Category Archives: 1930s

Magnificent Obsession (1935)

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*. It was a nice gesture of Criterion to include this title as a bonus feature with their release of the 1954 Douglas Sirk remake. Nice because without this treatment I think it was ready to be consigned to film oblivion. Who would even bother hunting it down today? Why?
*. Something feels icky from the start. Helen and Nancy are mother-daughter but are conscious of the absurdity of this as they appear to be the same age. This May-December feeling is later returned to when Nancy announces her engagement to Tommy, who looks quite a bit older (the actor playing Tommy was in fact twenty years older than Betty Furness.)
*. But then we have “Bobby” Merrick falling for Helen Hudson, with Robert Taylor being thirteen years younger than Irene Dunne. There’s your age equity paying back.
*. The genre is a hybrid particular to the time. Basically it’s a pulp romance (the handsome, rich playboy even becomes a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon!), crossbred with the sort of homiletic morality that was Lloyd C. Douglas’s stock-in-trade. Douglas was a Lutheran minister who didn’t write his first novel (this one) until the age of 50. He would go on to pen Biblical blockbusters like The Robe and The Big Fisherman.
*. I suspect it’s the religious message, with Bobby being reborn as Dr. Robert after an intervention by the devout sculptor, that dates the film the most. Heaven knows we still love a good love story, but I doubt the preaching appeals very much to a mass audience.
*. I don’t think it’s much worth watching today. The car accident looks pretty darn sharp for 1935 (better even than it does in the remake, twenty years later), but that’s the only thing that stood out. The plot is so clichéd and contrived it’s funny. Dunne and Taylor walk through their parts with the kind of formality that was the custom of the time, at least in a vehicle like this.
*. Pauline Kael: “This first version of the inspirational Lloyd C. Douglas novel . . . should certainly have been the last, but the woebegone trickeries of the material made the movie a four-handkerchief hit, and damned if Ross Hunter didn’t produce another version in 1954 (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson), and the slop made money all over again.”

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Captain Blood (1935)

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*. A star is born. Like being shot from a cannon, to make the obvious analogy. In the featurette on this film that’s included with the DVD, film historian Lincoln D. Hurst calls Errol Flynn’s performance “the most amazing debut of any new actor in the history of Hollywood.” That’s a dramatic pronouncement, but not unwarranted.

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*. Flynn was heir to Douglas Fairbanks as an action star, but the two weren’t the same. Fairbanks was the more physical, both in terms of his stunts and the way he played a role (larger, for the silent screen). Flynn is prettier: he has the great physique and hair of a Harlequin cover model.
*. I don’t mean that in a negative way. The movies have always been about beautiful people. And it’s worth noting that Flynn was, apparently, suffering from malaria while shooting this film. But still, he is less solid than Fairbanks. In the ranks of action stars he put the emphasis on the star. He was a lover, not a fighter. For what it’s worth, Rathbone, who had a reputation as the best swordsman in Hollywood, thought him an inferior duellist to Tyrone Power.

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*. You could say two stars were born, though Olivia de Havilland had just been in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe she was only 19 here, and looks adorable. She could also act, and has terrific chemistry with Flynn, as they would go on to star together many times.

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*. The pirate film wasn’t a new genre in the ’30s, like gangster films or monster movies mostly were. Indeed this was the second time around for filming Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name. I don’t suppose anyone reads Sabatini today. I haven’t. Later, Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk, which had also been made into a movie in the 1920s, would have its title borrowed for another Flynn vehicle. Some of the battle footage in this film (basically the shots of full-size ships in action) was taken from the first Sea Hawk, which gives you some indication of just how generic the action in pirate films was. Broadsides and swordfights.
*. In the 17th century, was there any effective treatment for gout? Nowadays I believe it’s mostly handled through drugs. So I’m not sure what Dr. Peter Blood is doing to the governor that works so well. Unless the governor is just a hypochondriac and there’s nothing wrong with him anyway.
*. Michael Curtiz is one of the more colorful figures in Hollywood history, probably best known (outside of his films) for several very funny malapropisms. He wasn’t an auteur, but he was a very capable professional with a knack for keeping the story moving. Even in what are fairly static scenes he engages our interest in subtle ways by dollying the camera, filling the frame in depth, or sharp editing.
*. A good example of the latter is the speech delivered by Flynn beginning with “It’s a truly royal clemency we’re granted my friends, one well worthy of King James.  . . .” There are two cuts made in this speech, breaking it into three shots, when the whole thing could have easily been done in a single take. It’s very effective, and yet so smoothly done that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it.

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*. The boats were large-scale models and they look terrific. Yet another example of how CGI hasn’t improved a thing. Even the shots of the ships shelling Port Royal look good. It’s all a studio production and doesn’t suffer for it. Not just because the in-house effects people were so proficient, but also because film hadn’t really developed an aesthetics of location shooting yet. If you’d shown Curtiz what Herzog did in Aguirre, for example, I’m not sure he would have understood it at all, the sensibility would have been so alien.
*. The idea that the pirate chieftain is actually a good guy in disguise is a trope that goes back to classical times, and was already familiar to moviegoers. These movies really followed a pattern, down to the wooing of the high-born lady by the gallant knave. That this has been such a resilient archetype is something to wonder at.
*. The story structure is a bit off. We’re half-way through the picture before the slaves escape and take to a life of freedom on the high seas. And there is no clear focus on a villain. The hanging judge, Judge Jeffreys, puts in an appearance. There’s a harsh slave driver named Dixon who apparently runs a mine but nothing is done with him. Lionel Atwill goes AWOL, both from Port Royal and the movie. And finally Basil Rathbone is introduced late and dispatched early, a terrible waste of one of the screen’s great bad guys.

