Smart Money (1931)
In the wake of Little Caesar comes Nick the Barber. While the quick temper and the gun might not be as prevalent as they were in Edward G. Robinson’s star making turn, he’s just as cocky here as a professional gambler on the rise mixing with crime figures of the underworld. Coming along for the ride and thanks to his own star making role in Public Enemy is James Cagney in a lesser role than Eddie’s but the Cagney name is prominently displayed above the title and in the advertising campaign to capitalize on his new found success.
Though it’s hard to believe, it’s the only time these two Warner Brothers legends were teamed together. While it’s no classic, at least we have this one film to see them perform together in. Who knows, had Warner’s held the rights to Boris Karloff, he too might have made the film posters and had his name on the marquee with his smash hit Frankenstein turning his name into an overnight sensation. Yes Boris is in here briefly but for film fans, it’s a chance to see all three Hollywood icons standing around a roulette wheel near the start of the film.
“Here have a cigar boys. A fellow in Havana makes them for me.” It’s lines like these that Eddie throws around to impress most anyone and especially the platinum blondes that populate this Alfred E. Green flick that clocks in at a brisk 81 minutes of black and white photography. Eddie actually is a barber who along with Cagney and others dabble in gambling. Eddie never loses and his pals stake him to a 10K roll and he’s off to play a big game in “The City” as the title card announces. He’s to soon learn that he’s the pigeon when blonde temptress Noel Francis (“Hey, your a cute little package”) sets him up to get taken in a crooked game overseen by Ralf Harolde.
Tail between his legs and a little more savy, Eddie will have his revenge after discovering he’s been taken for a sucker. By the time he gets his revenge, he has Cagney in waiting and when Jimmy bursts through a door to save Eddie from a crooked game and subsequent beating with a “heater” in hand, for about ten seconds this film leaps off the screen roaring to life. That’s what you call STAR POWER.
Now with a serious bank roll, Eddie becomes a man about town and a kingpin of his own gambling establishment. Lucky at gambling but unlucky in love fits Robinson’s character here as he finds another cute blonde to romance, Evalyn Knapp. When it appears as if she has left Eddie’s inner circle we get a classic Cagney delivery, “That dame gave me the creeps!” As Eddie’s fame rises about town and reporters are always clamming for a story, Eddie comes off as a Capone like character once again chatting it up with the press but never admitting to any underworld goings on. He’s just a businessman. That may be but the local law enforcement want him out of business and have a plan to put Eddie in the pen.
Noticeable in the background of this early Warners/Vitaphone release is Charles Lane. A cranky sounding character actor if there ever was one appearing in just his second film here as a smug hotel manager. He’d continue on tormenting others in film and television in to the 90’s.
While I don’t want to delve too much into the racial slant, this film does prove to be a bit hard to take at the way black actors are cast and treated within the confines of the plot though this film is no different than plenty of others at the time keeping actors with character names such as Suntan and Snake Eyes in subservient roles.
Eddie is the star player here and I’ll admit to not liking the cocky over the top performance too much but that might be more a comment on the style of the times than Robinson himself as I’m a fan of Robinson’s. His best scene in the film is near the end though I can’t divulge the reasons for it. He is however a likable figure with a heart of gold when not trying to impress everyone around the gambling halls. Cagney gets enough screen time to impress once again as a fireball on camera and Boris is a brooding baritone as was common for him in these early parts.
Smart Money is out on DVD from Warners if you hope to get a look at this one and only film that saw the gangster legends stand side by side. Consider the unbilled Boris a bonus for sitting in.