Smart Money (1931)

Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I each choose a movie from this era that’s showing on TCM. 

Of the pre-Codes showing in December, I’ve already covered a lot of favourites I’d recommend, like One Way Passage (1932),  Two Seconds (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and nobody needs me to tell them how good The Thin Man (1934), Horse Feathers (1932) or 42nd Street (1933) are, so I picked a new-to-me movie I’ve been eager to see, starring two great actors early in their careers, in their only film together.

In Smart Money, Edward G. Robinson plays big-hearted Greek immigrant Nick, a barber and wannabe pro high-roller who gambles his way into the big city games, builds his reputation and gets taken for a whirl around the wheel of fortune before it runs him over. He’s blessed with amazing luck but no sense when it comes to women, which gets him into trouble more than once–some ladies’ betrayals can be fixed with poker winnings and revenge, one leads to tragedy. Nick’s scrappy buddy Jack, played by James Cagney, joins him in the big city and sticks by him through lean and lavish times. Nick thinks Jack is too quick to smell a rat and slow to trust a woman, so he doesn’t heed Jack’s warnings when it matters most, for his troubles Jack meets a grisly, undeserved end.

It’s well-written and nicely paced story, and Nick is a pleasure to follow on this rollercoaster because he’s such a likable guy. He’s beloved by his hometown (“Irontown”) buddies and fellow gamblers, he’s jolly, optimistic and kind to everyone (even as he participates in the era’s racism), until they cheat or double-cross him; then it’s a joy to watch him destroy enemies at their own game. With his combo of great luck and charm, he has no problem repeatedly getting people to stake him for the biggest games in town. He’s a gentleman crook when he outsmarts the police and dotes on a canary, for some bonus “nice guy” credential. Even the District Attorney intent on shutting Nick down has regret pangs about his methods, and Irene (Evalyn Knapp), the lady who finally sells Nick out, hates herself for it, has second thoughts and finally admits it was only her extreme cowardice about prison time that made her do it.

Other fun tidbits:

Nick literally booting a woman out of his room after discovering she’s a mole for the D.A.. Jack helps the lady to her feet and gets a big slap in return. That whole bit starts out with a great mimed interaction where Jack describes the visitor’s physical assets and Nick expresses his approval. Their closeness combined with Nick’s gentle nature and Robinson’s great acting, makes the ending so tragic.

Boris Karloff in a bit part. Frankenstein wasn’t out yet, nor Cagney’s Public Enemy, and Robinson was on the rise after Little Caesar, so this is a nice chance to see three legends seen at their starts.

Ralf Harolde as Sleepy Sam, the crook who gives Nick his first major haircut. When the D.A. asks Sam to help bring Nick down, Sam gives him the tip that Nick’s weakness is blondes: “send your wife around, he’ll go for any old bag!”

“Faint heart never won fair lady. Or fat turkey.”

Smart Money is a solid and cracking little crime picture, and makes me wish Eddie and Jimmy made a lot more movies together. Watch it on TCM December 12th, and now go see Karen’s pre-Code pick for this month.

Since this is the last PCC post for 2017 I wanted to finish with a little review. I covered a fantastic variety this year: Ladies of the Jury (1932)Blonde Crazy (1931)Island of Lost Souls (1932)Union Depot (1932)Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)The Merry Widow (1934), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). I was going to pick one favourite but with those kinds of scares, music, laughs, mystery and melodrama, I couldn’t; they’re all good.
I had a Richard Dix binge early in the year that included 10 movies he made during the era. My favourites: Dix as pulpy crimefighting playboy in The Public Defender (1931), exotic adventure Roar of the Dragon (1932), gritty prison drama Hell’s Highway (1932), powerhouse performance as a fighter pilot in Ace of Aces (1933) and tense domestic drama/action thriller, Day of Reckoning (1933). In October I rewatched a lot of great horror including Doctor X (1932), and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and discovered the warped Kongo (1932). More to come next year!
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7 thoughts on “Smart Money (1931)”

  1. Everything about this film sounds marvellous, starting with the title. It would be interesting to see both EGR and James Cagney together on screen this early in their careers.

    I’m going to steal this line: “Faint heart never won fair lady. Or fat turkey.”

    1. I know, me too! I forgot to mention a running gag/line as EGR gets richer, he says his brother works at the mint, then runs the mint, then owns the mint. Enjoyed the writing on this one!

  2. Cagney shows what was to come in this performance. Love when he barges in to rescue Eddie looking tough and don’t mess with me attitude. Yes, they should have teamed together later on like Bogie and Eddie did on equal footing in Key Largo.

    1. So true, that would’ve been awesome, and the neat thing here is that Cagney does a lot without stealing from Robinson–it’s just the right amount to be memorable. So fun to watch them together (and bonus Boris).

  3. This is a fine article! II appreciate how you really studied the characters’ personalities and unique qualities. I, Rebekah Brannan, have not participated much in the blog world in the past, but I intend to become more involved now. I have read some of your other articles, and they are all informative and enjoyable.

    I would like very much for you to participate in my upcoming blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, which will be my first real participation in PEPS. This blogathon, which will be hosted around Valentine’s Day, is celebrating the famous singing team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

    You can read the rules of the blogathon at: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/ring-the-assembly-bell-here-comes-the-singing-sweethearts-blogathon/. If you want to join, please comment and tell me your topic, if you have chosen one. I hope you’ll join me in honoring this brilliant team and the holiday of love!

    Joyfully,

    Rebekah Brannan

      1. Dear Kristina,

        I apologize for not responding sooner, but I’ve been busy over the holidays and I have not had a chance to respond before this.

        I hope you’ll think of a good topic and decide to join us, since we would greatly appreciate having your talents in the blogathon!

        Thank you!

        Joyfully,

        Rebekah Brannan

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