Smart Money Review

Despite working at the same studio (Warner Bros.) during the same decade and in similar kinds of films, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney only shared the screen in a single movie. Released in 1931, the year when Robinson became a star with Little Caesar and Cagney hit it big in The Public Enemy, Smart Money afforded the two actors best known for gangster-type roles their lone chance to out-sneer and out-tough each other. Somewhat surprisingly, there's none of that to be had here. They play a pair of barbers who are very friendly (almost strangely so). Robinson has the much larger starring role and Cagney makes an impact in support. The whole thing is incredibly quaint, in the tone of a comedy but without very many attempts at laughter.

Robinson is Nick Venizelos, or "Nick the Barber," a small town guy who runs a local dice game. Nick likes to bet, whether it's dice or cards or train arrivals. His ambition, along with temporary donations from generous friends, takes Nick to a nameless city and a swank hotel where big time card games are supposedly held. He talks his way in, but gets conned in the process. Nick's weakness is women, blondes in particular. A parade of flaxen haired beauties seems endless throughout the film. Somewhere along the way, Nick gets even and rises to the top of the gambling underworld. The thought of it is just silly enough to accept at face value. This little guy, an Irontown volunteer fireman who cuts hair and lathers shaving cream, somehow becomes notorious as the fearsome "Nick the Barber" and gets newspaper write-ups from Walter Winchell. It's so absurd that you half-expect Robinson to wake up 13 years later in a Fritz Lang film.

Unlike most gangster movies, there's very little threat of violence in Smart Money. A thrilling exception is when Cagney, as Nick's right-hand pal Jack, bursts through a hotel door pistol in hand and slickly calls out "be-have" in vintage Cagneyspeak. Weapons remain safely unfired, though, both in that scene and throughout. A little instance of pre-Code woman hating does occur later on when Nick kicks out a decoy planted by the district attorney determined to bring the "public menace" to justice. Though we know gambling is illegal and rackets are problematic, Nick is such a nice, jovial gangster that there's never any doubt where the audience's loyalties should lie. None of this moralising rubbish about bad men and the societal effects of their actions. Robinson is clearly the star of the picture, and his character is portrayed as a menace to no one except maybe himself. It's like Little Caesar if Rico hadn't been a murderous thug.

The true bad guys are characters like the crooked card players and the women who abet them. Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde) and his gal Marie (Noel Francis) earn nothing but scorn from the viewer, cheating Nick the cocky rube out of the wad of cash his buddies entrusted him with and making the big city seem like it's crawling with grifters. In fact, nearly everyone other than Nick and his friends gets diminished to stock villains. Early on in the movie, an unbilled Boris Karloff is subtly identified as a pimp before inadvertently returning the $100 bill Nick had lent a (blonde) friend in trouble. The district attorney isn't some crusading do-gooder, but a guy interested in quelling bad press who'll even conspire with Sleepy Sam to bring Nick down. The suicidal woman Nick takes in (Evalyn Knapp), who's wanted by the police for blackmail and then, essentially, blackmailed by the DA, ends up being his and Jack's downfall. She's an early femme fatale, but not without a good deal of sympathy.

Largely because of this carefree attitude towards Nick's victimless illegalities, the film has a real breezy quality. Alfred E. Green's direction seems effectively effortless, but Smart Money avoids the stodgy tedium that tends to creep into early sound pictures. Part of this is because, at only 81 minutes, it's fairly short, but a larger reason is the near fantastical nature of the Oscar-nominated story. Bearing no resemblance to reality or any hint of gritty drama, the script hops and skips through Nick's unlikely ascent. His bloodless rise is greeted by incredibly good fortune both in finding wealthy benefactors and in successful gambling with very large stakes. As such, the film plays like an abridged version of a more detailed story where only the highlights have been spared. It's nevertheless entertaining and the combination of Robinson and Cagney is a real treat. "Fixing" the inconsistencies would have robbed the movie of most of its charm, and we instead have a fun little picture where the gangster protagonist is easily liked, big-hearted, and almost totally non-threatening.

The Disc

Smart Money is encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, transferred progressively on a dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set).

Keeping in mind that the film was made in 1931, image quality on this DVD is fairly good. There's certainly obvious grain and frequent dirt speckles, but nothing worthy of significant concern. The contrast is understandably weak, as well. However, the image is modestly detailed and not abnormally soft. It looks possibly even a little better in motion than in screen captures. There's quite a bit of extra disc space, but no real problems with the digital transfer. A solid enough effort, all things considered.

Audio is likewise inherently flawed, but still amounts to an acceptable presentation. This was an early sound movie so techniques were primitive. The one-channel English mono track is filled with a persistent hiss and frequent crackles, but dialogue is still easily understood and at a satisfactory level of volume. There is no score in the film and any songs pop up naturally within the story. Optional subtitles for both English and Spanish are provided, and are white in colour.

Bonus material includes an audio commentary with veteran DVD chatters Alain Silver and James Ursini. These guys always seem like they're competing to correct one another and they aren't particular favourites of mine. They spend much of the time discussing the film's place in terms of the then-unenforced Production Code and how Robinson, having just become a star with Little Caesar, wanted his Smart Money character to be gentler and less explosively violent than Rico had been. Films like this don't seem to really lend themselves very well to full-length commentaries and Silver and Ursini do engage in some repetitive observations, seeming to favour more of a conversational tone over a well-prepared efficiency. Ursini also makes the backhanded comment at one point that the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is often considered superior to John Huston's achievement from 1941. Regardless of how necessary this contentious statement is, the claim that it's a common view is surely questionable, if not downright wrong.

The rest of the supplements can be found in the Warner Night at the Movies feature wherein the studio tucks away various digital accessories from the same year as the featured film, 1931 here. A trailer for Other Men's Women (2:48) leads off and is followed by a short newsreel (0:27) showing Al Capone after his conviction for income tax evasion. A pair of Vitaphone short subjects includes the musical short "George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir" (8:04) and "The Smart Set-Up" (18:31), starring Walter O'Keefe as a night club singer. Finally, "Big Man from the North" (7:46), a Harman-Ising cartoon with animation by Friz Freleng, finds the character Bosko in a snowy locale with a badge and instructions to find a ruthless gunfighter. These are all modestly entertaining, but the quality of the video and audio is quite poor. It's still nice to have the shorts available in some form, especially the black and white Looney Tune.

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