Monday, November 30, 2015

Bette Loves a Druggist

This week, we returned to the pre-code period, and early to an Bette Davis effort (back when she was blonde) with The Big Shakedown (1934).  Bette plays Norma Nelson, a clerk in the neighborhood pharmacy run by her fiancĂ©, chemist Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell).  Jimmy is an easygoing sort, who runs his store more as a local gathering place than as a business.  He's not able to afford for he and Norma to marry, and he is being threatened by a large pharmacy chain that wants to buy him out for peanuts.  Enter Dutch Barnes (Richardo Cortez), a bootlegger who is finding it hard to pedal his wares now that Prohibition is over.  Dutch has a brainstorm - hire Jimmy to pirate PearlyDent toothpaste; Dutch will then sell the identical, but more cheaply made product for less money.  Norma is furious when Jimmy agrees to the scheme, but Jimmy doesn't see the problems (he's making it, after all. He's not SELLING it). Things get complicated, however, when Dutch decides to branch out, first into cosmetics, but then into pharmaceuticals.  And by then, Jimmy can't get out.
 
The strength of Bette Davis' personality is a real plus in this film.  Charles Farrell's Jimmy is so lackluster that Davis dominant personality gives the film the power that it needs.  In this TCM article, the reviewer laments that Davis as the good girl is wasted, but we think not.  Without the character's innate integrity and willingness to stand up for what is right, the picture would flounder.  You believe that Davis is able to disregard Jimmy AND the mobsters.

One of the wiser choices of the writers is to begin with a fairly inane crime (counterfeiting toothpaste), provide it with some humor (a group of fairly dumb gangsters - including Allen Jenkins - taste testing the product), but then build up to the true crimes: blackmarket drugs, murder, and the destruction of a company.  
Besides Davis, we're treated to two of our favorites - Glenda Farrell as Lilly Duran, Dutch's mistress, and Ricardo Cortez.  Farrell here gets to play both the ditsy blonde and the wronged woman.  Where at first you think that Lily is rather stupid, you quickly discover she's quite smart and observant.  She's also the wrong person to cross, to her misfortune.
Cortez provides a villain who is smart, disarmingly charming, and deadly.  He's seductive, a human cobra sucking in anyone who peers too deeply into his eyes.   Dutch knows how to gauge people's weaknesses, but ultimately his reach exceeds his grasp.  Our group has a fondness for Cortez, an actor who, unfortunately, is not well remembered today.  Born Jacob Krantz in New York City, he started in silents, with studio executives billing him as a Latin lover (to get in on the Rudolph Valentino craze).  While that worked before pictures spoke, sound was a give-away that Cortez, with his Lower East Side accent, was not a Latino.  So, while his roles changed, his popularity did not.  He played more character parts; often the villain, though sometimes a good guy (see Ten Cents a Dance; he's quite good!) He even played Perry Mason at one point (The Case of the Black Cat, 1936).  He appeared in over 100 films, and directed 7.  By the mid 1940s, he was finding parts hard to get, so he "retired" and became a successful stockbroker (though he did appear in two films in the 1950s, and even was in an episode of Bonanza!  Cortez died in 1977 at the age of 76. 

That this is a pre-code film is apparent, even though it came out as the Code was going into closer effect.  A murderer is left unpunished, and our lead character (while he does have to pay a price for his deeds) really doesn't suffer all that much in the long-run.  Fellow blogger at Pre-code.com disliked the film; New York Times, however, rather liked it. While this is not great literature (and drug counterfeiting plot notwithstanding, it surely is NOT The Third Man), we think it is worth a look.  The trailer below will give you a taste. 

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