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*. Audiences didn’t really care. It was a big hit for Warners because the stars were in alignment. Flynn and de Havilland were both unknowns and both clicked. Erich Korngold was new as well, and had little time to write a score, but still delivered. Curtiz did a great job with the material. The effects are first rate. For a while, pirates were going to be big.

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The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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*. Pauline Kael: “The title and the names of the stars — James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart — make it sound like a lot more fun than it is. . . . The movie has a very mechanical and moralistic view of character; nobody ever says or does anything that surprises you.”
*. I’d agree with all this, and also say the same of another movie of three veterans returning home: The Best Years of Our Lives.
*. 1939 was the end of a lot of things, one of them being the first great era of the gangster film. James Cagney was sick of these parts and Humphrey Bogart’s career was going nowhere playing an endless stream of creepy gunsels. That would soon change. Cagney would be in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and wouldn’t play a gangster again until White Heat (1949). Bogie would do High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941. But as for now, 1939, what better time for gangster nostalgia?
*. Gangster nostalgia: a look back at the good ol’ days of Prohibition, the good ol’ days of the gangster film, and the good ol’ days (revived and improved) that the main characters here imagined they were going to enjoy on their return. No dice. When Rambo has a meltdown in First Blood about not being able to get a decent job he makes it sound like this was something new experienced by returning soldiers. It wasn’t.
*. A note on the etymology of nostalgia: it comes from a pair of Greek words meaning “home” and a wound or scar. So it’s a feeling very much in play here.
*. We start off with a written introduction to “this photoplay” by writer Mark Hellinger. He was sort of a big name at the time (dare I say he used to be a big shot?), but nobody much cared for his script, then or now. Cagney improvised a lot. I find it surprising that Hellinger would be given such prominent billing here, but writers were more important then.
*. After this we settle into a sprawling gangster film that’s overlain with a bunch of material that, while decent in itself, only weighs the movie down. Epic is a late development, a sign that a genre has begun to sprawl and bloat. There have been great gangster epics (The Godfather) and very bad ones (Once Upon a Time in America). Here we’re somewhere in the middle.

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*. The newsreel-style “March of Time” montage inserts (with special effects by Byron Haskin and composed by Don Siegel, I believe) are quite well done, especially the one for the Crash of 1929 with its ticker-tape Mammon and melting skyscrapers. But I don’t think they work with the rest of the movie. They give it a kind of epic flavour, but diminish the characters and their struggles, making them seem more like representative types.
*. The musical numbers cover a lot of hits, with “Melancholy Baby,” “Wild About Harry,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Had to Be You” all getting some air (and Lane doing her own singing). They’re great tunes, but the whole Eddie-Jean-Lloyd triangle is dull, and making Jean a nightclub singer is trite formula.
*. Am I the only one troubled by Priscilla Lane’s Jean? She is perfectly happy, at least for a while, to be a gangster’s moll (Eddie even gives her a tour of the still!), then opts for the square life while the getting is still good.
*. Then there’s Jeffrey Lynn’s Lloyd the lawyer. He’s a bore, and just as easily compromised as Jean, quickly becoming Eddie’s consigliere. He draws an arbitrary line after the warehouse robbery, but, as Bogie snarls at him, he came into this business with his eyes open.

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*. It seems almost as though the movie wants to be about the seduction of innocence, but all the main players give in to temptation pretty quickly, protesting hardly at all. I hardly think Lind is representative of “absolute good” and “the epitome of virtue and rectitude,” which is how Lincoln Hurst casts him in the DVD commentary. Everyone we meet here has dirt on their hands.
*. You should try and expand your vocabulary with every vintage gangster movie you see. I learned the word “gilpin” from this movie. It basically means a sucker. For some reason being a sucker is the one thing that Eddie is paranoid about. Perhaps he unconsciously recognizes that he’s too soft for the gangster life and it will be his undoing.

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*. When Cagney uses Lefty (Abner Biberman) as a human shield it must be one of the earliest examples of this happening in a movie. In The Black Pirate Douglas Fairbanks uses Sam De Grasse as a shield but De Grasse is already dead. Lefty is alive until he stops some bullets. This would go on to become a film cliché used for comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback.
*. It’s New Year’s Eve, so that’s supposed to be snow on the steps of the church at the end. Movie snow rarely looks like real snow, but here it looks like sand.
*. Despite its credits, I don’t like this movie much. The energy is gone, the cycle played out. Neither Cagney nor Bogart wanted to be here and it doesn’t help that we end with a long, downbeat final act. It’s just a tired movie, wearing too many clothes, and a great last line doesn’t save it.

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The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)

