Saturday, September 9, 2017

Stubs - Blonde Crazy

Blonde Crazy (1931) Starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Louis Calhern, Noel Francis, Ray Milland Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Producer: None Credited. Run Time: 78 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Pre-Code, Crime, Comedy, Drama

James Cagney and Joan Blondell had arrived in Hollywood together, both brought from Broadway to recreate their roles in Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Both seemed meant for stardom from almost the beginning. Warner Brothers knew what they had and would pair them in six more movies through 1934, including Other Men’s Women (1931); The Public Enemy (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932); Footlight Parade (1933); He Was Her Man (1934). But before those films, there was Blonde Crazy (1931), which would be Blondell’s first starring role. Cagney by then had become a star thanks to The Public Enemy, which had already been released on May 15th.

But they weren’t the only potential stars working at Warner Bros. Marian Marsh, who had arrived in 1929, was originally cast in the role that would become Blondell’s. Marsh, who had never had a credited role, burst onto the scene in Svengali (1931) opposite John Barrymore, which was released on May 22, 1931, shortly before Blonde Crazy would go into production.

But Blondell would end up in the role. With a screenplay by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, the pair who had written The Public Enemy, the film went into production in early June 1931 and finished about a month later on July 8. The working title of the film was Larceny Lane, which was later used when the film was released in Britain.

Bert Harris (James Cagney) is the bellhop at a Midwestern hotel, but he has bigger plans. A womanizer, Bert also peddles liquor, prohibition being the rule of the day. When Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) enters the hotel, she immediately catches his eye, even though Four-Eyes - Hotel Desk Clerk (Charles Lane) doesn’t seem to notice her at all.

Four-Eyes (Charles Lane) doesn't seem to notice Ann's (Joan
Blondell) appeal, but it isn't lost on Bert (James Cagney).

She is there looking for a job in housekeeping that had apparently already been filled, but Bert wants her around, so he pretends to Mrs. Snyder (Maude Eburne) that Ann is the woman she hired and then bribes Jimmy (Ray Cooke), the other girl’s boyfriend and his fellow bellhop at the hotel, to forget about the job.

Bert sweet talks Mrs. Snyder (Maude Eburne) into thinking Ann is the woman she's hired.

No sooner does Ann start working there then her co-worker Peggy (Polly Waters) warns her about Bert. And true to form, Bert uses a rouse to get Ann alone in one of the hotel rooms that is undergoing renovation. But Ann is not interested and lets Bert know with one of many slaps to the face that she will land throughout the film. But Bert isn’t bothered and calls down to get Peggy to come up to the room. Despite what she’d said to Ann, Peggy willingly goes.

Even though Peggy (Polly Waters) warns Ann about Bert, she is
 only too willing to join in him a vacant hotel room.

Ann’s looks are not overlooked by hotel guest A. Rupert Johnson, Jr. (Guy Kibbee), who makes two awkward plays for her which she rejects. But Bert, who has been summoned to bring ginger ale to the room as a mixer for Johnson’s liquor, manages to use Ann to sell him on his own, which he claims is a favorite of hers. Johnson gladly pays Bert’s $10 asking price.

Mr. Johnson (Guy Kibbee) makes a play for Ann with jewelry.

When Bert goes to Ann to give her share of the bounty, Peggy gets involved, complaining that she’d warned Ann from getting involved with Bert. After slaps to the face all around with Ann knocking Peggy to the floor, Ann leaves. Bert gets another slap from Peggy for laughing at her.

Bert convinces Mr. Johnson that his liquor is Ann's favorite.

Bert is not through with Ann or with Johnson. Ann agrees to go out with Johnson and they end up parking. But a passing patrolman sees them and demands that they get out of the car. Johnson tries to bribe the officer to let them be, but that only makes things worse. Add to that, the officer finds liquor in the backseat of the car. While they are being arrested, Bert happens to drive by. He offers to help and Johnson, who is anxious not to ruin his reputation, accepts his help. Bert, who claims to know the officer, manages to get them off. Turns out the officer is an impostor named Hank (Nat Pendleton), an ex-con, and they shake Johnson down for $5000.

In a big city, Ann and Bert meet Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern) and Helen (Noel Francis).

With that money, the partners get out of town and head to a larger city so they can find more suckers to con. Bert, who keeps a scrapbook about scams, makes friends with Dapper Dan Barker (Louis Calhern) and his companion Helen (Noel Francis). Helen takes a liking to Bert, who falls under her spell. Dan, though, offers to help Bert make a score.

Bert keeps a scrapbook of cons he reads about.

Kansas City Dutch (Peter Erkelenz), a counterfeiter whose $20 bills are so good they’re easy to pass, is just one step ahead of the cops and needs to dump his bills before leaving town.

In one of the films more risqué scenes, Bert goes to Ann’s room and while she is naked in the bath, he explains the setup and she agrees to let him use her money to get into the deal. The money she tells him is in her bra, which is in a pile of her lingerie which Bert paws through before removing the money.

