Thursday, March 12, 2009

Smart Money

“Smart Money” (1931) was the only movie Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney made together, and it’s pretty good. It has that raw atmosphere I enjoy from so many early 1930s Warner Bros. movies. And, like most Warner Bros. movies of that era, it’s very watchable.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Nick the Barber. He and best friend Jack (James Cagney) are barbers in Irontown, where Nick also runs a small-time betting operation out of his shop. He’s a big fish in a small pond and thinks he can make a splash in New York City. His friends stake him for a big poker game in the city. After being taken in by some con men, he strikes back at them using the same methods they used on him. He soon becomes one of the biggest gamblers around, causing consternation among the law and the city’s newspaper editors. (We get lots of headlines about Nick’s gambling activities). Knowing Nick’s penchant for beautiful women, the D.A. uses attempted suicide victim Irene (Margaret Livingston) to get the goods on him.

Sure, Nick has a thing for women, but there’s also an odd undercurrent of homosexuality between Nick and Jack. When Jack comes to the city to help Nick with his racket, Jack complains about Irene always being around. Nick tells him Irene will be leaving in a few days and “…you can be my sweetheart again, dearie.” Wow. Yep, we’re definitely in Pre-Code territory here.

Despite Cagney’s co-starring presence, it’s very much a supporting performance. He was simultaneously shooting this and “The Public Enemy” at the same time, so his star had yet to ascend. But upon the opening of that film, Robinson and Cagney became equals, and ruled the underworld roost at Warners for the remainder of the decade.

Noel Francis makes a nice impression as a girl Nick falls for, not knowing she’s the gal of Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), the slicker who takes Nick in that first poker game. She’s in another 1931 Cagney film called “Blonde Crazy” and very appealing she was too. She never became a star, but I’m always glad to see her in the cast list.

Boris Karloff appears unbilled as a gambler who gets wiped out by Nick in Irontown. That same year he made movie history in “Frankenstein” and a year later Karloff would never go unbilled again.

Even though the title is included in the third volume of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection, it’s really not a gangster film, but that’s OK. They can call it in whatever box set they want as long as these titles continue to get released.

All in all, a good show. Not particularly memorable, but enjoyable viewing nonetheless. The 81 minutes fly by in the best Warner Bros. style.

Rating for “Smart Money”: **1/2

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