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*. Clitterhouse? Are you kidding? No such name apparently existed in England (where the story originated) or the United States. Were the censors asleep or was “clitoris” not a word (or part of the anatomy) familiar to many at the time?
*. In fact, and as you can well imagine, the censors did have problems with the story. That a movie such as this could have been made in 1938 is its main claim to fame and source of interest.
*. The problem is Dr. Clitterhouse. He’s a bad guy. At first a mere burglar but later a cold-blooded murderer. And yet he’s made into a sympathetic figure who ultimately gets away with it, merely remanded to the State Lunacy Commission for examination. Which isn’t even a slap on the wrist.
*. Joseph Breen wanted the script to make it very clear that Clitterhouse is insane. Somewhat ironically, this would be the central ambiguity in the film, unresolved by the farce of the trial. But I think it’s clear Clitterhouse knew what he was doing all along.
*. Compounding things, Clitterhouse not only escapes punishment by due process of law, but that process is treated as a joke, with buffoonish, yokel jurors incapable of figuring anything out and the expert testimony of Professor Ludwig treated as bafflegab and nonsense. As for the rest of the gang, they are presumably picked up at some point, though Jo appears to have got off as well.
*. Somehow (because it was pitched as a comedy?) Warners managed to get around all this and made a movie with a very dark set of morals: the ends justify the means; crime can be fun and pay as well; with enough money you can buy the justice system. What makes it even worse is the fact that Bogart’s Rocks Valentine is not that bad a fellow. Sure he tries to kill Dr. C., but he’s been forgiven that. And his plan on using the doctor as a front for his gang isn’t a bad one. As he says to Clitterhouse, the information he’s collected against the gang is only enough to send them up for life. He isn’t a candidate for extra-judicial execution.
*. It’s based on a popular stage play of the time. Surprised? I was. There’s nothing about this movie that gives such an origin away. Most movies based on plays have a stagey look and sound to them, but aside from some of the dialogue here there’s none of that.
*. It was purchased by Warners specifically as a starring vehicle for Robinson (though Robert Lord wanted Ronald Coleman as a more romantic lead to play opposite Claire Trevor). It must have made the star happy. Edward G. Robinson was a refined, highly-cultured, intellectual man whose breakout role as Rico in Little Caesar typecast him pretty much forever as a lowlife immigrant gangster. He would have preferred parts like Dr. Clitterhouse, even though the love triangle here is downplayed considerably because it was felt no one would buy it. Which is tough without being realistic, but nevertheless very Hollywood.

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*. All of the actors on Warners’ “Murderers Row” were struggling with the same typecasting. Bogart was the heavy again here, a role he’d played over and over since The Petrified Forest. Clitterhouse co-writer John Huston would be the one to finally rescue him with The Maltese Falcon, but that was still a few years away. Here, Rocks Valentine is just a caricature, shining his ring on his tie and generally looking like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.

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*. Whoa! Check out the size of the “special blend” of whiskey that Dr. Clitterhouse gives Rocks. Is that a triple? A quadruple?
*. The basic conceit is interesting — upper-crust doctor slumming it with gangsters in order to study them but himself becoming mentally and morally compromised as a result. As Richard Jewell remarks on the DVD commentary, it’s an inversion of the story of A Slight Case of Murder: instead of a gangster trying to reform his ways and enter high society, we have a stalwart of high society who descends to becoming a gangster.
*. But how do you play it? As social commentary? Comedy? Right from the time of its release reviewers didn’t know how to classify it. It resisted labels and pigeonholes, and usually that’s a good thing. Usually. But not here.
*. Why? I think mainly because it’s not funny. Of course comedy dates, and there are lots of movies from this period that must have been hilarious at the time but don’t crack a smile today. But there’s nothing remotely funny about any of this. I only thought there were a couple of scenes that were trying to be funny (and failing).
*. The result is awkwardness. We don’t know how we’re supposed to view Dr. Clitterhouse: as a naive intellectual or homicidal monomaniac. We don’t know how we’re to take the question of insanity: seriously or as a source of humour. We don’t know how to view the abridged relationship between Dr. Clitterhouse and Jo: is it impossible or just frustrated by circumstance?
*. So it’s an oddity, a weird movie that is remarkable for having been made rather than anything else. In terms of tone it’s a total mess. The leads would re-assemble for Key Largo.

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A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

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*. Comedy doesn’t age well, but I don’t think that’s the real problem with this one. The timing just seems off throughout. And I’m not sure the material was that good to begin with.
*. It’s billed as a gangster comedy, but what it plays like is a bedroom farce without the sex. We have all those doors opening and closing and different people coming out of them upstairs, just narrowly missing each other most of the time, or spying on what’s going on.

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*. Also part of the farce set-up is the social satire. The Marcos are nouveau riche, a family of proto-Sopranos or Prohibition-era Beverly Hillbillies. This is a comic stand-by, and it works well enough here contrasting high and low, criminal and legit.
*. I especially like all the cues were given for how full Marco is of himself as the Big Man. Note how often he refers to himself in the third person, and how both the outer and the inner door of his office are branded with “Mr. Marko” in brass letters.
*. I know it’s unfair to appeal to probability in a piece of fluff like this, but how likely would it be that Marko, who admittedly doesn’t drink beer, to literally have no idea what his beer tastes like, even after four years of running a legit brewery?
*. Yes, that’s the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, playing the orphanage director Mrs. Cagle. You can’t mistake that nose anywhere.

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*. Edward G. Robinson’s star was fading, but he genuinely looks like he’s having fun here with the part of Remy Marco, sending up a part that he had defined earlier in the decade, starting with Little Caesar.
*. A one point Nora tells Remy that Mary has a fiancé, but later in the movie she apparently tells him for the first time about the engagement and he is surprised. A continuity error? I don’t usually care about flagging those, but this one stood out. Especially in a film based on a play, which I would have thought had a tighter script. But there’s also a flub (harder to notice) with the names of the people who receive the various dead bodies.

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*. The gang members in their different get-ups (chef, chauffeur, butler) look like the Three Stooges. I think there’s some kind of comic principle at work there, like the one that puts together odd couples (fat guy with thin guy, white guy with black guy). You get a group of three together and they have to be mixed nuts.

