Friday, March 13, 2015
Pre-Code Capsules: BIG CITY BLUES (1932)
Naive youth (Eric Linden) hits the big city and gets hit up by city-slicker cousin (Walter Catlett). Cuz sez he knows everyone from the mayor to the head of the hotel; it's all a con. He's simply out to bleed the boy's bankroll dry. Boy meets girl (Joan Blondell) because the girl is one of the cousin's cronies. He may not know so many people as he claims but quite a few show up in our hero's hotel room for a booze party on the boy's dime. The noise arouses the house dick (Guy Kibbee) but he's bought off with a bottle of wine. Unbilled Humphrey Bogart gets into a brawl with unbilled Lyle Talbot and bottles fly. One beans a broad and croaks her. Everyone runs leaving our hero holding the bag, except that he runs, too. Blondell thinks twice about it and that gets her in trouble. Soon she and Linden are chasing each other through the city while the cops chase both. Linden ends up in a speakeasy where unbilled Clarence Muse sings. He's really good if that's his actual voice. Linden gambles what's left of his money, starts on a winning streak, stretches it too far and loses it all. The cops catch the kids and grill them good, but Kibbee cracks the case simply by stumbling into a closet where he keeps his hooch and finding Talbot hung up and over. The corpse conveniently holds half of a broken bottle. The other half, realistically enough, did not break but broke that poor dame's skull. Beaten, the boy returns to Indiana, but here director Mervyn LeRoy and writer Ward Morehouse, adapting his own play, twist the expected moral. Sure, the city beat the kid this time, but he plans to go back after he's saved some money. Blondell'll be waiting for him. What did he learn? That the city is no place for a sap like himself? Maybe, but that's his fault for being a sap, not the city's for being what it is. We thought we'd been set up for a morality play about small-town virtue smashed by the big bad city, with a moral recommending flight back to small-town comforts, but we should have figured Warner Bros. would say screw that. That studo loved the city too much to look down on it that way. Big City Blues is in ways a precursor of the "night from hell" genre of so many bad things happening to a hapless hero but LeRoy's city is an object of fascination rather than fear. Despite the title it's ultimately opposed to self-pity. Pre-Code is opposed to retreat and roots for whoever can get off the floor after a haymaker. Even if Linden only dreams of fighting another day then maybe he won for losing. It was the Depression and you took your victories wherever you found them. I wouldn't call the film a victory, but it's a fast and slightly furious hour or so that doesn't feel at all too short, and despite the grim tale at its heart it's kinda fun while it lasts.