Ralf Harolde

Smart Money 1931

Smart Money (1931)

Nick Venizelos (Edward G. Robinson) runs a barbershop by day, but has a reputation for being a very shrewd gambler by night. Known as Nick the Barber, he runs games out of the back room of his barbershop along with his friend Jack (James Cagney) and a lot of his friends believe he could win big if he went into the city and got into a game with some other big name gamblers. They’re even willing to chip in money for Nick to go to the city to gamble with.

Armed with $10,000, Nick takes a train to the city and gets to work at finding out where the action is. If there’s one thing Nick can’t resist, it’s a pretty blonde and when he sees hotel employee Marie (Noel Francis), he’s drawn to her like a magnet. She tips him off about a big card game and when he arrives, Nick thinks he’s playing with notorious gambler Hickory Smart. The only problem is that Hickory Smart is serving a prison sentence in Florida and Nick ends up losing big time to conman Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde). When Nick finds out what’s going on, he tries to win his money back, but gets beaten up and he vows to get even with them someday.

Nick goes back to being a barber, but within a few months, he’s ready to get his revenge. Not only does he successfully con the con men, his reputation as a gambler quickly grows. He even gets to finally play cards with Hickory Smart — and wins! He becomes infamous for being one of the biggest gamblers around, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the District Attorney. But Nick soon realizes his new position is being jeopardized by a woman he’s been trying to help.

Smart Money isn’t one of the all-time great gangster movies, but it’s enjoyable enough. The most interesting thing it has going for it is that it showcases two of Warner Brothers’s biggest stars right as their careers were starting to really take off. Edward G. Robinson had just recently had his career breakthrough with Little Caesar and Cagney was working on Smart Money at the same time he was working on The Public EnemyThe Public Enemy ended up being released first, so although Cagney is a supporting actor in Smart Money, he became an A-lister by the time it was released (which explains why Cagney gets equal billing with Robinson.) Smart Money was also, surprisingly, the only movie the two actors made together. It’s really too bad Cagney and Robinson didn’t do another movie together where they both really got to be on equal footing.

Not only does Smart Money have Cagney and Robinson as they were on their way up, it also features a very brief appearance from another rising star, Boris Karloff. Smart Money was released shortly before the public saw his iconic performance in Frankenstein. Keep an eye out for him in the beginning of the movie as one of the gamblers in the backroom of Nick’s barber shop.

Pre-Code Essentials: Safe In Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell Dorothy Mackaill

Plot

When prostitute Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is sent out on a job, she’s not too happy to find out her customer is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man responsible for sending into her life of prostitution. She gets into a confrontation with Piet that ends with him being knocked out and his apartment accidentally being set on fire. The next day, Gilda finds out she’s wanted for murder, so her boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her to an island in the Caribbean where she won’t be extradited.

Carl brings Gilda to an island full of criminals and she’s the only white woman there. Before leaving, Carl and Gilda “marry” each other in an informal way. Lots of men try to win Gilda’s affections, but she stays true to her vows to Carl and eventually, she wins their respect. The only one who doesn’t want to let her go is Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the island’s executioner. Things get even stickier when Gilda finds out Piet isn’t dead after all.


My Thoughts

There are three actresses whose work in pre-codes I’m very fond of, but unfortunately, their careers never flourished the same way after: Ann Dvorak, Mae Clarke, and Dorothy Mackaill. If you’ve never seen Safe in Hell, it’s hard to watch it and not wonder things like, “Why aren’t more people talking about Dorothy Mackaill?!” She’s just fabulous in it; a real revelation. If you were wondering why she didn’t go on to have a more prolific career, she retired in 1937 to live in Hawaii and take care of her mother, so it’s at least nice to know she left Hollywood on her own terms.

It’s also a pleasure to see Nina Mae McKinney as the hotel’s manager. Safe in Hell is noteworthy for being a rare movie from this era where black characters were able to interact with white characters without playing stereotyped roles like maids or mammies.

On the whole, the movie is pretty decent. The story itself isn’t anything incredible, but it’s well produced and exactly the sort of movie I’ve come to expect from director William Wellman.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Gilda’s entrance of the phone ringing and she puts her feet up to answer it, and the camera pans over, revealing Gilda in her skimpy outfit. Seconds later, it becomes obvious what her career is.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

With a title like Safe in Hell, you know you’re in for a sordid tale and it doesn’t let you down in that respect. It starts getting sordid within just a few seconds of the movie beginning. Gilda represents so much that censors hated: a good-hearted and loyal person who just happened to be a prostitute. And the notion of a person’s only sanctuary being an island full of criminals is definitely not the sort of thing that would sit well with censors.

I’m No Angel (1933)

Tira (Mae West) is a circus sideshow burlesque performer, but Tira loves the finer things in life and you can’t buy diamonds and furs on a sideshow performer’s salary.  But if she can’t buy them herself, she has no issues with doing the next best thing: hopping from one rich man to another and letting them buy things for her.  In fact, she can spot a rich man from the stage while she’s performing.  Tira knows she isn’t exclusive, but Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde) seems to be under the impression that he’s Tira’s one and only boyfriend.  One night, Tira has a date with yet another rich man and all is going well until Slick shows up.  Slick hits Tira’s date over the head with a bottle, knocking him unconscious.