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*. I’ve seen Willard Parker’s height listed as 6’5″. Robert Sklar on the commentary says 6’4″, but also notes how he looks like he’s 7′ in relation to most of the other actors. I mean, yes, Robinson was very short (perhaps 5’4″), but Parker towers over everyone.
*. The man who topples from the roof at the end is clearly a dummy, and does a perfect landing straight on his head. Nevertheless, we’re told he was only injured. I think that kind of fall would have killed him, or at least turned him into a quadriplegic.
*. The main point of interest I find in the film is its casual attitude toward death. The dead bodies go from being a classless inconvenience, to being made into a joke (treated as gag props), to becoming “merchandise.” And then there is the telephone serenade to the dying man, which is also set up as a joke. I know we’re in the world of farce here, but this strikes me as surprisingly irreverent for the 1930s.

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The Petrified Forest (1936)

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*. Can anybody watch this movie today without a wince and a chuckle? It’s based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, and a stage play from the 1930s is exactly what it both looks and sounds like.
*. I say “looks” because the last-chance road stop café was a set built on a studio set in Burbank, with a giant cyclorama backdrop sitting in for the Arizona desert. In other words, we’re on stage.

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*. Then there’s the dialogue. Has stilted speechifying ever tottered as high as this? On stage you have to act big, something actors had to be reminded of when making the transition to film. On screen, less was more. But on stage you also have to talk big as well.
*. Here are some of the greatest hits: “This is Duke Mantee, the world-famous killer. And he’s hungry.” “Alan, Alan will you please kiss me?” “She has heroic stuff in her. She may be one of the immortal women of France. Another Joan of Arc, George Sand, Madame Curie, or Du Barry. I want to show her that I believe in her, and how else can I do it? Living, I’m worth nothing to her. Dead, I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets.” “Let there be killing. All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in.” “Any woman’s worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don’t you see that’s the whole excuse for our existence?”

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*. Most, but not all, of this comes from Leslie Howard’s Alan Squier, who may be excused somewhat on account of his being an “intellectual.” Intellectual (“a vanishing race” embodying “noise without sound, shape without substance”) is a slippery label, adopted by Squier since he doesn’t quite qualify as a writer. In fact, he’s a bum: formerly a kept man by a wealthy French woman, he now panhandles and hitchhikes across the American West. Apparently his plan is to simply walk out of the café without paying for his meal. Was this the last time such a figure could be seen as romantic?
*. That’s the question that kept niggling away at me. Of course it all sounds ridiculous today, but when, if ever, did it not sound ridiculous? Pauline Kael thought it a hoot (“There’s no way to say this stuff without sounding affected, and every now and then Howard hits really embarrassing false notes”), but what about contemporary reviews? Apparently they were strong, so maybe they took it seriously in 1936.
*. But then perhaps the problem is the cratering cultural cachet of the book. We no longer live in a society that places any value on literature, so the spiritual nobility of a failed writer and the sensibility of a young woman who gets teary-eyed at reading translations of fifteenth-century French poetry strikes us as absurd.
*. Some awareness of Squier’s absurdity is built into the play itself. Gramps thinks he’s insane and even Gabby says at one point that he’s talking nonsense (“You know, you talk like a darn fool”). But he is the hero and I don’t think he’s meant to be undercut too much. We really are supposed to see him as a noble, tragic soul. As for the others, the mystic mesa atmosphere apparently induces an “autobiographical impulse,” leading the inhabitants of the diner to confess themselves to, and fall instantly in love with, complete strangers.

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*. The effect of all this poetry is to exaggerate even more the violent charisma of the movie’s real star, Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee. None of the gangsters at Warners were the usual matinee idol types, but Bogart was something else: raw, dirty, and weary of life. Other gangsters — Rico, Tom, Tony — were climbing the underworld corporate ladder, living their own version of the American Dream. Duke isn’t going anywhere and he knows it.
*. I’ll expand just a bit on one of those adjectives: dirty. Duke Mantee isn’t dressed well, hasn’t shaved recently, and looks like he has a couple of layers of the Arizona desert on him. One thing about earlier gangsters is that they were stylish. They dressed well and were clean shaven. Indeed they were frequently shown being fitted for bespoke suits or being lathered up. Such scenes became gangster-film tropes. Hell, in Smart Money Robertson and Cagney even start out as barbers. But Bogart is different: a Marvel superhero in a DC world.
*. I really don’t like his walk though, which makes him look like a puppet with half his strings cut. Apparently he was trying to act like Dillinger, though it seems like a pure stage mannerism to me that should have been scaled down for the big screen.
*. What kind of a name is “Mantee” anyway? I can’t fix it to any ethnicity. And it sounds so close to “manatee” it seems funny.

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*. Poor Dick Foran. He was only 25 when he made this film and yet he looks 40, with a pronounced pair of droopy man boobs that might have been given some support. And poor Boze (the character he plays), still dreaming of gridiron glory in the deserts of Arizona.
*. What such an isolated place like that needs with a full-time gas jockey is another question. But then they have a full time cook (“Fat”) as well. This leaves everyone with not much to do but sit around and talk.
*. Poor Bette Davis. She was actually a couple of years older than Foran, and playing a presumably teenaged girl. She does what she can in a hopeless part: the girl who has to “go to France and find herself.” She’d been better playing opposite Howard in Of Human Bondage a couple of years earlier.

