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.