” broadcast on this day, 16 November, in 1950, serves to remind us how good an actress an icon can be. As an uncommonly humble Alfred Hitchcock tells the audience in the introduction to the play,

. . . I think you should know that Lifeboat is not what we call a director’s picture. There are no trick sets, no camera tricks, in fact, no tricks at all. When the director approaches such a picture, he offers up a little prayer and delivers himself wholly into the hands of his actors. Since they are very good actors, the result is just as you should hear it now.

Indeed, the production is very fine, with Bankhead serving as narratrix of her character’s experience aboard that ill-fated vessel. That time around, there were no calls for “Wardrobe, make-up, or hair,” no matter how many times the eccentric star uncrossed her legs.

The Theater Guild adaptation of “All About Eve” was more in keeping with the Bankhead persona in those Big Show days. “Thank you, Mr. Brokenshire,” Bankhead seizes the microphone from her announcer,

and good evening, darlings. The play we are performing for you this evening on Theater Guild on the Air is called—and I never could understand why— All About Eve. All About Eve. True, there is an Eve in it, and what a part that is. There is also a glamorous and brilliant leading lady of the theatre whose true identity has been kept a secret too long. Tonight, darlings, tonight baby intends to do something about that.

What a bumpy night it turned out to be. Those two years sure made a difference. You might say, that the campy “Eve” is an extension of or promotional vehicle for the Big Show and the Tallulah image in general. Character had given way for caricature.

How odd it is that such camp is so personal to me; and yet, when I think of Bankhead, I am inevitably reminded of my years in New York City. Sitting in my favorite local park by the East River while preparing for my dissertation on radio drama by listening to a few programs (oh, the hardship a doctoral candidate has to endure), I got to talk to a fellow sun worshipper who, learning about my uncommon soundtrack, asked whether I had come across the name of Florence Robinson, who was an old friend of his. No, I could not say I had; but I soon discovered that Robinson had been Tallulah’s co-star in “All About Eve.”

Just about that time, in those early days of the 21st century, I got to see the Tallulah Hallelujah! starring Tovah Feldshuh in the title role (no, not Hallelujah). A few years later I became friends with the “producing associate” of the show. So, listening to Bankhead, however outré or larger than life she might sound, triggers many a personal memory.

Then again, listening is always personal, as sounds pass the threshold of my ears, entering my body in a way images never could, and keep reverberating in my mind. While no longer surprised, I am still disappointed when I flick through biographies like the one by Joel Lobenthal I am clutching above, accounts of an actor’s life that make so little of their roles on radio and the role radio played during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Sure, the The Big Show was not being ignored (even though George Baxt, who novelized Bankhead’s broadcasting experience in the volume shown here, barely gets a mention). Beyond that, though, Bankhead’s “many radio appearances” are summed up as involving “acting in sketches or trading patter with Hildegarde, Fred Allen, Kate Smith, and others.”

Given that recordings are now so readily available, the general disregard for the medium, expressing itself in a line like “[r]adio was Tallulah’s only medium for the next six months,” becomes an intolerable distortion of American popular culture. I wish more attention was being paid to the cultural force of the old wireless, a wish that, aside from all the nonsense and dross you might expect here, is the raison d’être of broadcastellan.

7 Replies to “All About Tallulah! (Never Mind “Wardrobe, make-up, or hair”)”

  1. Harry, thanks for this posting on the wonderful Tallulah Bankhead. I was recently listening to some of her Big Shows. I always thought it must have been difficult to live opposite another Hollywood icon – Bette Davis – who was often mixed up with Miss Bankhead. I sometimes wonder if she felt she had to try harder to maintain her fame. I know on the Big Show there were often the tongue-in-cheek Bette Davis jokes. Her \”Big Show\” was surprising given that dramatic radio in the U.S. was on the decline (sadly).

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  2. You are welcome, Jim. The Big Show sure was a promotional vehicle for Bankhead; yet it also limited her, pushing a potentially fine actress to self-parody. Davis, by comparison, still had a respectable screen career at that point. The Lobenthal biography contains a compelling statement by Bankhead regarding the fate of The Big Show. Expressing her gratitude to the director, Bankhead concluded that she was \”not yet so old, fat and tired\” to ignore that \”integrity\” was \”rear[ing] its ugly head.\”By the way, I very much appreciated your comments on my Veterans Day post (to which I was slow to respond).

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  3. Guess what happened? Your heroine emerged from the fracas as the Queen of the Kilocycles. Authorities cried out that Tallulah had redeemed radio. In shepherding my charges through The Big Show, said the critics, I had snatched radio out of the grave. The autopsy was delayed.—Tallulah Bankhead, from her memoir, describing how her initial trepidation (she feared she\’d be little more than a glorified announcer with a name, a fear that proved unfounded enough) was quashed upon launching The Big Show.To be sure, the show\’s head writer, Goodman Ace, often spoke of how Bankhead herself was perfect for the show because she was character enough that she gave the writing staff something far more than a name to work with; some of the show\’s cleverest routines involved Bankhead as both foil and instigator, particularly when she was paired with folk like Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Joan Davis, and Margaret Truman . . .(Ace also admitted he liked the fact that Bankhead respected the writers and treated them accordingly. \”She\’d say, \’You gentlemen, the authors.\’ We gag writers felt pretty good about that.\”)

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  4. Tonight I happened upon, in the book I currently am reading, William J. Mann\’s Kate: The Woman Who was Hepburn, a mention of Tallulah\’s Broadway success in The Little Foxes. … If only I had been around in 1939! I greatly admire Bette\’s Regina, but I would love to be able to compare her preserved performance with the memory of an ephemeral Tallulah turn.Speaking of books – what did you think of George?

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  5. Yes, that would be grand. I find it unfortunate that what comes to mind first when we think of Ms. Bankhead today is her camp appeal.Meanwhile, I haven\’t opend Emlyn again since I wrote about purchasing it. Unlike you, I am a very slow reader.

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