Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Blood Money (1933)
An underworld bail-bondsman falls for thrill-a-minute socialite, causing friction with his female cohort. Starring George Bancroft, Frances Dee, Judith Anderson, and Chick Chandler. Written by Rowland Brown. Continuity by Hal Long. Directed by Rowland Brown. Produced by 20th Century Pictures and distributed by United Artists.
“The title refers to the business of affable, ambitious bail bondsman (and politically-connected grifter) Bill Bailey (George Bancroft), who, in the course of his work, crosses paths with every kind of offender there is, from first-time defendants to career criminals. Among the latter is Drury Darling (Chick Chandler), the brother of Bailey’s paramour, nightclub owner Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson). Bailey is popular enough in the criminal world, over his providing the means for gang members to stay in circulation while awaiting trial, and he knows how to spread the money around to make the wheels of government run more smoothly (and not run over any of the speakeasies, casinos, clip-joints, and other enterprises of the gangs to which he is closest). Then, one day, he meets Elaine Talbert (Frances Dee), a thrill-seeking socialite whose penchant for excitement has ratcheted up from shoplifting in the better stores to fast cars and fast men. Bailey doesn’t quite know what to make of her — she’s attractive enough, and drawn to him, but her lust for illicit and dangerous diversions runs counter to the common sense that he applies to his life, every place but where women are concerned.
“His quasi-legal and extra-legal maneuvering is fun for a while, but what she really wants, as she tells Bailey, is a man who will ‘take charge’ and dominate her, physically and in every other way. Eventually, she tires of the middle-aged Bailey and gravitates toward Drury Darling, whose exploits as a bank robber, willing to fight the law head on, are more in line with some of the excitement that she craves. When Darling is arrested, he depends upon her to pass along the money that Bailey needs to bail him out, and that’s when the smoothly operating life that Bailey has arranged for himself grinds to a halt. A cache of worthless bonds, a war within the underworld itself, and an assassination attempt on Bailey are just part of the double-dealing and blood-letting that ensues, climaxing with game of pool involving a booby-trapped eight ball (a variation of a famous sequence from Keaton’s Sherlock Jr…). And the finale for Elaine Talbert is a sequence that might not even have gotten past the politically-correct censors of the 1980’s.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of AllMovie.)
Blood Money is a picture I’ve long wanted an excuse (although I never really need one) to discuss here. My contrived reason for doing so now? Why, because this month would have marked the 121st birthday of Dame Judith Anderson, the legendary stage actress who made her feature film debut (and only Pre-Code feature) in Blood Money, which opened 85 years ago this upcoming November! Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch, but Anderson is indeed one of the reasons that this film holds a fascination. Although she made far more pictures and TV appearances than some of the theatrical legends she counted as her contemporaries (like Lunt and Fontanne, who made only one film together, The Guardsman, discussed here last year), Anderson’s presence gives Blood Money a sense of prestige. She plays a ballsy nightclub owner whose best moment occurs when she, à la Blondell in Blondie Johnson, essentially orders a hit on her former paramour. (Well, she asks him to be “framed”… but this inadvertently leads to a hit; and the theme of betrayal is the same!) Stoic as a rock and as sinister as Gale Sondergaard in Bette Davis’ The Letter (1940), Anderson leaves an impression.
But that’s no thanks to the material. If you’re wondering why Blood Money, with its inherently Pre-Code sensibilities (filled with classic archetypes — crooks and whores), isn’t an essential… I’ll confirm your suspicions by noting that the actors and the scenario are let down by a mediocre script, which searches for color and nuance but — with only a few exceptions (noted below) — comes across rather rote and predictable. Additionally, the film’s not terribly well directed, with static cinematography and a dreadfully lethargic pace that, even at 66 minutes, feels too long. This missing energy is not only necessary for capturing the audience’s interest, but it’s also essential in sustaining the tension that a story is able to provide. And the concept here, again perhaps cliched, has more than its fair share of opportunities for cinematic greatness. One particular moment that’s oft-mentioned is the homage (perhaps unwitting) to a Buster Keaton routine, when a high stakes game of pool could very well lead to our complicated (and sometimes anti-heroic) protagonist’s untimely demise… thanks to a loaded eight-ball (yeah, loaded with dynamite, that is). The jeopardy in this scene just begs for a tighter, firmer command on the aesthetics that could have enhanced its dramatic power.
While certain elements of the story manage to stand out from the listless production, there are only a few other reasons to watch Blood Money — aside from the aforementioned birthday girl, of course — and one is the use of music, particularly in the sequences at Anderson’s place, where the filmmakers are able to have aural cues reinforce the narrative’s themes. (Also, Lucy fans will delight in seeing their goddess make an uncredited appearance in the race track scene.) However, the big draw, and the primary reason that Blood Money is notable today (and a picture that I truly enjoy, despite its flaws) is Frances Dee’s character, a notorious bad little rich girl who’s a casual kleptomaniac with an addiction to criminal behavior, and also finds herself stimulated — sexually (there’s no beating around that figurative bush; or maybe there is… I digress…) — by dangerous men willing to abuse her. Cast against type by Darryl Zanuck, whose 20th Century Pictures had released its first film only six weeks before, Dee gets the meatiest role here, with several memorable lines that Pre-Code lovers enjoy quoting today (including one involving a leash). Her predilection for destructive behavior is undoubtedly Pre-Code, and very little that she does (specifically in the final reel) would have been permitted a year later. Thus, Blood Money is VERY of the era, and worthy of your attention.
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! And tune in Tuesday for more Frasier!