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Blonde Crazy (1931)
Who knew James Cagney was an ass man? In Blonde Crazy, a 1931 flick made before the Hays Code grew teeth, Cagney plays a bellhop/sharpie, a grifter who's always on the look-out for a scam, and, as the title suggests, a blonde. Joan Blondell crosses his path and he checks out her wiggle a good long while. When the two beat it to a bigger city, he leers at the behind of another blonde. The worst thing about the Hays Code was it gave future generations the idea that people prior to JFK never really thought about sex. This movie and others like it, part of the "Forbidden Hollywood" series that made the rounds a few years back, set things straight. Almost as soon as Cagney gets Blondell a job at the local hotel, he expects her to put out. She slaps him. Cagney's got other possibilities and Blondell is pawed by other men. The beginning of the movie could be called "The Perils of a Linen Girl."
Kubec Glasmon (story)
Roy Del Ruth
"The age of chivalry is past. This, honey, is the age of chiselry."
Reason to See Film:
For Cagney fans, mostly.
Soon, though, he has her working scams with him. There's a kind of Depression-era morality to the film. "The age of chivalry is past," Cagney tells her. "This, honey, is the age of chiselry." "And the age of jail," Blondell responds. She's tough, smart, and the moral center of the film. She goes along with the grifting because she likes Cagney but wants him to grow up. "Oh, you talk like a child," she tells him, and he does. He has a giddy little laugh and uses queer voices. He calls all the girls "Huuuuhh-ney!" and is not above goofy walks and farting noises. Yeah: Cagney.
Other aspects of the Cagney persona are more fully defined. He tells people "Shaddap!" He slaps around a fence who takes too long paying. At one point he comes close to saying the Cagney line: "That dirty, double-crossing rat." There's also that quintessential Cagney moment -- seen a few years later in The Roaring Twenties -- where Cagney loses the girl he loves only to have her return because her new man is in trouble and they need Cagney's help. Of course he gives it. Chivalry isn't as dead as he claimed.
When the film was made, in 1931, sound was still relatively new and it was still freezing the camera. There are so many early scenes in a hotel linen closet that viewers may get claustrophobic. We also get the slang of the day: "mugged" for arrested; "Everything's jake"; "I could eat the hip off a horse!" The film is almost as interesting for its historical perspective as for its storyline. Einstein is mentioned, so we know his smarts had already permeated the general culture. More astounding is a scam from a fellow grifter: selling swastika charms. The Nazis really put the kibosh on that symbol.
The storyline is a bit wandering and ends abruptly, but I tend to like wandering storylines for the very fact that I don't know where they're going. Cagney is as energetic as always, and there's some nice work from an impossibly young Ray Milland, as well as Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino from the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup), who scams the scam artist. Only a step above an exploitation film but Cagney makes it worth it.
July 5, 1999
© 1999 Erik Lundegaard