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January 06, 2009

Smart Money

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Alfred E. Green - 1931
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Don't let the second billing fool you. James Cagney shares the screen with star Edward G. Robinson for about the same amount of time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have their late night chat in Heat. Release two films after their defining star turns in Public Enemy and Little Caesar. I suspect Jack Warner shoehorned Cagney into what is no more than a supporting role to generate some box office heat. To describe Alfred E. Green's direction as pedestrian would to generous for Smart Money.

Being a long time fan of Warner Brothers movies from the Thirties and Forties, I would think of Smart Money as an example of the studio style in the making, as well as concurrent proof that auteur theory or not, having the right director makes the difference. Consider that most of the writing pool of John Bright, Kubec Glasmon, Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson not only were nominated for "Best Writing" in 1931, but Glasmon and Bright were competing against themselves for Public Enemy. That the latter film has remained popular has as much to do with William Wellman's energy as Cagney's way with a grapefruit. One could also compare how Glasmon and Bright fare with Roy Del Ruth (Taxi!) or Mervyn LeRoy (Three on a Match to imagine how much better Smart Money could have been, not to mention Howard Hawks (The Crowd Roars).

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Four men on a screenplay does not guarantee that a film will still make any sense. Robinson plays a small town barber who seems to be lucky at gambling. He also hosts a game in the back of his shop. His friends persuade him to try his luck against the big money in the big city (stock shot of New York City). The basic plot involves Robinson being suckered into a game against a big time gambler who takes Robinson for all he's got. Robinson tries his luck again a few months later, wins everything back, and goes on to develop a reputation for being the best of a bunch of guys with names like Hickory Short, Sleepy Sam and Deep River. Robinson goes to open a casino of his own which the city fathers want to close down. Eventually, Robinson's weakness for bottled blondes is the catalyst for his downfall.

The blondes in this case are forgotten names Margaret Livingston, Evalyn Knapp and Noel Francis. Robinson's preference for blondes could well have been that of Bright and Glasmon as they also wrote another Cagney vehicle, Blonde Crazy which also featured Francis. The story might collapse under closer examination, the blondes shine less brightly that studio peers Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell. What ages less well is the casual racism towards the black characters,where Robinson rubs the head of John Larkin for good luck, and a Sleepy Sam addresses his servant as "Stupid", repeated by Robinson.

The scenes with Robinson and Cagney are nothing more than amiable. In comparison with those films that had Cagney playing against Humphrey Bogart, or Bogart on screen with Robinson, the scenes with Robinson together with Cagney lack brio. Only one scene, with Cagney bursting into a hotel room with a gun suggests that the pair should been in a different, better film. One the plus side is a short appearance by Boris Karloff, towering over Robinson, as a luckless gambler, a bad sport named Sport. The scene isn't entirely enough to redeem Smart Money, but out of context, there is a chuckle to be had seeing Little Caesar face off with Frankenstein.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 6, 2009 12:17 AM


Cagney, Robinson and Karloff and it still didn't work? Amazing. If you can't make that work you're in the wrong business, as apparently Alfred Green was. William Wellman is a favorite of mine and it seems, the opposite of Mr. Green. Wellman knew how to make a story move.

Posted by: Jonathan Lapper at January 6, 2009 08:15 AM

Interesting review. With Cagney and Robinson, it seems a shame that the film isn't better. I still consider White Heat as one of my all time favorite films.

Posted by: filmdr at January 6, 2009 07:25 PM

Not a bad film, enjoyable in parts - formulaic, yes, and the jist of the film was given away in the first few minutes when Robinson's barbershop colleague utters the saying "Lucky in cards, unlucky in love." We all knew the end there. It almost seems as if the antipathy toward the film derives from Robinson not being enough of an anti-hero. Please, no oughts. The film is what it is - a movie memorable for the intersection of two great actors starring in a picture that was never meant to wow. Compared to the drivel that movie stars are paired in today, we should be grateful that such a modest film can present two stars amiably playing off one another, not worrying about Oscar performances, but using what was given to them to entertain us. I'm not disappointed in this film, and I don't see a reason why anyone else should - that these two juggernauts of the classic Hollywood should have only shared the silver screen this time and to this effect is not their fault, and they've made the most out of it. 7 out of 10.

Posted by: Fan at June 4, 2009 09:02 PM