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*. What remains curious is the attitude taken toward Duke. Squier, who refers to him, curiously, as the Duke (thus subordinating himself) dubs him “the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” Gramps insists that he’s not a foreign “gangster” but an authentic “real old-time” American desperado. The part was modeled after Dillinger, who was a huge celebrity at the time (he’d just been killed a year earlier). Gramps also helpfully draws a link to Billy the Kid, another American cultural icon, and is thrilled and delighted to have “ringside seats” so as to better bear witness to “some real killing!” One wonders why Gabby doesn’t get a new crush. Remarkably, Mrs. Chisholm declares that she is ready to leave her husband and take off with him to Mexico.
*. This feeds into the ending, which the studio wanted to change but was kept consistent with the play. Of course the noble Squier has to go. He realizes he’s an anachronism anyway and has a death wish. But by the same mythic logic Duke has to escape, at least temporarily. We’ll hear a report that he’s been caught, but we may not want to credit it. Surely this was just a sop thrown to the censors. Surely Duke Mantee is still out there, a legend now of the new Old West. He’d even reappear as an older man with a different name in The Desperate Hours.
*. For me anyway this is one of those movies that has dated so badly it’s almost unwatchable today. Ten years later Bogie’d be back in a very similar situation in Key Largo, facing off against Edward G. Robinson (who was originally slated to play Mantee here). In that movie he’d catch a break however, and be allowed to survive. He’d also catch a break in being directed by John Huston, who had no intention of simply filming a play he thought stupid. In contrast, a filmed play is exactly what The Petrified Forest is. A filmed play, and a fossil.

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Scarface (1932)

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*. Of the big three original gangster movies (the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar), this is the best. What sets it apart is the direction and writing, so intelligent and alert, from Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht respectively. Not surprisingly they would be the dedicatees of Brian De Palma’s remake.
*. All three films are classic American fantasies of rising from rags to riches the fastest way possible: that is, through the wedding of crime and business. In the grim alternate ending Tony Camonte is specifically indicted for having “commercialized murder.” Audiences were torn. Was what Tony doing wrong then? Censors didn’t like this one bit, but there was little they could do when Hawks avoided showing the film in jurisdictions where he couldn’t get approval and made a fortune anyway. There’s a moral to that story.
*. Hawks did try to throw a sop to the censors, but it was a backhanded one. The introduction calls out not Tony and the criminal underclass but rather the “callous indifference of the government.” Specifically “your government”: the one that you the people elected. So if you don’t like it, you do something about it. Just don’t complain about my movie!
*. But of course “you” weren’t going to do anything about it. After all, you were paying to watch this movie. In Robert Warshow’s essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” he explains the cultural dynamic: “At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success.”
*. What an incredible opening shot. The long dolly reads like a comic strip, and makes us feel as though we’re being drawn in deeper and deeper, through jungle foliage even. Then there’s the appearance of that sinister shadow off to the far right — a threatening presence we pull back from but which pursues us until the climax and comic denouement.
*. Hawks was at the top of his game here, shooting everything with inventiveness, energy, and a fluid camera. I love the pan across the social club of the gangsters, the retreating dolly shot as Tony and Guino stalk Meehan in the hospital (a scene that would become a gangster film touchstone), and the way the pages being torn from the calendar seem to be getting blasted off by the firing of the Tommy gun.
*. Is the film too smart for its own good? I love the “X” motif used to signal or mark a violent end, but does it mean anything? I can’t think of a point to it aside from a display of visual cleverness.

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*. Muni is no Cagney or Robinson, and you can call his performance hammy. He screws his face up like a monkey and indulges in lots of broad gestures with his hands. Is that a silent film technique, or is it supposed to be Italian? Probably both. It’s also possible that he knows being the boss means playing the part.
*. In any event, the problem I had was that the two sides of Tony, the dopey joker and the sadistic killer, never seem to meet. He’s always one or the other, and it’s hard to see how they join together. At some point we needed to see him transition from one to ther other, just to show how and in what context he changes gears. Instead we get a character whose different parts don’t add up.
*. I’m put off by Mama as the Italian (or is she Jewish?) mother. She’s a familiar background figure in gangster films, always cooking away in the kitchen even in The Godfather and Goodfellas (I’m thinking of Pesci’s mom in the latter film). Why was there such an emphasis on the family life of these criminals? It’s the way Capone always wanted to be seen, so perhaps that’s where it started. She was also there in The Public Enemy and played an even more active role in White Heat (when the convention was ripe for exaggeration).
*. Of all the early gangster films this is the one that tries hardest to be ethnic. It’s crude, mostly consisting of terrible fake Italian accents: “You-a just-a like-a heem!” But fifty years later, would Pacino’s Tony Montana be any improvement on these broad stereotypes?

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*. It’s interesting how all of the big three early gangster films, all of which were loosely based on Al Capone, have such memorable final death scenes: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”, Cagney trussed up like a roll of carpet and being dropped off at the door, and here Tony expiring beneath his corporate motto “The World Is Yours.” What makes this ironic is that Capone wasn’t dead in 1931. He was in prison and his career as a crime boss was over, but he hadn’t met any final justice.
*. It’s also interesting how all three films emphasize the gangster’s weakness at the end. “I ain’t so tough,” Cagney says. Rico can’t believe death has come for him of all people. And Cesca here seems positively disgusted with Tony’s loss of manhood. Guino, she tells him, wouldn’t have been afraid, wouldn’t have been such a pansy. She says she doesn’t want to stay (live) with such a wimp. Then she turns her head away and expires.
*. Rags to riches is also the Gatsby story, and I take it there’s a deliberate nod to Gatsby in the scene when Tony shows Poppy all his beautiful shirts. This is the emptiness of affluence and consumerism, a new shirt every day so he never has to wash them. I can’t help thinking that this ties in to his final lines, when he caps his despairing complaint about how all of his friends are dead with the statement that the steel shutters on his windows don’t work. You pay for quality and this is what you get! That’s the last straw!
*. Note that Tony doesn’t really care about all his compatriots being dead. When Angelo dies it’s done as a bit of comic business, as he we see him slowly collapsing from gunshot wounds behind Tony, who is entirely indifferent, in a world of his own. What upsets Tony is that his friends have left him on his own. A lot of use they turned out to be!

