Thursday March 04, 2021
Movie Review: Bullets or Ballots (1936)
There’s a small, startling scene in this code-era Warner Bros. gangster flick that almost makes it worth watching 85 years later.
Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a NYC detective demoted to Bronx flatfoot, who roughs up crooks and demands that they tip their cap to him when they pass him on the street. Early on, we see him punch a crook through the glass door of a nightclub and when a passing cop asks him what’s going on, Blake simply says “Put him under arrest for destroying property.” And they do. That's not the startling scene, though.
Basically, he's the original Dirty Harry, who complains about mollycoddling crooks in a manner Clint Eastwood would understand:
I’m no use to them downtown anymore. … They don’t believe in kicking the rats into line any more. Nowadays, you’re supposed to kiss them and tuck them in.
And yet his best friends seem to be Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell), a cabaret manager who runs a lucrative numbers game in Harlem with her former hairdresser, Nellie LaFeleur (Louise Beavers); and Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the top gangster in town. Blake visits Kruger shortly after the death of Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill), a crusading newspaper editor who gets it at the hands of “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), Kruger’s trigger-happy No. 2 man—despite Kruger’s warning to leave Bryant alone.
Kruger is the decent gangster, see? He and Blake even reminisce about “the good ol’ days” when Blake would beat confessions out of him in some back alley. Oh, what fun. It’s all so phony it makes me long for the good ol’ days of pre-code Hollywood—just three years previous—when Robinson could play gangsters, men and women could sleep together (Lee and Blake don’t even kiss), and screenwriters like Seton I. Miller didn’t have to strain so much to shoehorn expository dialogue into the story.
At one point, Kruger ticks off reasons Johnny should actually join his gang: he’s being disrespected by the department, he’s poorly paid, and he’ll make more with Kruger in a year than with the force in his lifetime. Smoking his pipe, Blake turns him down, just as he had when Kruger made the offer years earlier. “If I’d gone in with you,” Blake says, of that earlier offer, “I would’ve done it to nail you.”
Which is exactly what happens. That’s the movie laid out in a sentence.
In the wake of the Bryant shooting, Blake’s old friend Captain McLaren (Joe King) is promoted to police commissioner, promising to wipe out the rackets, and he begins by cleaning house. Blake is one of the first cops to go. So Blake takes Kruger up on his offer. When the other gangsters complain about the headbusting cop in their midst, Kruger insists Blake would never double-cross anyone. One wonders how he got such a rep, but that's exactly what he's doing. Halfway through, we find out he's working undercover to destroy the rackets, find Bryant’s murderer, and discover who the real money men are. (Turns out: a respectable banker and other local business leaders.)
It's working, too. The rackets are being destroyed via his inside information. Which is when the others finally convince Kruger that Blake isn't to be trusted. Blake walks into a room full of suspicious, angry faces, but he saves his ass by offering them a more lucrative pipeline: Lee’s numbers racket in Harlem. That means Lee gets squeezed out. Right away, two men show up in her office and tell her and Nellie that they're through.
And that’s when we get to our startling moment.
First, she and Nellie push back—particularly Nellie. “You and no other gunman’s going to tell us what to do,” she says. One of the guys smiles and says they’re not gunmen, they don’t even carry guns, see? At which point Lee suggests they meet Timothy. Nellie smiles, nods, and calls to him as she opens the door: “Timothy!” He’s standing right there, a tall, sturdy Black man in suit and hat. “Throw those gentlemen out on their ears,” she says.
And that's exactly what he does.
It's pretty great. I can’t recall another mainstream 1930s Hollywood movie in which a Black dude beats up two white dudes.
The actor is John Lester Johnson, who appeared in 39 movies, mostly uncredited, from the 1920s to the 1940s. That was his second career. His first career was as a light heavyweight boxer. In 1916, he took on an up-and-comer from the west coast, Jack Dempsey, at the Harlem Sporting Club, and won a 10-round decision, breaking Dempsey’s ribs in the process. Dempsey, of course, went on to the heavyweight championship and became one of the most famous celebrities of the 1920s; Johnson, the victor, got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. For all the obvious reasons, one assumes.
All of which is way more interesting than “Bullets or Ballots.”
Stories to be told
The real-life background to “Bullets or Ballots” is also interesting. Kruger and Fenner are based on Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano, who took over the Harlem numbers rackets started by Nellie’s character, Stephanie “Madam Queen” St. Clair. Good god, can you imagine the movie they could make of that today? (UPDATE: I guess that's part of what “The Cotton Club” was all about, as well as a 1997 gangster flick, “Hoodlum,” starring Laurence Fishburne. Might have to revisit “Cotton” and check out “Hoodlum.”)
Blake, meanwhile, was based on a real NYC cop, “Broadway Johnny” Broderick, who was known for beating up crooks—so much so that one of them was freed by the state supreme court in 1937 because he’d been hurt so badly the court felt “this man has more than expiated his crime.” “Broadway Johnny” liked the spotlight but didn't like this movie much—for narrow reasons. “I ought to flatten [Robinson],” he said. “Suppose I had let my kids go see that picture, and they had seen him, playing me, and actually taking a drink and smoking a cigar!”
As for how it ends? The cops close in on the gang as the gang closes in on Blake. Fenner machinates in that bad-guy Bogie manner—turning Lee against Blake, killing Kruger, then shooting Blake on his way to meet the crooked local business leaders. Wounded, Blake kills Fenner, guts out the meeting, and allows the cops to arrest the higher-ups. Outside, he dies in McLaren’s arms. “Keep kicking them into line, Mac,” he gasps as he dies. “I like to think, when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
Not exactly “Is this the end of Rico?”
“Bullets” is the first of five movies Robinson and Bogart made together. For most, Robinson was the good guy and Bogie would get it. For the last, “Key Largo” in 1948, Bogart was the star, Robinson was resurrecting his ’30s gangster role, and it’s Robinson who gets it.
Both Louise Beavers and John Lester Johnson are interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. An IMDb user created a list of movie people buried there, and since it’s all African Americans I assumed it was a Black cemetery. It’s not. It’s just one of the few in LA that, at the time, allowed Blacks to be buried there. Yet another story to be told.