Thursday, April 7, 2016

Joan's with Jimmy

We return to the pre-code era for Blonde Crazy (1931).  James Cagney stars as Bert Harris, a bootlegger and would-be con man who has an eye for the ladies and his sights set on the big con.  When Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) arrives at the hotel where Bert works as a bellhop looking for a job, Bert helps arrange that she get it - assuming there will be a little quid pro quo in the romance department.  He quickly discovers that Ann is no pushover (which only makes Bert like her more).  He convinces her in joining him on a con - convince hotel guest (and lecher) Rupert Johnson (Guy Kibbee) to go out with Ann, and pony up some cash when a scandal is threatened.

Audience reaction  to this film (within our group) was mixed. Most of us enjoyed it, while one member did not care for the various con jobs that interspersed the story. But we uniformly enjoyed the combination of Cagney and Blondell. They are marvelous individually and sizzling as a couple.  Cagney sparkles as the vainglorious Bert, and when he gets his comeuppance, his reactions are spot on.  Similarly, Blondell is well able to convey the ambivalence that  Ann feels, a basically honest person driven to duplicity in the world of Depression America.  Mae Marsh (according to the AFI Catalog) was the original casting choice for Ann.

Joan Blondell had already been in 14 films and shorts when she received star billing in Blonde Crazy.  Prior to this film, she appeared as the second banana in films like Night Nurse, Illicit, and Big Business Girl.  She'd even appeared with Cagney in Sinner's Holiday (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931).  She would continue to be a lead at Warner Brothers throughout the 1930s, finally leaving to become an independent in 1939.  She continued to work in film until the end of the 1940s.  As film work dried up for the actress (who was now in her 40s), she moved to television, where she worked (including the occasional film role) until her death at age 73 in 1979.  Married three times (all of which ended in divorce), the ones best knows were to Dick Powell - which ended when Powell became involved with the younger June Allyson, and to Mike Todd (Blondell divorced him after he spent all her savings with his lavish lifestyle). 
This was not Ray Milland's (Joe Reynolds) first role in films.  He'd started in silent films, mostly in small parts, as Raymond Milland (his birth name was actually Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones), a name he would use in many of his films during the 1930s.  It really wasn't until 1940 that he began to get starring roles - The Doctor Takes a Wife, which we've already discussed, was one of those leading roles.  Four years later, he would appear in one of his best roles - the haunted Rod in The Uninvited. The following year, he would win the Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of an alcoholic at the end of his ropes in The Lost Weekend (his competition included Gregory Peck for The Keys of the Kingdom and Gene Kelly for Anchors Away).  In this film, he gets to run the gamut - and does it well.  His Joe Reynolds seems a loving, good man - the opposite of Cagney's Bert.  Ultimately, we discover that Joe is a dishonest cad, and Milland does a good job of making the transition, as well as making him an interesting foil for Bert.  Married for 54 years to Muriel Weber, Milland worked in both film and television until 1985; he died of cancer the following year.  His 1976 autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon gave an amusing view of his years as a Hollywood leading man.
Also in the cast are Louis Calhern as Dapper Dan Barker and Noel Francis as Helen.  Ms. Francis' career was relatively brief - she appeared in 45 films between 1929 and 1937, many of the uncredited appearances.  Mr. Calhern, however, had a much longer career. He started in the silent era (in 1921), and continued working, primarily as the wealthy businessman or nasty conniver (as he is here).  He was the dying sybarite in The Man in a Cloak and  the oily businessman waiting for the world to discover the death of his rival in Executive Suite.  In his final film, he was as the deliciously lechy Uncle Willie in High Society.  He died that same year, 1956, while on location in Tokyo for the comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon.  
With multiple characters in the film getting away with all kinds of crooked activities, a scene with the lovely Ms. Blondell in a bathtub (and Mr. Cagney trying to get in for a gander), and another where Bert invites a more-than-willing young lady up to an empty hotel room, it's clear why this is easily placed as a pre-code film.  My fellow blogger at notes in his review that the film has "everything lascivious about Depression-era film making and moralizing in one convenient package."  And despite a wishy-washy New York Times review, according to this TCM article, it did rather well at the box office.   The reason? James Cagney - just listen to him say "HON-eeey" a time or two and you'll be won over as well.

We'll close with this trailer (with the film's original title, Larceny Lane); you'll get an idea of just how Cagney will captivate you.  And, as the trailer says, together, Cagney and Blondell "are dynamite". 

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