Thursday, May 03, 2012

A Short Con

At the end of Blonde Crazy (1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth), I started to wonder what Jim Thompson would have made of the movie. Thompson, that blackest beast of the hard boiled writers, wrote plenty of stories about con men and lowlifes, and as soon as the thought of him scripting this movie occurred to me, I realized that Thompson's version would be The Grifters, which was in the back of my head to start with. James Cagney's Bert Harris isn't that far removed from Thompson's Roy Dolly, after all, though Joan Blondell's Ann Roberts is a character type that Thompson never wrote about, the virtuous bad girl. These are the sorts of things I think about after I see movies, and it's mostly useless. Blonde Crazy is hard boiled, but it's not noir. Not really. For the first two thirds of the movie, it's a romantic comedy, and near the end, it veers into melodrama.

The story here follows Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) and Bert Harris (James Cagney). When we first meet them, Ann has just landed a job as a chambermaid at the best hotel in a small Midwestern city, as the film calls it. Bert is a bellhop, but he's a bellhop with his finger on the pulse of the clientele. He's the go-to guy if you want a bottle of hooch (in 1931, prohibition was still in effect). He's a hustler, and the guests at the hotel are marks. He falls for Ann because she sees through him and doesn't fall for him. You always lust after what you can't have. He does convince her to help him in his racket, though. She's the bait, and soon, they have a patsy in Mr. Johnson, a philandering jeweler who makes a play for Ann. They set him up, get the payoff, and blow him off. It's a profitable con, and soon, the two of them take their scam on the road to a larger city, where the best hotel is crawling with racketeers. Bert falls in with Dapper Don Barker, who in turn sets Bert up as the patsy and takes him for their entire stake. Chagrined, Bert runs a more larcenous con on a local jewelry store to get their stake back, and soon Ann and Bert are in pursuit of Dapper Don. Ann, for her part, is horrified at the way Bert has restored their stake and wants to get out. On the train to "The Biggest City," she meets Joe Reynolds, who works for a respectable company that's traded on the New York Stock Exchange, as he puts it. Joe values the good things in life like art and poetry. Ann falls for this, and she falls for Joe, and after Bert and Ann find Dapper Don and take him to the cleaners, Ann decides that she's done. She marries Joe. Bert, heartsick, tours the world with the money they've swindled out of Dapper Don, only to return a year later, his heart still not in the racket. Ann, seeks him out. Joe, it seems, is in trouble. He's embezzled company funds for a scheme that's gone sour and she needs Bert to help them out. Unfortunately, Joe sets Bert up as the fall guy and the the whole thing blows up in his face, but he doesn't care, because Ann is finally his. Even in prison, he's walking on air.

As with many Pre-code movies, the ending of this movie has a kind of tacked on quality to it that provides a moralizing cover to the film that precedes it. It points out, too, the danger of painting this era with a broad brush. Though the Hays office had no real power prior to 1934, it still occasionally influenced the way films were made, and you can see that here. They found Cagney's screen presence to be a threat after The Public Enemy made him a star, and in this movie, they were appeased by his comeuppance. The movie, for its part, wants it both ways: it wants Cagney to have a happy ending, but it has to punish him, too, for being...well, Cagney. Certainly, the relationship between Bert and Ann is laced with sadomasochism. He certainly deserves it here. But the Hays office exerts a subtler influence on this film, one that hints at the way the code would later be used as a tool of conservative social engineering. This is a movie that elides The Great Depression. In 1931, American society was on the brink, and you can feel that a bit in the desperation of its characters, even if the Hays office insisted on keeping Hoovervilles and bread lines off screen. It's unspoken in the movie, but Bert and Ann are avatars of a working class that has no hope unless it's to put one over on a deserving upper class. More than this, the movie turns "respectable" society on its head when Joe Reynolds turns out to be the biggest rat in the movie. This is the sort of thing that runs through a lot of Warner Brothers movies of the period. It's certainly part of the great flowering of gangster movies at Warners in the 1930s. In the depths of The Great Depression, up was down and black was white.

