Pros: Edward G Robinson, James Cagney, Supporting Cast, Story
Cons: Cagney could have had a bit more screen time
Smart Money (1931)
This is a recent (2008) release from the Warner Bros film archives that is from the beginning of the sound era and features two of Warner Bros very famous stars - Edward G Robinson and James Cagney in their only screen pairing. Both of these actors were on the express elevator to superstardom with Robinson's Little Caesar already released and Cagney's Public Enemy being shot simultaneously with Smart Money, all of which were released the same year.
To add another dimension and emphasize just how early this talkie was Boris Karloff plays a minor part - this was before he rocketed to superstardom as Frankenstein, also a 1931 flick; so anybody who is interested in early talkie history or a fan of either of the two stars should be interested in seeing Smart Money.
The story concerns a city barber (Robinson) who is an incessant and lucky gambler; he is always betting on something and even shakes dice alone in his spare time between customers at his barber shop. James Cagney plays his younger brother, also a barber, and as a supporting player he defers to Robinson but he has a lot of shtick already developed and he is able to make his part memorable.
This movie was released before Warner's were paying heed to the 1930 production code so there is a lot of ethnicity, racial, and sexual innuendoes that were excised from post 1934 movies, You may notice a difference but it is not as shocking as all that. One of the big shocks is one of the blond "ladies" is either a prostitute or pregnant in need of some illegal medical attention. She gets a marked $100 bill from Robinson for the unstated purpose and he later wins it back in a crap game from another guy who is not one of his favorite people. So you can draw your own conclusions. Another scene shows Robinson literally giving another blond the boot right in her keister. Such sexual innuendoes and violence against women were things the Code objected against but they are treated fairly benignly here.
Anyway back to the story: Nick the barber (Robinson) is Greek and his family and downtown customers are all ethnic types. Cagney is a blond, but it seems like he is Robinson's brother - the story was not entirely clear because these Depression-era movies were shot at lightning speed with lots of action and improvised to fit the sketchy script and were not expected to be long term art but just made to get new pictures into the theaters on schedule in those days before TV took over the airwaves.
The opening shows the barber shop and the denizens betting on all sorts of things with Nick and getting race tips, etc. The movie evolves into a gambling story where the regulars back Nick to the big game in a neighboring city, known as The City. Apparently they didn't want some actual city complaining about being defamed. Anyway, Nick gets taken in his first encounter with the city slickers and it's interesting to watch the flim flam they run on him once they know he is a mark. The movie also goes on to show a lesson that you never should succumb to your weakness, in Nick's case, nice young blonds. There is lots of foreshadowing and his pet canary is even called "Blondie."
Nick decides to take revenge and succeeds and then becomes the big gambler to beat. Of course this notoriety draws the attention of the District Attorney, who with an election to win wants a big bust to go on his record. The final third plays out showing how all the previously introduced situations come together to bring about the big guy's downfall.
The movie like most Warner's products of the era has a lot of action and snappy dialog and frequent comic relief, much of it in the form of slapstick.
Robinson, having just essayed Little Caesar, is phenomenal here and Cagney surrenders the spotlight to him but holds his own when the camera is on him. All in all it is a pretty fine movie given the low budget and speedy shooting that the moviemakers were under.
The supporting cast consists of some familiar faces that appeared a lot in these ancient movies. Ralf Harolde is one such guy who didn't get much ink but was a reliable player and here he did a fine job as a fellow gambler who takes Robinson in the early card game.
The DVD was recently released in 2008 and has not been seen on TV like many of the classics have. The 1931 movie contains extra features similar to those that appeared in the theater with the main attraction. In addition to a cartoon and several contemporary features a new full length commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini is included. The only place they go off the tracks is their comments on "homoerotic" content. There really isn't any and guys just were more familiar with each other in those days, pinching each other's cheek, etc. Other than that minor flub the commentary is right on target.