Welcome to a new Film Friday and the launch of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, beginning with…
A con-man bellhop and his chambermaid girlfriend set out to fleece hotel guests. Starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Louis Calhern, Noel Francis, Ray Milland, and Guy Kibbee. Story by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Directed by Roy Del Ruth.
“Bert Harris, hotel bellhop, likes the looks of Ann Roberts so he arranges for her to get a chambermaid job that has been promised to someone else. Bert has a number of side businesses, including running a craps game, selling bootleg alcohol and blackmailing. After a successful blackmail attempt, Bert and Ann leave town to celebrate. At a more glamorous hotel in another city, Bert meets Dapper Dan Barker, a well-known con man. The two plan a job together, and Bert assumes that he and Dan will be working together. Instead, Dan cons Bert and gets away with $5,000 that belongs to him and Ann. Bert steals a necklace and pawns it to get back Ann’s share of the money, and the two leave for New York in search of Dan.
“On the train, Ann meets Joe Reynolds and falls in love with him. Joe woos Ann with the poems of Robert Browning, and convinced that he is more cultured and more respectable than Bert, she agrees to marry him. Before the marriage, however, Ann thinks up a scheme involving horseracing that takes Dan for the money he stole from them and more. One year later, Ann visits Bert at his hotel. She confesses that Joe has embezzled $30,000 from his firm and is facing jail. Bert agrees to help them out and works out a scheme with Joe. That night when Bert visits Joe’s office, Joe is waiting for him with the police and Bert is sent to prison. Ann visits Bert in prison to tell him that she realizes that she has always loved him and will wait for his release.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Cagney and Blondell made seven films together, and this is among their best. Blonde Crazy is Pre-Code 101 with two crooks as leads, engaging in criminal activity and treating other people mildly rough, but never at the expense of the audience’s affection. Cagney, known for playing the tough guy anti-heroes (before they were even in vogue), is just at the cusp of solidifying his onscreen persona, and this film, which doesn’t try to make him especially complex or dangerous, illustrates exactly how likable this rogue can be. Yes, he’s a grifter, but the film simply presents him as worthy of our admiration. In other words, Cagney isn’t even playing the anti-hero here, he’s the hero. The presentation of what would once be considered seedier characters as sympathetic, likable, and frankly, preferable, is one of the most fascinating facets of Pre-Code films.
Meanwhile, Blondell, with whom Cagney shares palpable chemistry, may just be our quintessential Pre-Code heroine: wise-cracking, world-weary, and firmly in control of her femininity. Blonde Crazy gives her the opportunity to be all that, while also granting her the chance to depict a softer, more vulnerable side, which works with the unparalleled repartee she establishes with Cagney. Their interactions and the through-line of their relationship is the best part of the motion picture. (Note the memorable bathtub scene below!) The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either, with Louis Calhern as the cheat upon whom Cagney and Blondell enact their delicious revenge being a standout. Meanwhile, Ray Milland has the unenviable task of playing the boring love interest to Blondell, the stiff who wins her heart before Cagney can make a play for her. (This complication, though hindered by the woodenness of Milland’s character, is actually substantial enough to remain fresh.)
But, this being a Pre-Code essential, Milland’s character doesn’t get to be a goody two-shoes for long, as we soon learn that he’s just as crooked as the rest of them, only more duplicitous, giving Cagney the opportunity to make a sacrifice for Blondell, culminating in a confession of their mutual devotion (from his jail cell). It’s a weighty ending for a picture that had been, up to the final reel, nothing but frothy fun (with a story that, although mostly predictable, maintains our interest). However, because we root for our protagonists, the ending is one we welcome, especially since the “happy” ending isn’t completely happy. It’s a perfect, gritty conclusion for this Warner Brothers specialty. Blonde Crazy is wonderful fun — recommended to all Pre-Code fans everywhere!
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!