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*. Boris Karloff is here, not doing much. In fact, not only does he look like he’d never bowled before, it seems as though no one even showed him how to do it. But I wonder if Muni, or Hawks, were thinking of his performance as the Monster in Frankenstein in this movie’s final scene. The cops outside are like the mob of angry villagers, Tony’s smoke-filled building like the burning windmill, and Tony himself like the Monster, staggering about blindly, his face scarred, waving his arms in impotent anger.
*. I wouldn’t lean on that connection too hard though. As near as I can determine the two films were being shot at much the same time, possibly overlapping. If anything, I believe Scarface got started and finished first. Then it had troubles with the censors.
*. But in the end this isn’t an actor’s film. They only have cues. Muni whistles. George Raft flips a coin. Vince Barnett can’t figure out how to use a telephone. The only actors worth watching are the women. Ann Dvorak’s Cesca is especially good: as hot-blooded as her brother but frustrated by his oppressive violence. And Karen Morley as Poppy works the same dynamic: a highly sexual woman soaking in a sauna of testosterone.
*. Is there a moral to be drawn? I don’t think so. It’s not a case of someone gaining the world but losing his soul. Tony had no soul to begin with, nor any friends or family that meant anything to him. The only point is that it means nothing to gain the world if you can’t keep it. As Warshow noted, one has to be punished for success because all success is violence: “the successful man is an outlaw.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. So then, as Macbeth put it: To be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus. Perhaps this is what the censors really objected to. Tony doesn’t get his just desserts but only fails to win the big prize.

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Smart Money (1931)

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*. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson together for the first and only time. And the only reason it happened is because Warners were hoping for a quick turnaround on Robinson’s success in Little Caesar and Cagney hadn’t had his breakthrough yet (The Public Enemy was shooting at the same time as this film).
*. It sure didn’t take long for Robinson to tire of the gangster role. Or perhaps he was (justifiably) concerned about being typecast in the part of crime boss. In either event, he wanted to play a lighter character than Little Caesar‘s Rico. For their part, the studio just wanted more Rico. This conflict led to a movie with a split personality.
*. Is it a gangster film? It certainly has that structure, with Nick the Barber rising to power through his luck at gambling, and eventually running an illegal casino complete with guards armed with machine guns. Cagney’s Jack is also very much the conventional Number Two seen in most such films. Can we imagine him as a barber?

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*. The characters talk like gangsters, with their snappy patter and use of gambling argot, and they look like gangsters, done out in their swell clothes and pockets stuffed with thick wads of cash.
*. And of course Nick and Jack are criminals, under investigation by the District Attorney. They aren’t running booze, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to prison if they get caught.
*. In other words this is very much another kick at the Al Capone story, but contorted at Robinson’s insistence into a strange sort of hybrid.
*. You see, Nick is a decent guy. He’s gallant to the ladies (to a fault), and loyal to his friends. Hell, he’s even a member of the Irontown Volunteer Fire Department.
*. Pistols and machine guns are brandished, but never fired, and the one death (Cagney’s) comes about as an accident. The violence is really dialed back.
*. Then there are the forces arrayed against Nick. How can we not cheer for him when he’s taking on a mere “burglar” like Sleepy Sam? Nick represents the mostly honest, hard-working little people of his small town who pool their resources to send him off to the big game in the big city. Sam, however, is a slimy fraud running a crooked game, and he even uses a woman to hoodwink Nick.
*. That lesson is learned by the District Attorney, who may be one of the sleaziest representations of authority in any such film of the time. He’s willing to enlist both Sleepy Sam and his methods (bullying to tears poor Evelyn Knapp) in order to nail the “little greaseball” Nick. Not because Nick is much of a threat to the public order but so he can get the public and press off his back (the position of district attorney is an elected one in the U.S.).

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*. “The end justifies the means,” for the D.A., and he openly admits to the disgrace of using “roundabout methods” to get Nick, including planting evidence on him! How can you not be rooting for Nick to beat such a bum rap?
*. To be sure, gangsters have always made attractive villains, no matter how dangerous. They have a kind of charismatic psychopathy, usually only kill rival gangsters, are mostly involved in “victimless” crimes (booze, gambling), and dress well. But we know that Rico Bandetto and Tom Powers and Tony Camonte are bad guys and deserve their extra-judicial executions. Nick is something different: a better man than the representatives of law and order opposing him, more sinned against than sinning.
*. This is the conflict that gives Smart Money such an uneven tone. To take the most dramatic point, what are we to make of Nick killing his best buddy Jack by accident? What has Jack done that makes him deserving of such punishment? Up until that point we seemed to be in a kind of crime comedy, not too far removed from the spirit of The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse and A Slight Case of Murder (both 1938). But Jack’s death injects a jarring note of seriousness, which is then just as jarringly dropped as Nick goes laughing off to the Big House.
*. Usually I step aside from talk of the “homoerotic” overtones in same-sex relationships in movies. In some cases, however, gang buddies invite it. We’d seen it in Rico’s attachment to Joe in Little Caesar, and it would still be popping up fifty years later in Tony Montana’s attachment to Manny in De Palma’s Scarface. Here there’s no mistaking the flirtation between Nick and Jack: the way Jack puts on a girlish pantomime for Nick, or their affectionate pet names for each other (like “dearie”). And quite obviously Jack is jealous of Ms. Graham, leading to the usual falling out.
*. I wonder why this is. What about the gangster lifestyle invites this? The male bonding? The fact that gangsters are such snappy dressers?

