Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Smart Money (1931)

Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) Done-on-the-cheap Warner Bros. programmer made the year after Edward G. Robinson's star-turn in Little Ceasar and the same year as Cagney's in The Public Enemy and is an version of the studios' series of spare, street-tough films that would dominate their output in the 30's and 40's, glamorizing the life of a gangster, but making sure that they came to a bad end.

Robinson plays Nick the barber, a lucky Greek son of a gun, who runs a gambling joint in the back-room of his tonsorial parlor (thus making both ends of his establishment a "clip-joint.") Nick is king of his own gambling castle, and while its good to be the king,there's the tendency to want to expand the fiefdom by conquering new territory.

With a stake firmly established from his cronies back home, he takes off for New York to take on the big city gamblers, wished well by all the lovable mooks he's already taken for a ride at the train station.  But, what he learns is its a whole new game in the tony high rises, where only part of the bluffing and double-dealing occurs at the table. Why, even the hat-check girl is looking to separate you from your cash. Nick learns to trust no one, and to bluff his way out of any situation with a cock-sure patter of platitudes.  But, that's a slippery slope, and he soon finds that success costs.  
Its a treat to see Robinson and Cagney play off each other, the only time they did so—Robinson all-voice and punchy delivery, and Cagney sly and bantamy, physically, in one of his rare supporting roles. They're chummy at the beginning, but when success shows up, they start to have territory issues, its murder. This one is all performance, in varying styles, between character actors fresh out of the silent era, and the leads who were blazing new trails, and the director's hand is almost invisible.
Green is known, but mostly unknown, as the director of The Jolson Story, The Jackie Robinson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story...making that a "storied" career. He was a fine director of women and coaxed terrific performances from Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck early in their careers—and they were already formidable. He was fast, versatile and would direct up to five pictures a year. He didn't shy away from racy material in the pre-Code era and would tackle it directly with shameless brio. And he's remarkably free of the sort of Hollywood white-wash that was prevalent at the time. Minorities were cast, and not caricatured or minstrelled in his films, but treated like any other character actor, which is quite remarkable to see in that day and age. His output was undistinguished when you look at the titles (and there are 111 of them), but individually, it would be interesting to see a few more of them (I've seen this one, The Jackie Robinson Story and Baby Face) to see if that liberal sensibility is maintained throughout.

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