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The Big Shakedown (1934)

The Big Shakedown is exactly what happens when a big city gangster played by suave Ricardo Cortez puts pressure on small time pharmacist Charles Farrell and his soon to be wife Bette Davis to rule the unlikely world of counterfeiting store bought drugs as opposed to the beer and liquor racket.

At just 26 years of age, Bette opens the show as the cute gal behind the counter of Farrell’s drug store scooping ice cream. They’re not married yet but it’s in the plans for the youngsters. When Cortez throws a tantrum at his gang of hoodlums including Allen Jenkins over beer sales the young couple’s future is to take a nasty turn. Ducking into the pharmacy Cortez will ask for a headache remedy which Farrell whips up himself due to not having any in stock from a reputable company. And so Cortez begins thinking after Farrell points out he can pretty much recreate any product on his store shelves.

“When big money talks, smart guys listen.”

Cortez promptly goes into the drug business with Farrell as his personal chemist. Starting with toothpaste there’s an amusing scene where he has all his hoods taking what amounts to a Pepsi-Cola challenge as they hit the men’s room with a toothbrush and two tubes of paste apiece. When no one can tell the difference, Farrell becomes the most important asset to the Cortez empire. Next up is antiseptic. With each new product, Cortez’s goons head out to the many pharmacies throughout the city and force the owners to sell their revamped merchandise under the product’s original names like Pearlydent Toothpaste.

Farrell continues to have guilt pains but the money is good. Bette on the other hand wants nothing to do with Cortez but every time Farrell stands up and announces he’s out, Cortez hits him with a bonus and when that idea wears thin, he just hits him.

Also turning up is the sassy blonde haired, Glenda Farrell. She’s just one of the gals Cortez strings along and when she discovers he’s got another gal in waiting, the catfight is one. It’s Glenda vs. Renee Whitney in a slugfest that sees Glenda as the woman scorned in the end and she knows enough to let the coppers in on the latest get rich quick racket that Cortez is exploiting.

A hitman from Detroit, murder, double crosses and irony that leaves our leading man in tears are yet to come in this programmer from director John Francis Dillon and First National Pictures, aka Warner Brothers. Other well known character players that classic era film fans are sure to recognize are Henry O’Neill who turns in a fine performance as the victim of Farrell’s skills at duplicating products, Dewey Robinson and the prolific Samuel S. Hinds among others.

Like many efforts of the day this one uses the newspaper as a plot device to help with the narrative and when the fadeout is upon us I thought for just a minute I was watching a horror film for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself. Easy enough to do I’ll add if you pick up a copy on the Warner Archive line of DVD releases as I did.

Leading man Charles Farrell is not an actor I’m too familiar with so yes it’s Bette that got me interested in this early role of her iconic career. At this point Bette was still window dressing and not the focal point of our story though she is billed above the title after Farrell. She was a year from her first Oscar in Dangerous followed by a number of “A” list roles for Jack Warner and another Oscar for Jezebel in 1938. From what we know and read of Miss Davis, it’s roles like this one in The Big Shakedown that must have triggered the many battles she’d embark on against her employer in the coming years.

What struck me the most about this title was the fact that I think it might have been better served as an outright parody versus the gangland tale it purports to be with the occasional comic relief tossed in for good measure. The Eddie Robinson title Larceny Inc. being an example of my thought process. Gangsters getting out of the booze racket and into the toothpaste business as an alternative. Yes I think that might have worked better as a whole with a couple of key changes to the casting, but then, Bogie wasn’t yet Bogie was he?

Far from memorable but with Bette onboard it kind of becomes required viewing for fans of the golden age. Doesn’t it?

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