Wednesday, March 26, 2008

SMART MONEY (Warner Bros. 1931) Warner Home Video

In a review, Time Magazine marked Edward G. Robinson as “an actor with the face of a depraved cherub and a voice which makes everything he says seem violently profane”: a description that would have terminated the popularity of any other talent in the business. Fortunately, for Robinson, this snap assessment only seemed to galvanize his reputation as a bankable star at the box office. Indeed, Robinson’s installation at Warner Bros. – the studio known for its gritty ‘of the streets’ melodramas and crime thrillers – became the ideal proving ground for an actor as uncharacteristically unassumingly apart and gentile from his on screen persona as any of his fans might have guessed.

With its shift in focus from violence to laughs, Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) is notable as the only Warner Bros. film to team two of its resident ‘murder’s row’ alumni – Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney – together. Sandwiched in the canon of great gangster flicks between the former’s wrap up on Little Caesar (1931) and the latter’s yet to be filmed Public Enemy (1931), Smart Money features Cagney in a supporting role – a place of importance that would thereafter be reserved for second tier newbee on the Warner backlot, Humphrey Bogart. The screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson is an ambitious amalgam of twists and turns, all leading to a very predictable outcome.

The film begins with Robinson as Nick Venizelos – a barber with big dreams of going to the city to become a celebrated gambler. Indeed, Nick’s local small operation in his backroom ‘establishment’ is good for his business in more ways than one. Presuming himself to be a gambler on par with the best cons in the biz – particularly after he defeats big time gambler Sports Williams (Boris Karloff) strictly by chance - Nick taps a few friends including his loyal sidekick and fellow barber, Jack (James Cagney) to loan him $10,000 that Nick promises to turn into a million.

Unfortunately for Nick, without a definitive background in con artistry or the chutzpa to present himself as anything but a marked pigeon, he easily becomes the dupe of gangster moll, Irene (Margaret Livingston) and her ruthless band of cutthroats fronted by Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde) and Irontown (William House). Nick loses everything he owns and then some - then swears to get even if it’s the last thing he does.

Nick’s first move is to get Jack back at his side. The two aggressively barber their way into some quick cash that they later successfully bet on the horses. Nick opens up his own gambling den in the heart of the city, suckering the mugs who took advantage of him and stealing Irene in the process. The two set up housekeeping together – an arrangement not unheard of in pre-Code Hollywood movies but virtually taboo after 1934.

Unfortunately for Nick, romantic complications arise after he inadvertently saves another girl (Evalyn Knapp) from committing suicide. Irene turns out to be a plant – the easy plaything of corrupt District Attorney Black (Morgan Wallace) and she wastes no time in planting evidence about Nick’s racketeering that will likely send both he and Jack to prison for a very long time. It isn’t that D.A. Black is trying to clean up his city of illegal gambling, but merely trying to weed out the competition with regards to his own floating crap games.

In a shocking bit of pre-Code action, Jack learns of Irene’s motives and physically assaults her – severely – with the unsuspecting Nick walking in and exacting his own bit of utterly misguided revenge. The scene also contains some rather subversive pantomime and obvious references to cunnilingus.

In the final analysis, Smart Money is a rather jolly roller coaster ride – its deportment and manner delivering all the anticipated grit and humor one might expect from Warner product of this vintage. But its frank and sobering underbelly is what sets the film apart from the rest. Cagney is a raw new talent herein to Robinson’s already well established persona.

Complimentary performances from both actors must have suggested that the studio would eventually team them again in subsequent films. Tragically – or perhaps fortunately (depending on one’s point of view) – Cagney’s swift rise to the upper echelons of his own super stardom precluded any such notions. Smart Money remains the catalyst for two of the studio’s most caustic ships effortlessly passing one another in the night.

Warner’s DVD transfer can only be described as a disappointment; far below what we’ve come to expect from their usual stellar treatment of classic films. One can only assume that the original film elements were in a delicate state of disrepair, requiring more restoration work than was financially feasible for the studio to incur on such a relatively unknown title.

Age related artifacts are prevalent and quite often distracting, as is the unstable flicker. The gray scale is, in fact, quite weak. There are no prominent blacks or whites but very muddy tonalities of middle gray throughout. The image also appears softly focused with a decided loss of fine details. The audio is mono and remarkably in better shape than the visuals. Extras include an audio commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, as well as a litany of trailers and shorts a la the Warner Night at the Movies ilk.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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