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*. What’s with the scene where Nick rubs the short man’s back in the aisle of the train carriage? Is there something homoerotic in that as well? Or is it like rubbing the black man’s head for luck? At least the short man gives Nick a dirty look.
*. The DVD commentary points out some of the nice camerawork, including several smooth dolly shots that were uncommon at the time. What I was impressed most by though were several well-executed transitions, like when Marie (Noel Francis) says she can’t go out for dinner with Nick and then cutting to seeing them sitting together at the restaurant, or cutting from the suggestion that Nick send flowers and diamonds to Marie to a shot of her opening these gifts. Things like that really keep the story moving.
*. This is not, however, a great movie. The unsettled tone isn’t interesting or transgressive so much as just awkward. It’s remembered today chiefly for the pairing of its stars, but Cagney’s role is limited. No doubt Robinson had his reasons for not wanting to rehash his Rico role again so soon, but the studio’s instincts were right. If this one had been more generic, and tougher, it would be better known today.

The Public Enemy (1931)

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*. A lot of genres can be traced back to a great original, or ur-film, that might not have been the first but set a standard that would go on to be endlessly imitated (and eventually satirized). For Westerns you might think of Stagecoach. For gangster films there were three such originals, all coming out in 1931 and 1932: Scarface, Little Caesar, and The Public Enemy.
*. As an aside, during these same years the great originals of Hollywood horror films were also coming out: Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong. Was it the revolution brought on by sound that so opened things up? Or something else?
*. There’s so much material here that would turn up again (and again). The young hoods who grow into the big time, eventually taking over the operation. The scene where the bad guy uses a gun at the gun store against the owner. The man running away who is shot in the back and clutches on to a lamppost before falling to the ground. And looking at Mike scowling at the dinner table with his slicked back hair and uniform, how can you not think of Pacino’s Michael Corleone coming home from a later war?

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*. Yes, originally Edward Woods was cast as Tom Powers and Cagney as Matt Doyle. When they switched parts it didn’t filter down to the casting of Tom and Mike as boys. The young Mike looks much more like a young Cagney, and the young Tom like a young Woods. So much so that I was confused. Robert Sklar helpfully explains on his DVD commentary that when they switched the leads they didn’t switch the parts the kids played.
*. Did they have escalators in 1909? Apparently yes. They were first developed commercially in the 1890s. You see: you can learn things from movies. I’m told they were first seen on film in Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916), and the little tramp returned to them in Modern Times (1936). However, on the commentary track for that film’s Criterion release by David Robinson we are informed that escalators didn’t come into commercial use until after 1911, when the Otis Company bought the patent. So the one we see here may be a slight anachronism.
*. Why are Tom and Matt so pissed off at Putty Nose? They’re the ones who screw up the fur store robbery by shooting at a stuffed bear. So Putty Nose decides to lay low for a while, and advises them to do the same. For that the two hoods think he’s a “dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool” and hold a grudge that leads them to murder him years later? I mean Matt does suggest that he also blames Putty Nose for putting him on the wrong track in life, but Tommy immediately treats that as a joke so I think we have to dismiss it.
*. What’s really going on? I think John Anderson gets it right in his description of the “Faginesque, sexually suspect Putty Nose.” Such a nice man helping out all those poor neighbourhood boys in his clubhouse. Now look again at how much Tom despises the gay tailor.

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*. There are a lot of nice physical touches, as you’d expect from Cagney even this early in his career. Like his dance step after taking Jean Harlow for a ride. But the one I like best is where Tom and Matt both go up on tiptoes to look into Larry’s coffin.
*. Cagney just can’t stay still. Notice how his leg keeps moving under the sheets in that final scene when he’s in the hospital bed. Always fidgeting, even when he’s laid up.
*. You could call it scene stealing, but he had a way of taking over the screen. Was he the first screen psychopath with real charisma? There’s another gangster convention born. We don’t warm to Muni’s Scarface (too ethnic) or Robinson’s Rico (too grotesque) as much as we’re charmed by Cagney’s Tom.
*. Leslie Fenton, however, playing the dapper Nails Nathan holds his own pretty well. The way he flashes his teeth while chewing something with an open mouth is frightening. In fact those teeth are frightening no matter what they’re doing.
*. I don’t think much of Harlow’s performance here, but she does give off a pretty thick carnal vibe.

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*. The family dynamics are odd. Mike has a thing for uniforms that he may have got from their authoritarian father. And he even outdoes his old man: being a streetcar conductor isn’t too impressive, but joining the Marines is. Then when he comes home as a semi-invalid (shell shock?) he naturally adopts the role of head of the family. When he punches Tom (twice), Tom doesn’t punch back. But Mike’s also a wimp, who thinks it’s better to hide behind his mother’s skirts than behind a machine gun.

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*. Meanwhile, Tom is the baby, being doted on by his mama (as well as several other women in the film). I guess, psychologically, it’s one of those things where neither son could live up to their father’s domineering presence. But for Cagney it’s a role that he would often fall into, and take to an extreme in White Heat.
*. That stage furniture really falls apart well in a fight, doesn’t it? The chair Cagney lands on immediately crumbles to pieces. How could anyone have ever sat in it?
*. I’m not sure about that awkward low-angle shot of Paddy driving the car out of the garage. You can see the edge of where the pit has been dug to put the camera in. Aside from that, it looks good but I don’t know what the point is. Just a flashy camera trick?
*. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what the point of Paddy taking all of his gang’s guns and money away with him is either.
*. We do love gangsters. The foreword and afterword claiming some sort of educative or public service function for portraying such dangerous characters is, and I think was, a joke. This movie isn’t a lesson in civic morality. Cagney is both a mug and a hero. Contemporary audiences laughed and thrilled to his violent antics.

