Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I each choose a gem from this era you can watch on TCM.
Bellboy and grade-A hustler Bert (James Cagney) lies to get Anne (Joan Blondell) a hotel job because she’s attractive, and when he discovers she’s a smart cookie, he includes her in his plans to con his way up the ladder and into a swanky life. Anne is seemingly immune to his charms and joins him, initially as a reluctant and platonic partner, but feelings develop on both sides as they win and lose and win again on the grift. When it looks like they’ll end up together, Anne falls for a “regular” Joe and quits the racket. Without Anne, Bert loses interest in scams and riches, but when Anne seeks his help to save her husband, Bert masterminds a heist that goes bad.
Blonde Crazy is a fun time spent with these streetwise toughs, starting out as a sassy romantic comedy then turning into tragic drama once the partners in crime realize how risky the crimes are getting, how much they mean to each other and what they’re willing to sacrifice to be together.
Great Pre-Code moments and random things I like about Blonde Crazy:
- The hotel elevator dial is a nice parallel for just how fast Bert and Anne’s fortunes will move up and down through the movie.
- More like “Blondell Crazy:” Anne gets a good intro in the lobby with all the men sizing her up; later in the movie even “classy” Joe (Ray Milland) can’t resist ogling. Anne gets get hit on by Bert, who expects a reward for getting her the chambermaid job, then by lecherous jewelry salesman Johnson (Guy Kibbee). Anne’s used to it, knows some fun evasive maneuvers and doesn’t care about being called a chilly and unfriendly dame.
- She also dishes out many memorable, spirited and well-deserved slaps in response to unwanted advances and undeserved insults. In the train car, after they’ve successfully suckered Johnson, Anne sets Bert up for a grand slap by pretending to go mushy on him and calling him “dear.” She doesn’t say it with the musical, mocking and cocky zest with which Cagney says “honey” throughout the movie. When she finally mimics his tone and calls him “baaaa-by,” he echoes it to show his relief that they’re not drifting apart.
- Bert keeps a fat scrapbook of news clippings documenting exemplary cons gone right. Grifter Pinterest board.
- The combination of entitlement, desperation and zero-sum thinking that fuels the schemes and choices like Bert’s. There’s intense rivalry and competition for every opportunity and chance at advancement. The Depression made these have-nots believe that capitalism was a giant con, and the rich just bigger and better crooks and therefore ripe, deserving chumps. “Swell-dressed parade of parasites, aren’t they?” In this movie crime is the great leveller and a lucrative enterprise, with no class or social status above a scam or immune to one. Everyone’s hustling, dodging, learning and topping each other with ingenious and inventive tricks.
- In crime, Anne’s a realist, instantly seeing that Bert’s dreams and plans for their combined assets–her looks and personality plus his smarts–can only add up to prison time. She presciently senses that Dan (Louis Calhern) is bad news, and recognizes when Bert has gone too far past the “fun” types of cons into dangerous territory. Yet when it comes to love she falls for a no-good charmer.
- Anne’s hurt feelings when she hears Bert saying how eager he is to sample a better class of women once he works up to a higher class. Then, the frank conversation that follows, when Anne tells Bert she could absolutely go for his down-to-earth appeal if he wasn’t after the wrong things, and so bent on seeing the world and relationships in material and transactional terms: “you worship nothing but dough.” Bert admits he’s great at rackets but no good at legit relationships, and shows signs of a good guy somewhere inside that hard-boiled shell, which sets up his generosity toward the end as well as the compromise happy ending that punishes Bert-the-crook while reuniting the couple.
- Blondell and Cagney are so well matched, with great chemistry. It’s easy to believe their characters are this complex, caring, desperate, impatient, guilt-ridden, jealous, honourable and virtuous. Their sass and toughness are nicely balanced by times they pour out their hearts to each other.
- Anne cleverly, expertly uses mirroring to ingratiate herself to Helen (Noel Francis); one sign of a good people-reader and grifter.
- Life Savers still has the exact same logo design.
- That sickening feeling as Bert discovers he’s the patsy, robbed by Dan through a hole punched in the wall and drawer from the adjoining hotel room. All the sweeter is the satisfaction of watching Bert and Anne get some epic and entertaining revenge on Dan, with a con lifted right out of Bert’s scrapbook.
- Bert reads the society news and spots a great name: “Count Beluga.”
- Bert says he’s “not tough, just mercenary.”
- I like how train travel scenes are used to sum up the success or failure of whatever con just unfolded before. They’re also necessary, since whichever way a con goes, it usually means the grifters must “blow this burg.”
- Supporting players like Maude Eburne, whose linen lady has seen it all but lets the youngsters think they fooled her anyway, and Nat Pendleton, whose character fakes enough dumb authoritarianism to convincingly sucker a mark.
- Great work too by suave young Milland as Joe, who seems to represent a cultured, safe life away from crime, but ends up the lowest, dirtiest rat of all, embezzling tons of money at his company, then double-crossing a helpful Bert in the slimiest way possible.
Watch Blonde Crazy on TCM August 26th, and be sure to see Karen’s pre-Code pick–maybe even picks–for this month.