Back in October of last year, The Large Association of Movie Blogs offered up a survey to be completed amongst its members to assemble a list of the Top 10 Pre-Code films and out of 86 films (spread out among the 23 voters who participated) submitted this was the AFI-like result:
1.) Duck Soup 
2.) Baby Face 
3.) It Happened One Night 
4.) Freaks 
5.) I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang 
6.) Three on a Match 
7.) The Public Enemy 
8.) King Kong 
9.) Gold Diggers of 1933
10.) All Quiet on the Western Front  and Trouble in Paradise  (tie)
Two of the films from the LAMB’s final tally were also on my list, which means two things: 1) my tastes are a bit more eclectic than your average classic film fan, and 2) I don’t consider movies like Duck Soup or It Happened One Night to be “pre-Code” films except for the fact that they were produced and released before the Production Code was put into place. My choices were Five Star Final (1931), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), The Beast of the City (1932), Employees Entrance (1933), Skyscraper Souls (1932), Shanghai Express (1932) and Waterloo Bridge—the original 1931 version with Mae Clarke. My top pick was the 1933 cult crime melodrama Blood Money…and because I was the only person who put it on their list this would seem to suggest that I am either a) some sort of pathetic movie savant, or b) it’s the best pre-Code film you’ve never seen.
Since I’m not comfortable calling myself a savant because that sort of nickname is a hop-and-a-skip down the path to intolerable cruelty, I’m going to assume many people haven’t seen it. And if you haven’t, you need to rectify this at your first opportunity. It turns up every so often on Fox Movie Channel but I was able to buy a copy a few years ago from Vintage Film Buff.com, and I can honestly say it was money well spent.
George Bancroft is Bill Bailey, a disgraced-cop-turned-bail bondsman and as a result of his new profession traffics between the underworld and proper society, a friend to not only the criminal element but judges, cops and politicians as well. His services aren’t cheap and he doesn’t let sentimentality get in the way of business—in one scene he has a poor old mother turn over the deed to the family homestead in return for bailing out her sixteen-year-old son. His “steady” is a nightclub owner named Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson, in her film debut) whose brother Drury (Chick Chandler) has no sooner finished a stretch in the pen when he’s knocked over a bank and stolen some cash and bonds…and because the theft is Drury’s third offense he’ll go to the Big House for life if he’s tried and convicted. Bailey tells Drury he’ll post his bail and orders him to lay low but if the district attorney (Bradley Page) charges him with the theft he’ll need to jump bail.
The romantic courtship between Bill and Ruby has become a bit strained because Bailey has fallen for a flighty young socialite named Elaine Talbart (Frances Dee), who was caught shoplifting a bag from a department store and subsequently required Bailey’s influence to pull her out of that scrape. Elaine’s a klepto because she’s also a thrill seeker; she’s fascinated by crime and other forms of immorality and gets a wicked glint in her eye when the subject is discussed. When she and Bill are at the racetrack to watch a greyhound she has a financial stake in they run across Drury and Elaine goes for the thief like a feline does catnip. When the heat is turned up on Drury and it looks as if the D.A. will prosecute (Drury’s alibi, a former girlfriend, has decided to sing to the cops) he gets ready to take it on the lam and plans to meet up with Elaine later in an undisclosed hidey hole to get married. He hands her the cash he’s stolen along with a briefcase filled with bonds—the cash is to square things with Bill, and the bonds need to be disposed of because they’re of no use to him since they’re recorded and easily traceable.
Elaine, greedy little nymphomaniac that she is, hands off the bag to Bill who’s decidedly nonplussed about being handed something worthless and though he explains to Ruby that he’s throwing in with the cops because Drury fleeced him there’s ample evidence to suggest that siccing John Law on her brother is payback for stealing his girl. So Ruby arranges a meeting with the leaders of the underworld and asks for their help in shutting Bailey down financially…but the mobs soon decide he must be terminated with extreme prejudice. I’m a little hesitant to reveal the outcome of the film for those who haven’t seen it but Money has one of the most unforgettable wrap-ups in film history when the character of Elaine—who lies, steals and sleeps around for the thrill of it all—contemplates shacking up with a man who’ll probably slap her around on occasion (as she says at one point in the film: “What I need is someone to give me a good thrashing…I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash…”)
A movie with crisp dialogue (much of it loaded with double meanings) and unforgettable characters that depicts an amoral universe, Blood Money was written and directed by Rowland Brown, a young hopeful who came to Hollywood in 1928 to work for Fox Film as a laborer and found himself promoted to screenwriting after two years as a prop and gag man. He wrote such films as Fugitives (1929), Points West (1929) and The Doorway to Hell (1930) before getting an opportunity to ride herd on a film he also wrote, a gangster flick called Quick Millions (1931) that starred a young Spencer Tracy. He followed that success with a Richard Dix prison picture entitled Hell’s Highway (1932)—which was shown on TCM one late Saturday evening some time back—while contributing to the screenplays of State’s Attorney (1932) and What Price Hollywood? (1933) and the following year directed his third film in Money, which out of his abbreviated oeuvre ranks as his masterpiece. His tenure as a director was abbreviated because he did not work or play well with others; he chafed under the rigidity of the studio system and the projects he began work on after Money ended up either aborted or passed on into other hands.