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*. The final shot of the record needle coming to the end of its groove is wonderful, and seems rather ahead of its time for its sophistication. That bit of wit actually helps lighten what is an otherwise very depressing conclusion.
*. The only problem I have with the emphatic image of Cagney trussed up like a mummy on the doorstep is that he doesn’t look dead. I mean, clearly he’s supposed to be dead (his brother treats him as dead anyway), but his eyes are open. And the way he falls he’s clearly trying to avoid doing a face plant. Are we meant to ask “Could this be the end . . . of Tom?”

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Little Caesar (1931)

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*. Of the Big Three early gangster films (the others being The Public Enemy and Scarface), Little Caesar strikes me as the oddest.
*. It’s based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, which was a big bestseller loosely based on the story of Al Capone. But on screen it was transformed, in part because of issues with the censors but also as a result of a pretty free degree of interpretation.
*. The most obvious, and notorious, example of this has to do with Rico’s sexuality. Is he gay? I know some people who object to anyone even raising the point, seeing it as part of some sort of revisionist cultural agenda, but the fact is Burnett himself received this impression, and objected to the way Rico was portrayed (though he was impressed with Robinson’s performance).
*. Given the impossibility of directly addressing the issue at the time, I think this movie does go as far as it could in this direction. Rico has no time for women himself, though in all fairness he also stays away from booze. Instead, he seems mainly set on being a snappy dresser with lots of bling. (Capone liked nice clothes and women; the two passions aren’t exclusive.)

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*. Rico also has a crush on Joe Massara, and they make a compelling couple. I found it odd that Richard Jewell, in his DVD commentary, says that Clark Gable (who was originally suggested for the part) would have made a better Joe because he was a tougher, less polished, less elegant guy than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But Joe is less of a tough guy than Rico, and should appear more elegant. He is a professional dancer, after all.

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*. Then there is the fawning of Otero, which includes his crawling into bed with Rico at one point. Just hero worship, or something more? People point to the tailor scene where Rico is getting fitted for a tux (and which opens, I have seen it suggested, with Otero in a position that suggests he is fellating his boss). Compare the end of that scene, where Rico oddly adopts a mincing, feminine pose for Otero, with the tailor scene in The Public Enemy, where Cagney threatens violence on the obviously gay tailor.
*. Give credit to Edward G. Robinson for inflecting Rico with this kind of subtlety. Actually, give credit to Robinson for everything good here. As Jewell remarks, his performance carries a “not so great” movie, and “transcends the rest of the film.” He’s not a cool killer at all but as jittery as a can of jumping beans, always reaching for his gat or popping out of his seat to go dashing off somewhere or put someone in their place. That nervous energy and lines bitten through the horizontal zipline of his mouth make him the constant focus of attention.
*. Was he deliberately cast against a pair of stolid bores? Fairbanks is a dull straight man, while Thomas Jackson’s Flaherty is even less emotive. Flaherty is a polarizing role, I find. Some people love him, but to me he seems too laid back, appearing to run out of energy halfway through some of his lines. But then perhaps that makes him the perfect foil for Rico. They’re both almost caricatures.

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*. I thought the character of Joe Massara conventional and a bit unconvincing, but apparently he was based on George Raft. So there I go.
*. In the original script there is mention of Rico holding his comb at the end, but I don’t see it on screen. I think the comb was supposed to be one of his tics, like Tom Powers’s short jab, but it got dropped along the way. But it’s more evidence of how Rico does like to preen. He can’t even resist getting his picture taken despite being warned about this. And the way he struts down the street the next morning, holding an armful of newspapers with his picture in them, is wonderful.
*. Another odd thing about the film is the heist of the Bronze Peacock. I’ll admit the first time I saw this I thought Joe was just imagining what might happen if he went along with the gang’s plan. It has so much of that dream quality about it. For example, we never see Joe give the high sign to the gang that all’s clear, which was supposed to be his job. Then everything happens in a series of overlapping dissolves, as though in a dream sequence.

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*. But at least that heist shows the gang doing something. On the commentary Jewell makes an interesting point about something that was bugging me: the film “completely leaves out Prohibition.” Indeed Rico, quite conspicuously, doesn’t even drink. Aside from robbing each other it’s not clear what sort of rackets the gang is involved in.
*. Was there a problem with censors? They may have just been playing it safe. On the other hand, I was surprised to see a policeman actually being gunned down. This is easy to miss (it’s dark and foggy), but Rico clearly shoots the cop that kills Otero.

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*. This just goes to show what a bad ass Rico is. Cagney’s Tom Powers has some redeeming features, but aside from his awkward affection for and loyalty to Joe, Rico has none. He’s just a tough, and perhaps even a psychopath. In comparison, the “yellow” driver Tony is given a scene with his mother where he explains his breakdown and which gives him humanity. And Joe of course has a girlfriend. But Rico has no family except for the hag-like Ma Magdalena (veteran actress Lucille La Verne, who would go on to provide the voice for the evil witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Jewell explains how the “sociological” gangster film, which sought to explain criminals, was still a few years away. But there were more well-rounded gangsters at the time. I think Rico just doesn’t have any depth. There’s nothing to explain, no story to tell.
*. Is it surprising then that his goals in life are so empty? He wants the beautiful things other people have: their rings, stick pins, nice clothes and even nicer houses. But these things mean nothing to him except as cosmetics and accessories. They’re only gangster style. What we get at the end isn’t so much the wages of sin as the morning after the romance of capital.

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