Slick and Tira both think he’s dead and try to get rid of the body.  He lives, but the police catch up to Slick and he is arrested.  Even though Tira did nothing wrong, she needs to get a lawyer to see that she also doesn’t wind up behind bars, too.  She doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer and the only way the boss will give her the money is to become the lion tamer in a new act and stick her head inside a lion’s mouth.  Naturally, Tira is a bit hesitant about this, but she does it anyway and the new act is a huge success.  She becomes a big star and wins over a whole new audience of wealthy men.

Among her new admirers is Kirk Lawrence.  He’s already engaged to Alicia Hatton, but just can’t resist lavishing expensive gifts upon Tira.  Eventually, Alicia comes to Tira personally to ask her to stop seeing Kirk and Tira refuses.  So then Alicia steps it up and gets Kirk’s friend Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) to talk to her and see what he can do.  Tira may not have been willing to listen to Alicia, but she’s always more receptive to a handsome man.  She gladly pushes Kirk aside in favor of Jack and even begins to do the unthinkable — think about marriage.  Just when she’s ready to walk down the aisle, her old pal Slick gets out of jail and tries to come back into her life.  He even tells Jack that he’s been seeing Tira and of course, Jack believes the worst and breaks off the engagement.  But Tira isn’t about to take this sitting down, sues him for breach of contract, and defends herself in court.  But when Slick is called to the witness stand, Tira not only manages to win her case but also wins Jack back.

Mae West movies are all about one thing and one thing only — Mae West.  So if you like Mae, then you’re bound to love I’m No Angel.  She purrs and quips and shimmies her way through the whole movie in her signature style.  Luckily for me, I do like Mae so I really got a kick out of this one.  If you’ve never seen a Mae West movie before, this is a good one to start with because this is truly her in all her glory.  But if Mae’s style isn’t your cup of tea, then you might as well sit this one out because there’s not really anything else to watch it for.  Even fans of Cary Grant might be a little disappointed since he doesn’t really have a big part, he doesn’t even come in until late in the film.  But when he does show up?  Their chemistry is awesome.

Picture Snatcher (1933)

After a three-year stint in prison, Danny Kean (James Cagney) decides he’s going to straighten up and fly right.  He puts Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde) in charge of his old gang and starts pursuing his dream of becoming a newspaper reporter.  While he was in prison, he had gotten a letter from Al McClean (Ralph Bellamy), city editor for the Graphic News, offering him a job when he got out.  Graphic News isn’t known for being the most reputable paper in town, but Danny is still eager to work there.  However, once Danny shows up in their offices, Al has second thoughts about having such a notorious name on board.  While Danny is talking to Al, a story breaks about a firefighter being called to put out a fire, only to find the bodies of his wife and her boyfriend inside, and then barricaded himself in the burnt-out home with a gun.  Photographers from every paper in town are waiting to get a picture, but nobody is getting anything.  Eager to prove himself, Danny marches over there, pretends to be an insurance adjuster to get inside the house, and gets the picture everybody wants.

Of course, Danny lands a job as a photographer at the Graphic News and quickly becomes one of their top photographers.  He even lands a few dates with reporter Allison (Alice White), even though she is Al’s girlfriend.  But their relationship doesn’t go anywhere and he ends up falling for Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis), a journalism student he meets when her class takes a tour of the Graphic News offices.  What Danny doesn’t know is that Pat is the daughter of Casey Nolan, the police lieutenant responsible for putting Danny behind bars.  When Casey finds out, obviously he wants Pat to have nothing to do with Danny, but Al helps win him over by getting a nice article written about him in a reputable newspaper.

Even though Danny is making good money at the paper, he becomes more and more eager to prove himself as a real newsman and bring in even more money so he can afford to marry Pat.  When a woman is set to be executed, every paper in town except for the Graphic News is invited to cover the event.  Danny manages to steal an invitation from another paper’s reporter and when they hesitate to let him in, he manages to get in on Casey’s word.  He has a camera hidden on his leg and manages to sneak a picture of the execution.  But when the other reporters find out, it results in a huge chase as the reporters and cops try to stop him from getting back to the Graphic News offices.  But Danny is no stranger to being chased, so he makes it back to the offices and his picture makes the front page.  Unfortunately, it costs him his relationship with Pat when her father gets demoted because of his stunt.  To hide Danny while all the commotion dies down, Al sends Danny to stay at Allison’s apartment while she’s supposed to be out-of-town.  Instead, she comes home early, tries to seduce Danny and Al catches them together and fires Danny.  Feeling guilty, Al quits his job at the Graphic News and tries to apologize to Danny.  He accepts and the two of them decide to use Danny’s connections to find Jerry the Mug, who is now being hunted down by the police.  Danny gets a shot of Jerry during a big shoot-out, Al writes a story to go with it, and they not only get jobs at a better paper, but Danny gets Casey his job back and wins Pat over again.

Picture Snatcher was pretty enjoyable.  Nothing too outstanding, Cagney and Bellamy both have had much more memorable movies, but I liked it well enough.  It’s got enough of Cagney as a tough guy to make it worthwhile, plus a good bit of humor and some pre-code moments to make it fun to watch.  Plus the pacing is great, it really fit a lot into 77 minutes.  I may not go out of my way to watch it again, but if TCM showed it again, I’d probably still tune in for it.