Friday, September 26, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

In 1931 James Cagney made his name as The Public Enemy, a vicious yet charismatic gangster who met a gruesome end. The best measure of Cagney's success was that he wasn't typed as a gangster, but became more of a lovable rogue in his early star vehicles. Here in Roy Del Ruth's film, released a few months after the breakthrough, Cagney's a bit of a clown, a bellboy in "the best hotel in a mid-size American city" with ambitions of being a master con man. As Bert Harris, he keeps a scrapbook of con games and grifts reported in the newspapers to give himself ideas. Bert is hungry for money and more than that; on impulse he arranges to land Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) a job in the hotel linen department. It isn't the easiest job for Ann, who finds herself pawed over by guests (e.g. Guy Kibbee in repulsive lecher mode) and by Bert. Still, when Bert saves her from Kibbee by staging a fake arrest and eliciting a bribe from the embarrassed husband, Ann is impressed enough to become Bert's apprentice in grifting. Moving on to the best hotel in a large city, they hook up with Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern), a con-master Bert regards with some awe, but not enough suspicion. Distracting Bert with a female minion, Dan suckers our hero out of his and Ann's bankrolls. Not wanting to humiliate himself by admitting his suckerdom, Bert pulls off a two-stage con to make up her loss before she notices it. Seeing a story in the paper about an imminent society wedding, he goes to a swanky jewelry store and orders an expensive necklace on behalf of the bride's family. Ordering it delivered to the family's home -- the family's credit is so good, apparently, that no questions are asked when Bert acts in their name; not even identification is required -- he shows up there as a delivery man from the same store explaining that the necklace was delivered there by mistake. He pawns the necklace and avenges himself on Dan with a racetrack con, but tiring of the life, Ann has fallen for a handsome young banker (an early appearance of Ray Milland). Bert eventually moves on to the best hotel of the biggest city, but drops everything to answer Ann's entreaty when Milland gets into trouble. The young banker had dipped into the vault and now wants Bert to stage a break-in to cover his own theft. Again, Bert proves more sucker than shark, not realizing until it's almost too late that Milland has set him up....

As in many early starring roles, Cagney dances on the border of obnoxiousness with his brash aggression, and almost tumbles off the edge every time he calls Ann or others, "Hunnnn-nee!" in an exaggerated drawl. He redeems himself by making clear that Bert isn't as smart as he thinks he is -- he's right in that border zone that lets others underestimate him after taking advantage of him. As usual, Blondell complements him neatly while showing some Pre-Code flesh in a bathtub scene. Overall, this rarity among Cagney's early films -- shown this month on Turner Classic Movies, it hasn't yet had a DVD release -- is a fast-moving affair that actually seems to end too fast. Del Ruth directs at a whiplash pace, transitioning as often as not with sharp cuts rather than dissolves, with seeming loose ends trailing behind. You expect Calhern's character to make a comeback after he vows revenge on Bert, but that moment's the last we see of him. The final scene, with a wounded, jailed Cagney finally assured of Blondell's love, doesn't feel final -- certainly not by the brutal standard of Public Enemy and other early gangster-cycle films. It has a throwaway quality (and one more "Hunnnn-nee!") that left me feeling there was more story to be told -- or else that it was a second-thought happy ending, as if Bert was supposed to die in the trap Milland set for him. It wouldn't have been much of a comedy in that case, and Cagney's films in the wake of Public Enemy are comic more often than not. Did people find that film funny? I doubt it, but they probably wanted to see Cagney win thereafter, and by that standard Blonde Crazy is a split decision: he gets the girl but has to do time before he can have her. It still feels like they missed the last note, that Warner Bros. was still learning what to do with their new star. They'd learn soon enough.

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