Brown’s employment future in this country went south after he decked a producer in a scuffle and though he fled to England to try and jump-start his career (he was the first assigned director of 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel but was fired a month later) the writing was pretty much on the wall as far as directing went and he relegated himself to paying the rent by writing stories and screenplays for films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Johnny Apollo (1940). Brown’s self-destruction is a pity; he had a unique outlook on the world at the time and what motivated its inhabitants—as film historian Danny Peary (an early champion of Money; he included it in his Cult Movies 2 book) observed:
[Brown] refuses to moralize about one’s participation in crime—which he considers a legitimate business during the Depression, one that helps cities run smoothly—because a person has no obligation to lead the clean life (there is no such thing in Brown’s world). The only crime of which a person must be ashamed and for which there must be retribution is a double-cross. If you get caught committing murder or thievery, etc., you just shrug your shoulders and go to jail without regrets; you knew the rules.
Suffice it to say that if a movie like this ever emerged out of the M-G-M stable people would have suspected Louis B. Mayer of hitting the bottle or Irving Thalberg running a white slavery ring. Instead, Money was produced at 20th Century Pictures (shortly before the company merged with Fox) by Darryl F, Zanuck and its original negative is believed to have been wiped out in the infamous 1937 fire at the studio that ravaged so many films in its vaults. Money was considered lost for over forty years before it resurfaced as an attraction at film societies in the 70s/80s but because the movie has never been available commercially on VHS or DVD by a major studio it’s pretty much remained unseen by a good many film buffs.
In the sequence where Elaine seeks Bill’s help in getting her out of the scrape she’s in she provides him with a phony name (“Jane Smith”) and asks to make a private call at a nearby telephone. Bailey has the phone tapped, and when he learns that her real name is Talbart he has his major domo (Etienne Girardot) look up “Talbart” in the social directory and this is what her finds:
That kills me—“Capitalist.” (As if the part about “vice president” and “board of directors” wouldn’t have already hipped you to that.) And for you future TV fans, the woman pictured on the right here has “some ‘splainin to do”:
My favorite character in the film is this woman with the monocle…
…who, when offered a cigar by Bancroft’s Bailey inhales it deeply and then says disapprovingly to him: “You big sissy!” Never fails to break me up.
Paired with Blood Money is Pleasure Cruise (1933), a romantic comedy starring Genevieve Tobin and Roland “Topper” Young. Tobin and Young are married couple Shirley and Andrew Poole; she’s the breadwinner in the family while he plays house husband (he’s an out-of-work author) and Andy is extremely jealous of the men in Shirl’s office, believing them all to be on the make for his spouse. (An amusing bit by director Frank Tuttle—shown via a framed photograph of Shirley—lets the audience in on the secret that most of Shirl’s office wolves are elderly men who’d have to down three bowls of Wheaties just to get up the strength to talk to her.) Andy and Shirley’s marital status is a bit strained due to his jealousy and so he suggests they take separate vacations: he’ll get in a little fishing and she’ll take the titular trip to the Baltic Sea.
But Andy decides to employ a little subterfuge to see for himself if Wifey is being unfaithful—he pulls some strings and gets a shop on the high seas vessel working in the ship’s barbershop so he can eyeball every move Shirley makes. He’s got good reason to be concerned because one of her fellow passengers, a wolf named Richard Faversham (Ralph Forbes) is in overtime making advances to Mrs. P. even though she spurns him at pretty much every turn. Hilarious consequences also result when another passenger, Mrs. Signus (Una O’Connor, quite a departure from her usual housekeeper/charwoman roles), has eyes for Andy and in one funny scene Andy hides in the closet in her stateroom to keep Shirley from finding out (she begins yelling at him through the door, convinced he’s Mrs. Signus’ lover, and he tries to throw her off the scent by speaking French).
I have to be honest—I’m not entirely certain why the VFB people wedded this movie to Blood Money (the DVD is called “Pre-Code Hollywood #3”) because after what takes place in Money the situations in Pleasure Cruise will all seem rather tame; several of the reviews at the always reliable IMDb say it’s quite frank and daring because of a scene where Tobin’s character supposedly drunkenly sleeps with Forbes’ sebaceous ladies man…but really, there’s nothing really too daring about this because she actually spends the night with her own husband—who’s locked Forbes in his stateroom, donned a similar dressing gown and splashed Forbes’s cologne in an effort to fool his wife.
Suffice it to say, the only time I really enjoy watching Roland Young is when he’s talking to ghosts or performing miracles and as cruise ships go, I liked it better when he was on the one with Bob Hope and he was trying to kill him. I haven’t seen Tobin in too many films—The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936) are the only two I could remember after glancing at the IMDb—but she’s very pleasant in this, and has a naturalness that I liked very much. Unfortunately, Minna Gombell—who plays Tobin’s confidante—doesn’t get much to do here and she’s always been a particular fave.
Tomorrow, if I achieve my packing quota (and if my next-door neighbor’s cousin comes to collect this free couch I’m giving her) I hope to have up another review of a VFB DVD and I hope that in reading these it will spur you to mosey on over to the site and check out to see if they might have something you’d like (kick the tires, that sort of thing). After that, Philip “Pinch Hitter” Schweier has sent me a couple more reviews from his current film noir vision quest that I hope to be posting later on next week.