Ann takes a bath while Bert asks to borrow her money.

Using Ann’s share of the money, as well as his own, Bert buys in. Dutch, who is desperate to leave town, agrees to a 3 to 1 payment, selling them $45,000 worth of counterfeit $20s for only $15,000.
But it turns out Bert is the one getting scammed. When they take the money back to his hotel room, Helen comes to the door. Before answering, they hide the bag with the money in a drawer. Dan leaves with Helen, but he and Bert make plans to meet in the morning. But as soon as they leave, Bert goes to check on the money and discovers that the drawer is fake and there is a hole in the wall in the adjoining suite. When he manages to break in, he finds the money gone, but a note from Helen mocking him and telling him to put the note in his scrapbook.

Dan has Bert hide the "counterfeit" money in a fake drawer.

We see Dan and Helen on a train out of town with Dutch, all laughing at how easily Bert was fooled by the real money they were pretending was counterfeit.

But Bert can’t bring himself to tell Ann that he’s lost her money. Instead, he thinks of a way to get the money back. He sees a notice in the paper about the impending marriage of a rich man’s daughter and that the family has immediately gone out of town. Pretending to be the father’s personal secretary, Bert goes into a jewelry store and gets them to deliver a $15,000 diamond bracelet to the man’s house and to bill him later. On the way out of the store, Bert asks for the salesman’s business card.

To make back the money he's lost, Bert swindles a jewelry store out of an expensive bracelet.

After the bracelet is delivered, Bert calls the house and tells the butler that the delivery has been a mistake and that the jewelry will send out their man to retrieve it. Using the salesman’s card, Bert pretends that he is the store representative and the butler duly hands over the bracelet. From there, Bert takes the bracelet to a pawnbroker (Otto Lederer), whom he manhandles into giving him $5000 for it.

As soon as they have their money back, Ann and Bert are on a train out of town, chasing after Dan. On board the train, Ann bumps into Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland), with whom she will fall in love with. Bert and Ann have long ago resigned themselves to being platonic partners, even though Bert isn’t keen on Joe.

Ann meets Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland) on board the train to the big city and falls in love.

In New York City, Ann runs into Dan, who tells her over lunch how they had made a sucker out of Bert. When she later asks Bert about it, he tells her the story about the bracelet. She’s determined to make Dan pay for causing Bert to resort to robbery and sets up her own scam.

In one of the films harder to believe sequences, Ann has arranged for Dan to accompany her and Col. Bellock (William Burress) to the races with the idea of scamming the older man out of his money. She inadvertently delays them so they’re in the car when the first race has run. But the Colonel and Dan make a side bet, using the racing information in the paper. We see Dan’s chauffer on the phone getting the winner and then changing the last two numbers of the license plate of his car to match the winning number of the horse. Dan waits for the car to pull up next to them to pick the winner, betting ever increasing amounts; starting with $1000 and escalating from there. The two men agree that Ann can hold the money.

With the help of Col. Bellock (William Burress), Ann gets even with Dan.

Well, this happens twice before the Colonel’s car runs out of gas and his driver has to fill up the tank. Dan berates the driver for running out of gas. Then the two men bet on the third race after Dan’s chauffer once again changes his license plate and drives by.

However, when they get to the track, Dan finds that he’s bet on the wrong horses. Ann and the Colonel disappear while Dan goes looking for his chauffer. He finds the car with a note from Ann telling him to add this to his own scrapbook, a call back to Helen’s note to Bert. The chauffer and the Colonel both skip town with only a few hundred dollars for their parts in the con.

When Bert and Ann split up the money, he asks her to marry him, but she while she might have said “Yes” six months ago, she’s in love with Joe now. Bert sits in a cab across the street for the church and watches the happy couple leave after their wedding. He then takes off to Europe for a year.

Bert asks Ann to marry him, but she's in love with Joe.

Upon his return, Bert is a different guy and is not interested in scams, even turning down one he’s offered by a fellow conman (Philip Sleeman) involving selling swastika good luck charms to widows. (Up until the rise of Nazism, the swastika was considered a symbol of good luck and success, so don’t read anything more into it.)

Soon afterward, Ann comes to see him, telling him that Joe is in a lot of trouble and she needs Bert’s help. Joe had embezzled $30,000 in negotiable bonds from his employer and risked it on a get rich quick scheme that didn’t pay off. But Bert doesn’t have $30,000. He does offer to help, however, going to see Joe to make arrangements. His plan is to break into the safe and steal what’s left. When the robbery is detected, they’ll assume the $30,000 was part of the take. Joe gives him the key to his office and the safe’s combination.

The robbery goes smoothly, though Bert has to leave quickly when the night watchman makes his rounds. But Joe has set up a double cross and the police are waiting for Bert when he slides down the fire escape. Bert tries to run and leads the police on a car chase through the busy streets of the city. The police end up shooting him and Bert ends up crashing his car into a storefront.

