Saturday July 06, 2019
Movie Review: Smart Money (1931)
When I saw this on IMDb I was like, “Whoa. Cagney and Robinson? I didn’t know they made a movie together.”
They didn’t, really. They’re both in it but it’s Robinson’s movie. For reasons of release dates:
- January 25, 1931: “Little Caesar”
- May 15, 1931: “The Public Enemy”
- July 11, 1931: “Smart Money”
By the time they began filming this, Robinson was a big star, Cagney wasn‘t, so Cagney plays second banana. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff has a bit part, since he wouldn’t become a star until the release of “Frankenstein" on November 21, 1931. Yes, all of this in the same calendar year. Anyone who tells you things didn’t move fast in the past is lying.
Fool me twice
The movie is basically “Little Caesar” Lite. A dude from the sticks becomes big in the Big City, then suffers a fall because of a dame, a pal, and law enforcement. Except here the pal is loyal, the dame is his own fault, and law enforcement is corrupt.
Robinson plays Nick “The Barber” Venizelos—Greek rather than Italian, and a gambler rather than a gangster—but in one way Nick is more Al Capone than Rico. He regales and charms the press as Capone did. Reporters sit on his every word, and laugh along with him: “Have a cigar, boys; fella in Havana makes them up for me.” Nick, like Capone, also doesn’t die in a hail of bullets.
As the movie opens, he’s already a success. He runs a barber shop in Irontown but doesn’t seem to do much hair cutting. He’s a gambler, with a long lucky streak, and when he hears about a big game in the big city, run by Hickory Short, he gets his cronies to bankroll him for $10k. Except in the big city he’s played for a sap by a blonde in a hotel lobby. Marie (Noel Francis) says she can get him in the big game with Hickory but he winds up playing against a con artist named Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), who bilks him for the full 10k. When he figures this out, he’s enraged, attacks them, but is beaten up. He vows revenge.
He goes back to barbering and small-time gambling, and slowly builds his rep and his bankroll; then, with his Irontown right-hand man Jack (Cagney), he takes on Sleepy Sam again. It’s a good bit. Knowing Sam will send out to the hotel lobby gift store for fresh cards, he “returns” four decks there that are marked and cleans up. When Sam and his cronies try to get rough again, Jack and another pal (Donald Cook, Cagney’s older brother in “Public Enemy”) show up with guns drawn.
Now it’s just rise and rise. The big game against Hickory Short (Ben Taggart), is a blip. Nick wins. He’s getting so big, with so much attention, the DA (Morgan Wallace) worries he’ll screw up his re-election chances, and chats with Sleepy Sam about him:
DA: If you were the district attorney, how would you tackle him?
Sam: I’d shoot him some night when he was trying to escape from the law.
DA: Don’t be silly. That isn’t done.
Right. Instead, they go after his soft spot: blondes. An undercover police woman charms him in his office and Nick seems like a sucker again; then he says “...and tell the District Attorney I’ll see him on Tuesday,” and literally kicks her out of his office.
His downfall begins with a magnanimous act. One night, the cops stop his car because they’ve fished a woman, Irene (Evelyn Knapp), out of the river and need to take her to the hospital. (Are there no ambulances?) She winds up at Nick’s place. Jack is immediately suspicious, thinking she’s a plant, but she isn’t. Yet. She’s just on the lam for blackmail. She doesn’t become the plant until the DA hauls her in and essentially blackmails her to help them catch Nick. “All we want to do is give Nick a good scare,” he lies. So she plants a racing form on him, Jack figures it out, tries to warn Nick, Nick gets angry and socks him. Jack hits a metal bolt on the floor and dies. Now it’s manslaughter.
This should be a tragedy, right? Nick inadvertently kills his best friend because he was the loyal one. Except the movie ends on an oddly upbeat note: At the train station taking him to prison, Nick is greeted by friends and the press; and to the latter he proclaims jauntily: “10 years? I’ll bet you two to one I’m out in five!” It’s the movie’s last line.
But Cagney’s still dead.
A few cultural notes about the movie—one minor, one big.
At one point, Nick does that thing you did as a kid: He blows on his fingernails and rubs them against his chest to show how cool he thinks he is. One wonders where this started and whether it was always parody.
The bigger cultural note is how unbelievably racist the movie is. Yeah, I know: 1931. But I’ve seen tons of movies from this era and there’s rarely this many cringeworthy moments. I doubt it was director Alfred E. Green (“The Jolson Story”), or any of the movie’s four credited screenwriters: Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, both of whom wrote “The Public Enemy,” or Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson, both of whom are best known for writing this.
No, I assume it’s the subject matter: gambling. It's about what was assumed back then to bring good luck. On a train, Nick rubs the back of a dwarf (John George), who turns and gives him a dirty look. He keeps rubbing the heads of black men who are more accommodating. On the same train, he tears up a dollar and gives it to an old black porter:
Nick: You’ll get the other half at the other end of the line—if you’re a good boy ... C’mere, gimme luck.” [Rubs his head]
Porter: Yassuh, you sho have luck now.
Sleepy Sam has a black servant named “Suntan” (Spencer Bell) who’s similarly abused—as is Nick’s Irontown stalwart, Snake Eyes (John Larkin), who becomes his servant. In the end, Snake Eyes meets him at the train taking him to prison. To gloat? Of course not.
Snake Eyes: Take this rabbit’s foot, boss.
Nick: Not a chance. You gave me one of those once before.
Snake Eyes: I didn’t mean no harm. Cuz I loves you, Mr. Nick.
Nick: Here’s the way to give me luck. [Rubs his head] So long, Snake Eyes.
Larkin would die five years later, age 58. Bell would die four years later, age 47. His best-known role was playing the Cowardly Lion in a 1925 version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which seems forward-thinking until one considers “cowardly”; as well as the character’s other name: “Snowball.”