Pre-code films, movies made before the production code was enforced, are among the favorite screenings of attendees of the Picture Show each year. These films often include elements of sex, drug use, and law breaking, which are familiar to modern audiences and make these ideal forays into the world of black and white. Those with misconceptions about what "old movies" are like are often shocked and delighted by what they see in the movies their grandparents or great-grandparents grew up watching. Join us as we explore a few titles from this time.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Cagney! Blondell! Pre-code! What more could you ask for? What could go wrong with a pedigree like this? As it turns out, not much. This movie is a wild ride from start to finish.
We’re introduced to Bert and Ann in a smallish hotel. He’s a bellboy, slinging bootleg bourbon on the side and hustling assorted other con games instead of toting bags to and from rooms. Ann is unemployed but hoping to get work in the housekeeping department of the hotel. The job is taken, but she gets the job anyway because Bert likes the looks of her and pulls a few strings to get her in. Bert idolizes the con-man, even going so far as to keep a scrapbook of his favorite exploits that he hopes to someday emulate. Ann just wants a job, but before long, and in spite of her best judgement, she finds herself getting wrapped up in Bert’s schemes. As they continue to climb the social ladder, their schemes become more elaborate (and one may say, risky). Eventually things catch up with them and Bert takes a tumble causing Ann to strike out on her own. She meets and falls in love with a stockbroker (and knowing that this is a depression era film, you can be assured that he’s not the great guy he seems to be) and eventually she needs Bert’s help to get her out of a jam.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: It is in line with the pre-code genre to make a movie about appealing, charismatic criminals that we root for to succeed. Of course, our sympathies are with them because we either don't see the people being conned or the victims are other criminals who seem to deserve it. I am also impressed with the ways these people get themselves out of jams. They're very creative, resourceful people. As they say, had they pursued more straight paths, they might have become great men. Kudos to writers Kubec Glasmon and John Bright for their creativity and crafting of these loveable characters. One of the cons went on to be used as a Dragnet story, and if it is to be believed that those plots are taken from life, perhaps the swindler learned his game from Blonde Crazy. In it, the con man gets a load of inexpensive trinkets, in this case a charm, adorned with swastikas (before they became synonymous with Nazis), and brings it to the home of a recently deceased person COD for an amount much higher than it is worth. The family is bereft and agrees to pay the amount in their grief in order to have something their departed loved one valued at the end of his life.
Movie Age magazine called the film, "Another racketeer story, but one that can be classed above many others. It makes satisfying entertainment."
"The age of chivalry has passed. This, honey, is the age of chiselry."
RB: What can you say about Joan Blondell that hasn’t been said, except that like so many Picture Show attendees, I love her, especially in her pre-code work. She’s a sheer delight here. A constant voice of reason and yet, also full of feistiness. Here’s a potentially fun game for those of you who imbibe: take a drink every time Ann hauls of and smacks someone straight across the face, then tomorrow morning, rewatch the last 15 minutes of the movie so that you can remember what on earth happened.
SG: Silver Screen magazine called the movie, "Delightful," and said, "Joan is the O.K. baby and we can hardly wait for more of her."
Historian Molly Haskell said, "Blondell's beauty as a 'broad' is that she can outsmart the man without unsexing him. Cagney's beauty as a male is that he can be made a fool of without becoming a fool."
RB: Cagney and Blondell were both discovered on Broadway in the play Penny Arcade (which lasted only three weeks, but Al Jolson liked it and bought the rights, which he sold to Warners with the provision that Blondell and Cagney be cast in the film), which was renamed Sinner’s Paradise. They’d work together a total of seven times and their chemistry comes off like firecrackers. She had already appeared in 11 films during just over a year, and many of these are considered pre-code classics today.
Sometimes it can be a little hard to understand the importance of James Cagney’s early work, as it’s been parodied so much in the ensuing years, but that’s really not fair. In this film, he’s completely complex. Obnoxious, inappropriate, conniving and yet you somehow root for him. We may like to think that we invented the anti-hero but it’s been going on in films for 100 years, and likely long before that.
SG: This movie was made the same year as The Public Enemy, the movie that made Cagney immortal. He explodes off the screen, snickering and scheming with simultaneous humor and edge. This movie would pale with another star but it perfectly showcases this brash, energetic actor. Although he earned star billing post-Blonde Crazy, his contract only paid him $400 per week, and he felt he was due more. He went on suspension and went to New York in hopes the studio would renegotiate his contract. After three months, they bumped his salary an additional $1000 per week, but it wouldn't be the last time Cagney would become "troublesome" for the studio. He, Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis would become notorious for their contract disputes.
Norbert Lusk wrote for Picture Play, "Mr. Cagney... is virtually the star and, as usual, is impudent, wise, hardboiled and likable. It's extraordinary how he achieves the latter quality, for the roles he plays are anything but sympathetic."
Director Roy del Ruth moves the story along at an energetic clip, although it wasn't always intentional. Ray Milland remembered being scolded by the director for his and Cagney's too-fast line delivery, so the two actors spent the evening rehearsing their scene to slow it down over hamburgers prepared by Cagney's wife Frances. The two became friends and bonded over their love of boats. Louis Calhern plays the smooth swindler, well, smoothly. Cagney called him, "A very suave gent and excellent light comedian." I also tip my hat to Polly Walters from Columbus, Ohio.
RB: The film was originally titled Larceny Lane, which frankly makes a lot more sense than Blonde Crazy, because Bert never really seems all that ‘blonde crazy’, but the misnomer around the title really means little once things kick into high gear. Joan and Jimmy work so well together that it’s hard not to get swept up into the proceedings. I love con-game pictures and I love the stars, so this was an easy four star release for me. Highly recommended.
SG: I enjoyed a lot about this movie. If you listen to the background melodies you will hear Harry Warren's "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)," an appropriate selection. Of course the stars are the main attraction, and they deliver amply. Four stars.