DVD: Smart Money (1931)

March 10, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / J to L


Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: January 25, 2005

Genre: Crime / Gangster

Synopsis: After losing a fortune in the big city, a gambler plots a comeback, and gradually heads up his own illicit gambling operations.

Special Features: Audio Commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini / Warner Night at the Movies (37:39)




During the early thirties, film production at the major studios was so efficient that a hit film could be followed up months later with another, headlined with the same audience-pleasing star.

RKO managed to crank out Son of Kong the same year they released King Kong (1933), and Warner Bros. wasn’t any different in putting their writers to work on another variation of Little Caesar’s Rico, so audiences hungry for another Edward G. Robinson crime film would get their money’s worth in Smart Money (1931).

What the studio hadn’t counted on was Robinson’s awareness that he might very well be ruined by extreme typecasting, playing nothing but hoods, thugs, kingpins and ambitious mafia enforcers, so he apparently fought to have the next Rico clone reconfigured into a more humane character – a man forced into crime because more nefarious characters brought out the worst in him.

Smart Money may be considered a lesser entry among the studio’s classic gangster films because it was also one of their racier productions which, according to historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, made it a problem for any re-release when the restrictive Production Code kicked in 3 years later.

The double-entendres, prostitution, gambling, friendly villain, possible undercurrent of homosexuality, sexual crudeness, peek-a-boo cleavage, and a kick in the fanny (there is one!) all made films like Smart Money a hot potato, and like many pre-Code films, it disappeared from circulation or had to be shown after some scissor-snipping.

The peculiar reaction in seeing one of these works uncut is how contemporary it feels – not because it glorifies crime or wallows in prurient behaviour, but due to the deeper characterizations and sense of humour that pokes fun at, knowing audiences could read between the lines and make their own judgments of what was moral and immoral.

Humour and humanism are what render Smart Money into a classic, because the chief villain, Nick ‘the Barber’ Venizelos (Robinson) is just a gambler who decides to get even with the slimy crew that took away his money in one bad-decision game. Nick doesn’t deal in brutality; he just doesn’t like being double-crossed and taken for a ride; and any violence is justified payback.

His enforcer is Jack (James Cagney), a streetwise buddy who becomes a lieutenant in Nick’s gambling organization after aiding in settling scores with scumbag schemer Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde). The two later manage a chic casino until a dogged police crew bully Nick’s latest companion Irene (Evalyn Knapp) to help them in their investigation.

Whether Nick is caught, arrested, or thrown into jail isn’t important; it’s that this genial guy who respects honesty, has a weakness for blondes, and likes a good card game happened to take a wrong turn and got caught up in a good life fed by crime. He has to fall, and when he does, we actually feel for the guy (even though the writers end the film with a humorous line that infers Nick’s fate may not be so gloomy).

Silver and Ursini’s commentary track is a lively film history lecture about pre-Code films, the different shade of the gangster genre, and some of the unique casting elements in Smart Money.

In one scene, for example, Robinson shares the scene with Cagney and Boris Karloff (then playing bit parts as creepy hoods). Harolde is particularly fun to watch as Sleepy Sam, as the actor’s innately slimy demeanor suited the persona of a shifty gambler and smart-ass, leaving scenes with naughty quips to both gamblers and chief prosecuting attorneys.

The film’s two actresses were former dancing girls who came to Hollywood in search of stardom, and both Noel Francis (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mahattan Tower) and Knapp (The Perils of Pauline) eventually left film by the late thirties – a common situation for fresh Hollywood faces, according to Ursini and Silver.

Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson’s script deserved the Oscar nomination in 1931 for Best Writing due to its tight plotting, and the memorable dialogue which seemed tailored for Robinson’s skills. Even with the fine writing, Robinson has several strong scenes where his reactions are brilliantly timed moments of understatement and subtleties – beautifully conveying the changes in Nick’s character.

A specific highlight is an early gambling scene when Karloff gives him a bill to enter a game. Robinson recognizes the cash as one he just gave a woman pleading for financial help, and the actor goes through all the levels of surprise, anger, and a quick plan for revenge in one fluid stroke of acting without uttering a word.

The exhaustiveness of the DVD’s commentary track negated the need for a making-of featurette, but as with other titles in this series, there’s the Warner Night at the Movies, with a Hearst newsreel of Al Capone’s sentencing, a musical short featuring emcee / comedian George Jessel and his “Russian Art Choir”; and a trailer for the awesomely titles Other Men’s Women (“A Warner Bros. & Vitaphone Romance of the Shining Rails.” Rails of what, exactly?)

The Smart Set-Up is an 18 mins. short in which a cocky, womanizing crooner and nightclub emcee (Walter O’Keefe) steps away from his down-to-earth girlfriend and accepts a dinner party invite by an upper-class patron, only to be ignored and shrugged aside after a few songs. When he returns to the home turf of his club, he realizes little dancing girl Patsy (Margaret Lee) was the right girl all along, and all ends happily ever after.

O’Keefe is fairly wooden and not a memorable singer, and Lee was, like the leads in Smart Money, another blonde bombshell type who disappeared from film after a handful appearances in feature and short film bit parts, and voice work. Directed by Roy Mack, the Vitaphone short is a mix of music and drama, with wan laughs, plenty of pre-Code dressing room cleavage, and the obligatory black man servant for O’Keefe.

(In Smart Money, there are also pretty grating black stereotypes, of which the strangest manifestation is Nick’s loyal servant Suntan, whose head he rubs like a Buddha statue for good luck. Politically wrong? Indeed!)

The last extra is “Big Man from the North,” a Looney Tunes cartoon in which a small Mountie is told by his superior to ‘get his man!’ The little guy then heads into town, and after flirting with the bar’s singer, gets into a fight with the wanted crook. The cartoon features bare bottoms, beavers slapping their tails, and sleds being pulled by two big dogs and an eeny-weeny pooch through the snow. It’s all very cutesy.

This title is available separately or as part of the 4-film set TCM Greatest Gangster Films, which includes Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), The Public Enemy (1930), and The Roaring Twenties (1939).



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

DVD / Film:  King Kong (1933) — Little Caesar (1931) — Public Enemy, The (1930) — Roaring Twenties, The (1939) — Son of Kong (1933)


External References:



Buy from:

Amazon.com – TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters Prohibition

Amazon.ca – TCM Greatest Gangster Film Collection: Gangsters Prohibition

Amazon.co.uk – TCM Greatest Classic Films: Gansters Prohibition


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