In one of the more interesting shots in the film, an overhead one looking down at the men in their cells, we see Ann being led by a Prison Matron (Lucille Ward) to Bert’s cell. He’s in bandages. Ann tells him what Joe had done. She tells Bert that she loves him and that no matter what happens, she’ll wait for him. Hearing that brightens Bert’s spirits.

And then the movie abruptly ends.

The film was released on November 14, 1931, and was by all accounts successful at the box office. Critics seemed to like it for the most part, with Mordaunt Hall at the New York Times calling it “lively and cleverly acted.” Variety noted “Everything depends on the dialog and playing - both come through satisfactorily. “While satisfactorily doesn’t sound like high praise, the review added “Cagney and Blondell make a natural pair.”

While some critics felt the final scene with Blondell and Cagney seemed to have been tacked on to give the film a moral ending, but my complaint is that the film ends before it feels resolved. Our hero is about to go to jail, that seems a certainty, but Bert has been able to talk his way out of pretty much any predicament so one has to wonder. It is as if the film hit its time limit and just stopped.

Cagney gives the same performance he gave through much of the early thirties, solid despite the flimsy storylines his characters sometimes existed in. So many of his early Warner Bros. films seem like they’re in a dash from start to finish and this one seems to be no exception. You get the impression Cagney isn’t acting so much as he is running for the finish line.

Joan Blondell was simply awesome to watch. She is one of those actresses that you can’t take your eyes off of. Cute, funny and vivacious, Blondell doesn’t seem like she can do any wrong in her early films with Cagney. Together, Cagney and Blondell are as much a natural pair back then as they are now.

Joan Blondell as about as nude as you can be in mainstream films of the 1930s.

A couple of notes about the other actors. Ray Milland was fairly new to America when he appeared in Blonde Crazy. A British actor, he had appeared in films in his home country before moving to Hollywood in 1930. He was still playing bit parts at the time, when he was cast in Blonde Crazy. His role, though brief, reminded me of his role as Tony Wendice in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). There too he is conniving.

Noel Francis also came to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era. A Texan, she was originally hired for her singing and dancing abilities, but drifted into tough girl roles when musicals fell out of favor. She had appeared with Cagney once before in Smart Money (1931), but her career would stall and she would be out of pictures by the end of 1937. Here she is suitably alluring, which is about all her role as Helen requires.

Noel Francis plays Helen, Dan's accomplice in crime.

While so many in this cast were relative newcomers to Hollywood, Louis Calhern was an old hand by then, having been in films since the early 1920s, successfully making the transition to sound. He is perhaps better remembered as Groucho’s foil in Duck Soup (1933) and one of the money men behind the heist, as well as Marilyn Monroe’s lover in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Here he plays to the material and his Dan is a ruthless conman who does get his comeuppance.

Guy Kibbee seems to be playing against type here. We're used to seeing him cast as someone fatherly like Pop Greer opposite Cagney in The Crowd Roars or Pop Riley again with Cagney in Taxi! (1932) In Blonde Crazy, he’s a lecherous old man, putting the moves on Blondell’s Ann when she delivers towels to his room. He sort of gets what he deserves when Bert and Ann take him for $5000.

So, the acting is pretty good all-around and the dialogue is suitably snappy, though I quickly tired of the way Cagney pronounced “Honey” when talking to any of a number of women. I don’t blame Cagney as much as I would the script and the director. Another issue I have with the script is that for grifters, neither really commits much in the way of larceny. You can count the cons they commit on one hand and still have several fingers left over. Bert is more talk than action really and Ann isn’t too far behind.

Still, the film is definitely pre-code in its attitudes about drinking, crime and sex. Even though the U.S. was still knee deep in the Prohibition experiment, selling illegal hooch doesn’t really get more than a raised eyebrow. While Johnson is threatened with being arrest for transporting it, that is all part of the con that separates him from his money. Otherwise, it seems to be as natural as anything to be drinking.

Sex is also handled in a pre-code manner. While Ann turns down Bert’s advances, Peggy has no compulsion about taking her place in the hotel room Bert has confiscated. Bert also really checks out the ass of a woman dancing near his table, leering at the woman’s backside, even while he’s sitting with Ann. And there is Blondell’s bath scene. While we never actually see her naked body, the viewer’s imagination doesn’t have to work very hard to imagine her in that state. She is about as nude as any actress would get during the 1930s.

Cagney leers at woman's rear end as she dances next to his table in Blonde Crazy.

On crime, while Bert may be headed to the Big House at the end of the film, perhaps just desserts for a criminal life, Joe, who committed embezzlement, appears to get away with his crime. That’s not the production code way.

Even though I feel like the ending is somewhat jarring and some of the action seems unlikely and impractical, the film still has its moments. The last stretched out hand holding between Ann and Bert as she’s being escorted out of the room, but obviously doesn’t want to leave, stands out as a rather poignant one.

I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of Cagney’s and/or Blondell’s. These two deliver what you expect them to. You will not be disappointed if that’s why you should choose to watch. Far from a great film, Blonde Crazy is entertaining enough and there is so much packed into the story that there is really never a dull moment.

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