If someone had taken note, James Cagney and Joan Blondell could have been one of the great screen couples, a la William Powell and Myrna Loy or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While it's true that they made seven movies together, none of them strike romantic sparks the way Blonde Crazy does.  It takes a special kinda of dame to put Cagney in his place, and Blondell is that kind of dame. I like to think that the number of times Cagney has his face slapped in this movie is a response of sorts to the infamous grapefruit to the face scene in The Public Enemy, only it wouldn't work if his leading lady had been Mae Clark again. Almost any other actress wouldn't have been credible in these scenes, because Cagney's screen presence was such that he would have creamed her. Not Joan Blondell, though. She's vivacious, gorgeous, whip smart, and indifferent to Cagney's charms. She has his number. She knows exactly what kind of mug he is and how to put him in his place. She even knows how to do all of this while falling in love with him. It's a neat tightrope act, and it's one that should have spawned movie after movie after this one provided the template. But, alas, no.

This is a movie that's in love with the con man. The con man, in this film's universe is a microcosm of capitalism itself, as well as an instrument to demolish the hypocrisy of capitalist society. Bert is a little guy making it the best way he knows how. The pursuit of money, for him, is a never ending scam, a game in which one fixes the rules to one's advantage. As he and Ann move up the social ladder, the scams become indistinguishable from business, such that the worst grifter in the movie is the respectable businessman. In some ways, the con man is the archetypal American, and this film knows that in its bones. This is cynical, I suppose, but this movie was made at a time when capitalism's mask was off and the wormy underside was on public display. And yet, this film's glittering high life is a lure, too. The means are repulsive, but the end is glory. In some ways, this kind of critique pulls that moralizing, tacked-on ending back into the film as a necessity. Bert is never truly happy when he's a grifter. Not really. Neither is Ann. It's only when they both have the grift stripped away from them that they discover their own happiness, and only when the system has utterly failed them.


Pordenone said...

In regard to your comments about Mae Clarke, you might like to see part of a post I made on Nitrateville about this actress:

I just finally got around to watching some preCodes that I had taped from TCM last month..

They had a "Mae Clarke" night- showing The Good Bad Girl, and Three Wise Girls.

Mae Clarke will always be most known as the girl who gets a face full of grapefruit delivered from an unhappy James Cagney. It's a very violent moment, and -should- make us very sympathetic for Mae...

But it doesn't, and watching these films, I understand why.

Viewing these films one after another, a few things are clear:
Mae was not an especially gifted actress. She had her moments, and good directors could find and bring something interesting out of her, but the Good Bad Girl was her film to shine in, and instead of a Barbara Stanwyck break-through role--at the climax, when her baby is being threatened with a gun--she has the expression of someone who is at the supermarket and has forgotten her shopping list...almost an annoyed look. You want to slap her and say "Hey--pay attention! That's a gun, and that's your baby!"

So her acting skills were never great--whether her persistent underplaying was deliberate, or just all she could do, is not clear to me. But in any case, there's a certain vacant, uncaring look in her eyes that makes you want to shake her--and wake her up, or at least want something bad to happen to her--or be not sympathetic to her when something bad does happen. The German word is Backpfeifengesicht, which means 'a face you want to hit,' and for Mae, that's often what happened to her. Part of it is her lack of acting ability, and another part, (obviously beyond her control) is that her eyes are rather small, which for an actor is a huge detriment. So even when she DOES try to emote--instead, it just look like she's squinting.

I think producers back then saw what I was seeing, and the smart ones cast her perfectly for some parts. These attributes make her a good second lead--there's just no way she's going to outshine the star. And the other good thing about her strange 'ability' is that you don't feel so bad when she gets it. In fact, part of you is kind of glad it happened, and that's the Backpfeifengesicht part of it. Those smart producers, who saw in her what I see, cast her in roles where she's the girl who 'got it.'

Look at the parts she played to see how bad things almost always seemed to happen to her--

Frankenstein (1931) .... Elizabeth...On his wedding night, Victor abandons her and lets the monster enter the bridal suite, and well, you can figure that one out.

Waterloo Bridge (1931) .... Myra Deauville. It's been many years since I've seen this, and I remember that she did a good job. But was it her, or did the foxy stage pro, James Whale, understand what she could do, and coax the best out of her? In any case, I'll give her credit for a good job. But we know how she ends up in this film.

Three Wise Girls (1932) .... Gladys Kane --second bananna to Jean Harlow--In terms of acting skills, she makes Harlow look like Maggie Smith, and then bows out gracefully from the story by taking poison.

Still, when one checks the IMDB, she was in more than 100 films!

So here's a toast to you, Mae Clarke--a real trooper--you had a longer and more successful career than many other "bigger" names...even if your biggest talent was that you made us want to push a gratefruit in your kisser.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I like Waterloo Bridge a lot, but I won't say that I'm sorry that Whale recast Elizabeth with Valerie Hobson in The Bride of Frankenstein.